Ferguson: Energy Matters

By Published On: July 28, 2006

Located in Mendocino County’s lovely Anderson Valley, my home in Boonville is 20 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Like most folks here, I rely on natural cooling rather than mechanical air conditioning. Imagine my surprise when the thermometer under my apple tree reached a 115 degrees last weekend. The heat wasn’t confined to California, either. Record highs were reached from Seattle to San Diego. Boonville was as hot as the Sacramento Valley, with highs over 100 degrees for an entire week. Conversations about global warming were overheard in the local post office, the hardware store, and the restaurant. The weather was hotter than anyone could remember. Folks understand that something unusual is happening. Or is it? When rolling a pair of dice, you expect two sixes to come up one time in 36 throws – on average. What if you roll 12 twice in a row? Unusual, but you’d probably chalk it up to luck. Three times? Four? Not impossible with legal dice, but sooner or later you begin to think the dice are loaded. You can’t prove the dice are loaded no matter how many times you roll 12. There is some probability, albeit small, that you could roll 12 twenty times in a row with legal dice. There is near-unanimous scientific consensus that global warming has loaded the weather dice. Yes, last week’s amazing heat wave could have been due simply to chance, however small. Last year’s hurricanes could also have been a statistical fluke. It’s impossible to prove otherwise. But reasonable people understand that something more fundamental is happening. Last week’s heat wave was “caused” by global warming, just as surely as loaded dice “cause” you to roll 12 three times in a row. By warming the globe, we humans are responsible for last week’s heat. As temperatures rise, more natural gas is burned to provide electricity for air conditioning. As loyal readers know, I have a computer model that uses temperature data to forecast gas consumption. The model shows that an increase in average temperatures of only 1 degree would have increased U.S. gas use for air conditioning over the last year by about 190 billion cubic feet – or 10 percent. The good news is that increasing winter temperatures reduce the need for gas for heating, which uses three times as much fuel as cooling in the nation. A 1 degree increase in average temperatures would have decreased U.S. gas used for heating last year by about 370 bcf – or 6 percent – according to my model. In other words, global warming will tend to decrease total consumption of natural gas (+190 bcf -370 bcf) if average winter and summer temperatures change by the same amount. That’s small consolation to remember when the temperature is 115 degrees. The hot weather, together with strong oil prices, has boosted natural gas prices. Gas was trading July 27 above the $7/MMBtu mark again, and the average contract price for the next 12 months was close to $9/MMBtu. The big surprise was that the amount of gas in storage decreased for the week ending July 21. The weather was hot on the East Coast earlier last week, and California was heating up. As a result of the heat, my model forecast only a small addition to storage (+28 bcf), but a draw of -7 bcf was reported. If the report was not in error, it would be the first time that storage dropped during the summer since at least 1994, where my records begin. The weather was indeed warm, but not that warm. Storage levels have always grown during the summer. I am at a loss to explain the surprising report. Either supplies dipped markedly or someone started using a lot more natural gas. Weather has returned to “normal,” more or less, but normal doesn’t mean what it used to mean. Worldwide average temperatures have increased by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit in the last 35 years, and 2006 is on track to set a new record high. Last week’s blast of heat was a harbinger of hotter weather in the years ahead. We need to start taking global warming seriously before it is too late. – Dr. Rich Ferguson, Research Director, CEERT, rich@ceert.org. Readers are invited to visit Dr. F’s page at www.ceert.org.

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