On Having to Start Somewhere

In the last few weeks I have heard a lot of noble but futile hopes on the subject of carbon dioxide emissions control.

People always seem to want to project too far into the future and lay out their wonder solution – something that is just too advanced enough to be attainable through any of the means we currently have at our disposal. It is impossible to imagine how the gulf can be bridged between the configuration of things today and their chosen future solutions.

Naive civil servants strongly believe in a massive programme of new nuclear power. Head-in-the-clouds climate change consultants and engineers who should know otherwise believe in widespread Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. MBA students believe in carbon pricing, with carbon trading, or a flat carbon tax. Social engineers believe in significant reductions in energy intensity and energy consumer behaviour change, and economists believe in huge cost reductions for all forms of renewable electricity generation.

To make any progress at all, we need to start where we are. Our economic system has strong emissions-dependent components that can easily be projected to fight off contenders. The thing is, you can’t take a whole layer of bricks out of a Jenga stack without severe degradation of its stability. You need to work with the stack as it is, with all the balances and stresses that already exist. It is too hard to attempt to change everything at once, and the glowing ethereal light of the future is just too ghostly to snatch a hold of without a firm grasp on an appropriate practical rather than spiritual guide.

Here’s part of an email exchange in which I strive for pragmatism in the face of what I perceive as a lack of realism.


To: Jo

I read your article with interest. You have focused on energy, whereas I
tend to focus on total resource. CCS does make sense and should be pushed
forward with real drive as existing power stations can be cleaned up with it
and enjoy a much longer life. Establishing CCS is cheaper than building new
nuclear and uses far less resources. Furthermore, CCS should be used on new
gas and biomass plants in the future.

What we are lacking at the moment is any politician with vision in this
space. Through a combination of boiler upgrades, insulation, appliance
upgrades and behaviour change, it is straight forward to halve domestic
energy use. Businesses are starting to make real headway with energy
savings. We can therefore maintain a current total energy demand for the
foreseeable future.

To service this demand, we should continue to eke out every last effective
joule from the current generating stock by adding cleansing kit to the dirty
performers. While this is being done, we can continue to develop renewable
energy and localised systems which can help to reduce the base load
requirement even further.

From an operational perspective, CCS has stagnated over the last 8 years, so
a test plant needs to be put in place as soon as possible.

The biggest issue for me is that, through political meddling and the
unintended consequences of ill-thought out subsidies, the market has been
skewed in such a way that the probability of a black-out next year is very
high indeed.

Green gas is invisible in many people’s thinking, but the latest House of
Lords Report highlighted its potential.

Vested interests are winning hands down in the stand-off with the big
picture!


From: Jo

What is the title of the House of Lords report to which you refer ?

Sadly, I am old enough to remember Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)
the first time the notion went around the block, so I’d say that
progress has been thin for 30 years rather than 8.

Original proposals for CCS included sequestration at the bottom of the
ocean, which have only recently been ruled out as the study of global
ocean circulation has discovered more complex looping of deep and
shallower waters that originally modelled – the carbon dioxide would
come back up to the surface waters eventually…

The only way, I believe, that CCS can be made to work is by creating a
value stream from the actual carbon dioxide, and I don’t mean Enhanced
Oil Recovery (EOR).

And I also definitely do not mean carbon dioxide emissions pricing,
taxation or credit trading. The forces against an
investment-influencing carbon price are strong, if you analyse the
games going on in the various economic system components. I do not
believe that a strong carbon price can be asserted when major economic
components are locked into carbon – such as the major energy producers
and suppliers, and some parts of industry, and transport.

Also, carbon pricing is designed to be cost-efficient, as markets will
always find the lowest marginal pricing for any externality in fines
or charges – which is essentially what carbon dioxide emissions are.
The EU Emissions Trading Scheme was bound to deliver a low carbon
price – that’s exactly what the economists predicted in modelling
carbon pricing.

I cannot see that a carbon price could be imposed that was more than
5% of the base commodity trade price. At those levels, the carbon
price is just an irritation to pass on to end consumers.

The main problem is that charging for emissions does not alter
investment decisions. Just like fines for pollution do not change the
risks for future pollution. I think that we should stop believing in
negative charging and start backing positive investment in the energy
transition.

You write “You have focused on energy, whereas I tend to focus on
total resource.” I assume you mean the infrastructure and trading
systems. My understanding leads me to expect that in the current
continuing economic stress, solutions to the energy crisis will indeed
need to re-use existing plant and infrastructure, which is why I
think that Renewable Gas is a viable option for decarbonising total
energy supply – it slots right in to substitute for Natural Gas.

My way to “eke out every last effective joule from the current
generating stock” is to clean up the fuel, rather than battle
thermodynamics and capture the carbon dioxide that comes out the back
end. Although I also recommend carbon recycling to reduce the need for
input feedstock.

I completely agree that energy efficiency – cutting energy demand
through insulation and so on – is essential. But there needs to be a
fundamental change in the way that profits are made in the energy
sector before this will happen in a significant way. Currently it
remains in the best interests of energy production and supply
companies to produce and supply as much energy as they can, as they
have a duty to their shareholders to return a profit through high
sales of their primary products.

“Vested interests” have every right under legally-binding trade
agreements to maximise their profits through the highest possible
sales in a market that is virtually a monopoly. I don’t think this can
be challenged, not even by climate change science. I think the way
forward is to change the commodities upon which the energy sector
thrives. If products from the energy sector include insulation and
other kinds of efficiency, and if the energy sector companies can
continue to make sales of these products, then they can reasonably be
expected to sell less energy. I’m suggesting that energy reduction
services need to have a lease component.

Although Alistair Buchanan formerly of Ofgem is right about the
electricity generation margins slipping really low in the next few
winters, there are STOR contracts that National Grid have been working
on, which should keep the lights on, unless Russia turn off the gas
taps, which is something nobody can do anything much about – not BP,
nor our diplomatic corps, the GECF (the gas OPEC), nor the WTO.


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