USGS diagram of San Andreas Fault

San Andreas Fault Image via Wikipedia

As Japan continues to reel from its triple whammy of earthquake, tsunami and nuclear crisis, the ripple effects are spreading around the world.  More than boats in a California harbor are being swamped by these events.

Worries about global economic recovery grow as the third largest economy in the world is crippled by events.  Oil price increases, at least temporarily, are mitigated by speculators worried that a weakened Japan will reduce the demand for oil.  Auto manufacturing and many other products resulting from Japan’s export powerhouses are disrupted temporarily by loss of electricity, loss of transport or loss of workers busy with the destruction of their homes, the loss of lives of loved ones and the chaos around them.

Around the world prayers are being said for the Japanese victims by people of every religion, every nationality.  World leaders are also praying that those ripples from the Japanese tragedy don’t surge over them in response. No region is spared the aftershocks of Japan’s misery.

So what could this mean?

Global Markets should Rebound as Japan Stabilizes. Stock markets fell for several days as panic, chaos and little information added uncertainty to misery and drove down share prices.  Better information reveals that bad as it really is in Japan the worst damage appears concentrated in the Northeast and the rest of the country is shaken but will recover in time.  It will be expensive but Japan will rebuild and rebound lead by its industrial giants and the enduring spirit of its people.

Spending will stimulate the economy as the damage is repaired. For a Japan stuck in a stagnating economic cycle for almost a generation there is opportunity in this tragedy that the rebuilding effort will sweep away the legacy of its malaise and enable Japan to rebuild stronger, be more competitive and wiser.  Whether this happens depends upon leadership and vision by the Japanese Government and its industrial and financial giants eager not to lose market share to competitors by dithering nor public support by appearing timid in the face of such obvious need.

The Ring of Fire Nations Sweat. Japan’s fate is one of those ‘there but for the grace of God go we’ moments for nations in the ring of fire that brings so much tragedy from the tectonic forces of nature.  The chilling reminder that is quake is Japan is only the latest in a series of mammoth seismic events from Chile, New Zealand and elsewhere around the ring of fire.  As events in Japan destroy a harbor in California we are reminded that it has been 1906 since California experienced its last “big one” on the San Andreas Fault and the Cascadia subduction fault along the Oregon-Washington coast is getting a lot more attention as scientists tell us we are living on borrowed time as it surely will happen again.  Expect more spending on retrofitting bridges, tougher building codes, tsunami zone planning and emergency preparedness that keeps the issue front and center.

Maybe Fossil Fuels are not So Bad After All. It is easy to see the negative consequences for nuclear power as a baseload source of reliable power generation melting down around the world.  From China to Europe to North America virtually every nation with nuclear power plants is re-evaluating their safety today.  Whether those assessments reassure the public about the safety of nuclear energy is far from clear despite the facts.  If Japan can regain control of its nuclear plants will little lasting safety risk, nuclear power can probably recover with time and plenty of public relations care and feeding.  If it gets worse in Japan then nuclear energy may never recover.

Today around the world coal fired generation and natural gas combined cycle plants look pretty good.  Yes we still have the emissions problems but many would trade that gladly to avoid the radiation risk. The electric markets still need baseload generation for grid stability.  And if that baseload is not going to come from nuclear energy then there is only one place to get it—coal.

Natural Gas is the Fuel of Choice for Power Generation. It is cleaner than coal and widely available. It can be transported and stored.  Natural gas combined cycle plants are efficient and load following allowing the plant to adjust to market conditions.  Most importantly, natural gas is the logical back-up source for renewable energy.  Natural gas is the essential fuel of the future so expect to see more attention to the search and development of oil and gas from unconventional sources.

Renewable Energy is Good but not Sufficient. This could be a boon for distributed energy if the perception is that sprinkling many small power sources across the country is better than betting on a few big ones near the coast.  But a more likely realization from an assessment of the Japanese experience is that distributed energy resources would not have helped Japan.  Solar rooftops on all those Japanese homes and factories would still have been wiped out in this calamity and would be impossible to replace quickly.  Wind turbines that survived the shaking would still be stranded if transmission lines go down.  And the lack of stable baseload generation to back up all the intermittent renewable energy would crash the grid.  There is clearly a role for renewable energy and distributed generation especially microgrids but it is not enough.

Invest in Battery Storage Technology. In a world where “stuff happens” and things get ugly when the lights go out we need more investment in energy storage technology both for power quality and conditioning as well as back up.  Our current technologies are in their infancy and finding a solution to energy storage is a game changer on many fronts including transportation and emergencies.