Written by Peter Drown Friday, 09 April 2010 00:00
Few people understand the oil industry better than Matthew Simmons. He speaks about his experience analyzing energy data—and enjoying it: “Other people play tennis or golf, I study data.” Simmons has become one of the industry’s leading experts, speaking at oil exec conferences, think tanks, and universities around the globe. He has an impressive resume, including energy advisor to George W. Bush and founder of Simmons and Company International, the world’s largest energy investment firm.
The University of Maine had the honor of hosting Mr. Simmons on April 9. His message was clear—global demand for two of our most important natural resources, oil and water, is quickly outstripping supply, leading to devastating and potentially disastrous consequences.
According to Simmons, the prevailing doctrine in the oil and gas industry since World War II has been that energy will last forever with technology allowing us to keep pace with global demand for oil. Simmons turned that theory on its head. Holding his arm at a 45-degree angle he explained how more efficient drilling technology actually leads to decreasing supply. This is because oil reserves have already peaked and the industry’s improved equipment only increases the harvest, thus decreasing the amount of oil that could potentially be collected.
Simmons said a surprising 40 percent of our fresh water supply in America goes to power generation. For example, large volumes of water are used to create pressure in the vast network of pipelines and oil fields. Water shortages already exist in many major cities around the world and every eight seconds a child dies from drinking polluted water. Every gallon of gasoline requires two to three gallons of water in its creation. Simmons spoke of the ironic relationship, “Oil and water do not mix, yet we cannot get along without both.”
Matthew Simmons believes both of these problems can be solved. He sees the answer in the vast oceans that cover 70 percent of the earth’s surface. In 2007 he founded the Ocean Energy Institute, a think tank and venture capital fund exploring the potential of using the ocean to provide renewable energy. The institute is part of the DeepCwind Consortium, working to develop offshore wind turbines in the Gulf of Maine.
Simmons envisions offshore wind farms providing more than just electricity. During off-peak hours, the turbines would produce desalinated water through reverse osmosis and power electrolyzers, devices that extract hydrogen molecules from water. The hydrogen reacts with nitrogen from the air to produce ammonia, a compound that can be used as fuel in combustion engines, gas turbines, or fuel cells.
One of the problems with wind electricity generation is the intermittency of the source. The wind does not blow all the time, but people need energy all the time. For years, engineers have struggled with this issue of integrating wind-produced electricity into the energy grid. Simmons sees ammonia as the answer to that problem, a way of storing the energy produced by the turbines.
Matthew Simmons is a realist. He criticizes the optimistic speculation in the energy industry, assumptions of economists, and trust placed in the financial reporting of oil and gas companies. However, when it comes to offshore wind, Matthew Simmons sees great potential. Using the processes of electrolysis to produce fuel and desalination to provide fresh water, he sees potential substitutes for two rapidly depleting natural resources. Perhaps most importantly, the processes are powered by a resource that produces no harmful emissions and can never be depleted—the wind.