I gave a guest lecture at Birkbeck College, of the University of London on the evening of 22nd February 2017 in the evening, as part of the Energy and Climate Change module. I titled it, “Renewable Gas for Energy Storage : Scaling up the ‘Gas Battery’ to balance Wind and Solar Power and provide Low Carbon Heat and Transport”.
The basic concept is that since wind and solar power are variable in output, there has to be some support from other energy technologies. Some talk of batteries to store electrical energy as a chemical potential, and when they talk of batteries they think of large Lithium ion piles, or flow batteries, or other forms of liquid electrolyte with cathodes and anodes. When I talk about batteries, I think of electrical energy stored in the form of a gas. This gas battery doesn’t need expensive metal cathodes or anodes, and it doesn’t need an acid liquid electrolyte to operate. Gas that is synthesised from excess solar or wind power can be a fuel that can be used in chemical reactions, such as combustion, or burning, to generate electricity and heat when desired at some point in the future. It could be burned in a gas turbine, a gas boiler or a fuel cell, or in a vehicle engine. Or instead, a chemically inert gas can be stored under pressure, and this compressed gas can also be used to generate power on demand at a later date by harnessing energy from decompression. Another option would be holding a chemically reactive gas under pressure, allowing two stages of energy recovery.
As expected, the Birkbeck audience was very diverse, and had different social and educational backgrounds, and so there was little that could be assumed as common knowledge, especially since the topic was energy, which is normally only an interest for engineers, or at a stretch, economists.
I decided when preparing that I would attempt to use symbolism as a tool to build a narrative in the presentation. A bold move, perhaps, but I found it created an emblematic thread that ran through the slides quite nicely, and helped me tell the story. I used Mathematical and Physical notation, but I didn’t do any Mathematics or Physics.
I introduced the first concept : the Delta, or change. I explained this delta was not the same as a river delta, which gave me the excuse to show a fabulous night sky image of the Nile Delta taken from the International Space Station. I demonstrated the triangle shape that emerges from charting data that changes over time, and calculating its gradient, such as the temperature of the Earth’s surface.
I explained that the change in temperature of the Earth’s surface over the recent decades is an important metric to consider, not just in terms of scale, but in terms of speed. I showed that this rate of change appears in all the independent data sets.
I then went on to explain that the overall trend in the change in the temperature of the Earth’s surface is not the only phenomenon. Within regions, and within years and seasons, even between months and days, there are smaller scale changes that may not look like the overall delta. A lot of these changes give the appearance of cyclic phenomena, and they can have a periodicity of up to several decades, for example, “oscillations” in the oceans.
These discrete deltas and cycles could, to a casual observer, mask underlying trends, especially as the deltas can be larger than the trends; so climatologists look at a large set of measurements of all kinds, and have shown that some deltas are one way only, and are not cycling.
Teasing out the trends in all of the observations is a major enterprise that has been accomplished by thousands of scientists who have reported to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, part of the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Fifth Assessment Report is the most comprehensive yet, and shows that global warming is almost certainly ramping up – in other words, global warming is getting faster, or accelerating.
Many projections for the future of temperature changes at the Earth’s surface have been done, with the overall view that temperatures are likely to carry on rising for hundreds of years without an aggressive approach to curtail net greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere – principally carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
From observations, it is clear that global warming causes climate change, and that the rate of temperature change is linked to the rate of climate change. In symbols, this reads : delta T for temperature over t for time leads to, or implies, a delta C for climate over t for time. The fact that global warming and its consequential climate change are able to continue worsening under the current emissions profile means that climate change is going to affect humanity for a long stretch. It also means that efforts to rein in emissions will also need to extend over time.
I finished this first section of my presentation by showing a list of what I call “Solution Principles” :-
1. Delays embed and extend the problem, making it harder to solve. So don’t delay.
2. Solve the problem at least as fast as creating it.
3. For maximum efficiency, minimum cost, and maximum speed, re-deploy agents of the problem in its solution.
In other words, make use of the existing energy, transport, agriculture, construction and chemical industries in approaching answers to the imperative to address global warming and climate change.
So, the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) have a new top dog – Alex Chisholm – formerly the attack beast in charge of putting pressure on the electricity utility companies over their pricing rip-offs when at the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA).
There’s a huge and dirty intray awaiting this poor fellow, including the demonstrable failings of the Energy Act that’s just been signed into law. I’d recommend that he call for the immediate separation of the department into two distinct and individually funded business units : Nuclear and The Rest. Why ? Because nuclear power in the UK has nothing to do with answering the risk of climate change, despite some public relations type people trying to assert its “low carbon” status. Plus, the financial liabilities of the nuclear section of DECC mean it’s just going to bring the rest of the department down unless there’s a divorce.
The UK Government have been pursuing new fission nuclear power with reams of policy manoeuvres. The call for new nuclear power is basically a tautological argument centring on a proposal to transition to meet all energy demand by power generation resources, and the presumption of vastly increasing energy independence. If you want to convert all heating and cooling and transport to electricity, and you want to have few energy imports, then you will need to have a high level of new nuclear power. If new nuclear power can be built, it will generate on a consistent basis, and so, to gain the benefit of self-sufficiency, you will want to transfer all energy demand to electricity. Because you assume that you will have lots of new nuclear power, you need to have new nuclear power. It’s a tautology. It doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a sensible or even practical way to proceed.
DECC evolved mostly from the need to have a government department exclusively involved in the decommissioning of old nuclear power plants and the disposal of radioactive nuclear power plant waste and waste nuclear fuel. The still existing fleet of nuclear power plants is set to diminish as leaking, creaking, cracking and barely secure reactors and their unreliable steam generation equipment need to be shut down. At which point, this department will lose its cachet of being an energy provider and start to be merely an energy user and cash consumer – since there’s not enough money in the pot for essential decommissioning and disposal and DECC will need to go cap in hand to the UK Treasury for the next few decades to complete its core mission of nuclear decommissioning. It doesn’t take too much of a stretch of the imagination to figure out why this department will remain committed to the concept of new nuclear power. It would certainly justify the continuing existence of the department.
The flagship DECC-driven nuclear power project for Hinkley Point C has run aground on a number of sharp issues – including the apparent financial suicide of the companies set to build it, the probably illegal restructuring loans and subsidy arrangements that various governments have made, what appears to be the outright engineering incompetency of the main construction firm, and the sheer waste of money involved. It would be cheaper by around 50% to 70% to construct lots of new wind power and some backup gas-fired power generation plant – and could potentially be lower carbon in total – especially if the gas is manufactured low carbon gas.
In order to stand a chance of making any new low carbon energy investment in the UK, the Department of Energy and Climate Change needs to split – much like the banks have. The risky, nuclear stuff in one team, and the securely certainly advantageous renewable energy stuff in the other team. We will have more wind power, more solar power and more of lots of other renewables in the next 10 years. We are unlikely to see an increase in nuclear power generation in the UK for the next 15. It’s time to split these business units to protect our chances of successful energy investment.
I have had the great fortune to meet another student of the Non-Science of Economics who believes most strongly that Energy is only a sub-sector of the Holy Economy, instead of one of its foundations, and doesn’t understand why issues with the flow of commodities (which include energy resources) into the system is critical to the survival of the global economy, and that the growth in the Services Industries and Knowledge Economy cannot compensate for the depletion of freshwater, fossil fuels and other raw resources.
This person believes in Technology, as if it can fly by itself, without seeming to understand how Technological Innovation is really advanced by state investment – a democracy of focus. This otherwise intelligent learner has also failed to grasp, apparently, that the only way that the Economy can grow in future is through investment in things with real value, such as Energy, especially where this investment is essential owing to decades of under-investment precipitated by privatisation – such as in Energy – investment in both networks of grids or pipes, and raw resources. And this from somebody who understands that developing countries are being held back by land grab and natural resource privatisation – for example ground water; and that there is no more money to be made from property investment, as the market has boomed and blown.
How to burst these over-expanded false value bubbles in the mind ? When I try to talk about the depletion of natural resources, and planetary boundaries, people often break eye contact and stare vacantly out of the nearest window, or accept the facts, but don’t see the significance of them. Now this may be because I’m not the best of communicators, or it may be due to the heavy weight of propaganda leading to belief in the Magical Unrealism always taught in Economics and at Business Schools.
Whatever. This is where I’m stuck in trying to design a way to talk about the necessity of energy transition – the move from digging up minerals to catching the wind, sunlight and recycling gases. If I say, “Look, ladies and laddies, fossil fuels are depleting”, the audience will respond with “where there’s a drill, there’s a way”. As if somehow the free market (not that a free market actually exists), will somehow step up and provide new production and new resources, conjuring them from somewhere.
What are arguments that connect the dots for people ? How to demonstrate the potential for a real peak in oil, gas, coal and uranium production ? I think I need to start with a basic flow analysis. On the one side of the commodity delivery pipeline, major discoveries have decreased, and the costs of discovery have increased. The hidden underbelly of this is that tapping into reservoirs and seams has a timeline to depletion – the point at which the richness of the seam is degraded significantly, and the initial pressure in the well or reservoir is reduced to unexploitable levels – regardless of the technology deployed. On the other end of the commodities pipeline is the measure of consumption – and most authorities agree that the demand for energy will remain strong. All these factors add up to a time-limited game.
Oh, you can choose to believe that everything will continue as it always seems to have. But the Golden Age of Plenty is drawing to a close, my friend.
Into the valley of career death rode the junior 200… As Adam Vaughan reported on 10th November 2015, the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) is to shed 200 of its 1,600 staff as a result of the Spending Review, ordered by George Osborne, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Second Lord of the Treasury. I wonder just where the jobs will be disappearing from.
Obviously, the work on nuclear power plant decommissioning and the disposal of radioactive nuclear waste and radioactive nuclear fuel needs to continue, and it needs to be government-led, as the experiment in privatisation of these functions went spectactularly over-budget, so it had to be brought back into public hands. But would all this work be best handled by a government agency, rather than DECC ? We already have the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority – should all work on decommissioning and waste disposal be delegated to them ? Shouldn’t DECC be concentrating on energy technologies of the future, instead of trying to fix problems from our nuclear past ? Should not the “policy reset” that many are hinting at address the advancement of renewable energies ? That, surely, should be DECC’s core activity.
There are many items of work that DECC could undertake, that don’t cost a penny in subsidy, that would advance the deployment of renewable energy technologies. Developing a model of energy transition that people believe in would be a good first move. Instead of depending heavily on new nuclear power, with its huge price tag, complex support arrangements, heavy public subsidy and long and ill-determined lead times for construction, DECC modelling could show the present reality, and the gradual dropping off of coal-fired power generation and nuclear power plants – revealing an integrated balance of variable renewable energy and flexible Natural Gas for both heating and backup/stopgap/topup electricity generation. New DECC modelling could show what a progressive transition from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas would look like, and how it would meet the climate change carbon emissions reductions budgets. DECC models of the future of UK energy could include the appearance of integrated gas systems – recycling carbon dioxide emissions into new gas fuels. When the wind is blowing and the sun is shining and not all renewable power is consumed, the UK could then be making gas to store for when the sun sets and the sky is becalmed.
It may take a few years before DECC finally realises that there is no future for coal and nuclear power. Massive projects will fail, or go slow. Financing will be uncertain and backers will run away screaming. Coal-fired power plants are already being left aside in National Grid planning for electricity markets. It will not be long before coal goes the way of the dinosaurs. What we will be left with, if we are clever, is a massive improved network of solar and wind power assets, and Natural Gas-fired power generation to back them up – even if these need to be renationalised because they are required to run flexibly – so shareholders cannot be sure of their dividends. The loan guarantees that DECC tried to throw at new nuclear power will be diverted to Natural Gas power plant investment, possibly; but even then, building and operating a gas-fired power plant could not make an economic case.
It is time to recognise that “baseload” always-on power generation is dead, just as the departing chief of National Grid, Steve Holliday, has indicated. Hopefully, he’s not departing National Grid because he doesn’t believe in the future of coal or nuclear. The plain facts, as the data shows, existing coal and nuclear power plants are unreliable and insecure. Investment into new coal and nuclear plants is at best, uncertain, and for many, dubious. It is possible that gas assets will need to be renationalised. We must resort to a gas-and-power future, for transport as well as heating and power generation. And within 20 years, we must transition to low carbon gas. If only DECC could admit this.
Status-checking questions. I’m sure we all have them. I certainly do. Several times a week, or even day, I ask myself two little questions of portent : “What am I doing ?” and “Why am I here ?”. I ask myself these questions usually because my mind’s wandered off again, just out of reach, and I need to call myself to attention, and focus. I ask these little questions of myself when I do that thing we all do – I’ve set off with great purpose into another room, and then completely forgotten why I went there, or what I came to find or get. I also use these forms of enquiry when I’m at The Crossroads of Purpose – to determine what exactly it is I’m deciding to aim for. What are my goals this day, week, month, age ? Can I espy my aims, somewhere on the horizon ? Can I paddle labouriously towards them – against the tide – dodge/defeat the sharks ? Can I muster the will to carry this out – “longhauling it” ?
I’ve spent a long time writing a book, which I’m sure to bore everybody about for the next aeon. My intention in writing the book was to stimulate debate about what I consider to be the best direction for balanced energy systems – a combination of renewable electricity and Renewable Gas. I wanted to foster debate amongst the academics and engineers who may be my peers, certainly, hopefully providing a little seed for further research. Hopefully also having a small influence on energy policy, perhaps, or at least, getting myself and my ideas asked to various policy meetings for a little airing. But, if I could in some way, I also wanted to offer a bit of fizz to the internal conversations of companies in the energy sector. You see, it may be obvious, or it may not be, but action on climate change, which principally involves the reduction in the mining, drilling and burning of fossil fuels, principally also involves the co-operation of the fossil fuel extraction companies. Their products are nearly history, and so it must be that inside the headquarters of every transnational energy giant, corporate heads are churning through their options with a very large what-if spoon.
The British Government do not have an energy policy. They may think they have one, and they may regularly tell us that they have one, but in reality, they don’t. There are a number of elements of regulatory work and market intervention that they are engaged with, but none of these by itself is significant enough to count as a policy for energy. Moreover, all of these elements taken together do not add up to energy security, energy efficiency, decarbonisation and affordable energy.
What it takes to have an energy policy is a clear understanding of what is a realistic strategy for reinvestment in energy after the dry years of privatisation, and a focus on energy efficiency, and getting sufficient low carbon energy built to meet the Carbon Budget on time. Current British Government ambitions on energy are not realistic, will not attract sufficient investment, will not promote increased energy efficiency and will not achieve the right scale and speed of decarbonisation.
I’m going to break down my critique into a series of small chunks. The first one is a quick look at the numbers and outcomes arising from the British Government’s obsessive promotion of nuclear power, a fantasy science fiction that is out of reach, not least because the industry is dog-tired and motheaten.
We had very interesting presentations from a number of key actors in solar photovoltaic energy, including the newly rebranded Solar Power Europe. James Watson, Solar Power Europe‘s CEO, expressed a view to the effect that it could seem like a waste of time, effort and money for Europe to be spending half its Energy Union budget on reforming the EU Emissions Trading Scheme, when so much could be achieved instead through a recasting of the Renewable Energy Directive. Amendments are due in a new Renewable Energy package in 2017, as confirmed by Commissioner Arias Cañete in March 2015. These amendments would usefully tackle the risk of the European Capacity Mechanism being used to support coal-fired power in Germany – as the parallel policy has been in the UK.
The Energy Union is taking forward the open and free market principles of “harmonisation” of the electricity and gas trade in the geographical envelope of the Eurozone, which includes countries that have not taken the Euro currency, such as the UK, and countries that are in the European Economic Area but are not full members of the European Union, principally Norway. A key part of the Energy Union is a physical enactment of guarantees for market access – focusing on standards in gas and power products, and the interconnectors that make cross-border trade possible. It is in the interests of all the private energy companies, public energy companies, invididual producers and network operators in the region to take part in this project, as the outcomes will include not only free, open and fair trade, they will also increase energy security in the region, particularly as the level of renewable energy production increases. Renewable electricity is intermittent and variable at all time slices, and strongly seasonal and weather-related, and so international trade within the European region is essential.
Most commentators on the Energy Union narrow in on the electricity grids, but union also includes the gas grids. The legal framework for gas market harmonisation includes work on gas quality standards and also what kinds of gas can be transmitted through the pipelines, issues covered in the 2009 Energy Package, which permitted unconstrained access for alternative gases as long as they meet the gas protocols. This would permit gas grid injection of biomethane, and potentially other biogases or Renewable Gas varieties.
One of the main contributors to new power production in the Eurozone is renewable electricity, with growth that has continued throughout the recession in the economy. Although barriers to increased renewable power in the electricity grids have been by and large vaulted, through a combination of regulatory progress and subsidies, as the landscape has changed, so has the need for re-assessment of policy. For example, in the UK, the solar Feed-in Tariff has been strongly criticised as costing too much (although it is a minnow in terms of the total socialised energy budget), and has had to be “degressed” – or stepped down in stages. In Germany, all electricity consumers have been taxed in order to pay for the renewable energy budget – and there has even been a tax on “self-consumption”for solar power producers – and this has been strongly contested. Plans to manufacture low carbon gas from excess solar and wind power would be badly affected by this. It does seem strange that producer-consumers of virtually cost-less and zero carbon power should be taxed, especially when centralised producers are forced to sell power for virtually nothing when there is oversupply – for example on a sunny day.
What is more likely to hold back European solar expansion, according to Solar Power Europe, is the Minimum Import Price, or MIP. Solar Power Europe will are lobbying for an end to both the MIP and German solar tax. The MIP, according to their analysis, is making solar power in Europe too costly, compared to other regions. Roughly 60% to 70% of the MIP subsidy is going to support Chinese manufacturers, yet China’s solar power industry is becoming very successful in its own right, and doesn’t need this support. Solar Power Europe are concerned that there is gaming of the market going on to decrease the costs of solar panels in Europe – for example, panels made in China are being routed through countries where exports don’t come under the MIP rules. In effect, Solar Power Europe wants policy to change to stop subsidising China and iron out counter-productive internal policies.
Solar Power Europe have published their “Global Market Outlook : 2015 – 2019” this week, and clearly, there are sunny times ahead, especially since Greg Barker has a key role in delivering solar power in London.
Greg Barker came to the podium to give his summary of solar power in the UK. He reminded the solar power industry, that although they were becoming a serious sector, that they would continue to remain dependent on subsidies. He said that the major reduction in unit costs was probably over; and barring some improvements in underlying technology, such as revolutions in semiconductor devices, I think I’d probably agree with him. Greg Barker said that to promote the market, there was still a need to sweep away unintended obstacles – he said he didn’t understand why solar power was still cheaper in Germany. He said that the development in solar power was incredible – he said that when he had first taken office in the previous Coalition Government, when he had talked about his ambition for solar power, officials had “fallen off their chairs, laughing”, at his parrotting as Minister, but that now there was a risk of over-development under the Levy Control Framework – the policy that caps subsidy spending on energy. Greg Barker said that he regretted that the EMR bids from solar power (bidding into the Contracts for Difference auction instituted as part of the Electricity Market Reform) may now not get built. He said that the solar industry would be “gutted that Eric Pickles has gone”, and that with the new majority Conservative Government rooftop solar would get support from the Department for Communities and Local Government from their new Minister Greg Clark. Greg Barker said that Camilla Cavendish, appointed in David Cameron’s Policy Unit, is a real ally of renewable energy. Greg Barker warned the room that there would be no additions to the levy budget for solar power, and told the solar industry not to go asking for increases as the regulatory environment would be harsh. He said the solar power developers should aim to drive down their costs and dive into a far more centralised market. He said that he expected that there would be “insurgent companies” making significant progress on solar power – something that the Big Six electricity providers would be unable to do. He warned the solar industry to he “hardheaded and realistic” and urged them to work with the Government.
Greg Barker told us about his new appointment to the London Sustainable Development Commission. He said that when Boris Johnson had called him about this, he hadn’t heard of it. Greg Barker said that the population of London is growing by 100,000 a year, and that London has growing technology companies – so much so that clean tech in London is better than California. He said that he accepted the appointment to the London SDC on the basis that he would get carte blanche to reform it, to “shift the dial”. He said that “much as I love city farms, and bees“, that he wanted to create more focus. He said that he wanted to get the London SDC working to three criteria on solar power, firstly scalability. He wants to see solar power initiatives that are scalable – which I took to mean not just large unrepeatable projects, or small bespoke projects. Greg Barker said that solar power policy should have genuine additionality – not just producing more reports. The third criteria he wants to apply is that of replicability – as until now, the record of solar power in London was not very good. He said we should remember the aesthetics of solar power, and that big blue panels sitting proud of a red clay roof was not particularly appealing. He mentioned Amber Rudd, who has been given the post of Secretary of State for the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and how she has been talking about the aesthetics of nuclear power. He said this issue was not ephemeral and that it was important to have good design for the London “semi” – semi-detached house. He said that local policy changes could help – such as eliminating the Congestion Charge for solar power companies having to drive and park in London for installations. Greg Barker said that Ed Davey, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change in the previous Government, was too narrow in his views on organisations that should be enabled to do solar projects. Greg Barker said that we needed not only co-operatives, but also charities, and local authority level alliances, to be enabled to do solar projects. He said that policy needed to be revisited as regards the mid-sector rooftop solar band. He said that if the solar industry and builders get together and propose a change in regulation, Greg Clark would listen. Greg Barker said that Government should be regulating for outcome and not process in order to make progress. Greg Barker said that he wanted solar power to be a key policy issue in the upcoming mayoral election (for the Mayor of London). He said that when he had sat down with Boris Johnson the issues that had surfaced were a need for policy to deal with the circular economy, and how to develop London’s clean tech cluster, and the need for a solar group.
Greg Barker finished with some good advice. He told the solar power industry to be “persuasive rather than loud”. He said that the solar industry need to understand that a good deal of subsidy has to be focused on the offshore wind power priority, and that this cannot be changed. He said that the solar power industry could “pick up the slack from onshore wind”. He reminded the solar industry to focus on aesthetics and to sell this along with the idea of energy efficiency and return on investment. He said that the Green Deal has shown that we are still a long way from a market in energy efficiency. He asked if the Feed-in Tariff would survive, as solar power continues in its march towards grid parity.
Later on in the day, over snacks and a couple of beers, I was shown worrying-looking maps of the state of the National Grid by somebody looking at the “constraints” being imposed by Western Power Distribution (WPD), for example, in the South West of England. A summary that could be drawn from the maps was that there are difficulties with adding new power generators into large parts of the grid network. For the proposed Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant and the new Seabank 3 gas-fired power plant, an entirely new piece of grid will be needed – which will increase the lead time to these projects being able to contribute power to the network. If modifications for major projects are going to take up all the attention of National Grid, they won’t be able to advance the upgrades to the grid needed for small, decentralised projects – perhaps for years – and this is worrying as it imposes limitations on the amount of new renewable electricity that can be added in the near future. Some will see this as excellent news, as it will cap the rollout of windfarms and solar parks. However, this will create a drag on low carbon transition. It seems that large amounts of new renewables will only be possible in localised grids – so emphasis on developing solar power in London is useful.
The Electricity Market Reform of the Energy Act enacted in the last parliament included a facility for “Contracts for Difference” (CfD), an auction for government subsidies. Solar photovoltaic projects bid successfully, but the generation capacity was low, and today I learned that some of these projects could be at risk of non-completion.
The CfD auction is for large solar schemes. Smaller schemes, such as those for residential housing, still have the Feed in Tariff to support them – however the meeting considered the impact on growth in this area owing to step change degression in this subsidy support.
If the failure of the CfD and FiT to stimulate wider uptake of solar power wasn’t concerning enough, the meeting looked at issues with grid connection for new renewable energy projects. This was shown to be the result of a “perfect storm” of low ambition in government, underestimates of growth, long lead times for connection processes, uncertainties in guarantees for connection, and the long turnaround time for pushing through technological changes.
Several people that I spoke to in the breaks highlighted physical problems in the grid network that mean that the power grid is “full” through large parts of the South West of England, the Midlands and southern Wales. One person ventured that the problem could easily be getting worse in Scotland, where enormous wind power projects have begun to saturate the grid connections to England. And the view held by some was that this problem has a four year lead time to fix.
If the Conservative Government wants to grow solar power, besides managing the massively complex web of actors in the solar power industry, it’s going to need to show more oversight of this vital physical barrier – the electricity grid is in sore need of major improvement and expansion, and without this, solar will be going nowhere.
Later on this morning, I shall attend the shiniest, brightest, sunniest event of the whole year so far : by the invitation of the Solar Trade Association, I shall attend a day of presentations named “Does the new government mean business for solar ?”. If I were a journalist, I would probably assume that the answer to that question is the default “no”, but I’m hoping some of the attendees will claim otherwise. And here below is a related press release about a publication released today : “Solar Independence Plan for Britain”, outlining exciting opportunities for solar photovoltaic farms in the UK. I shall be smiling all day, I can tell. The UK solar future’s so bright, I’ll need to wear PV shades.
‘Solar Independence’ is opportunity for Britain
Media Release : Embargoed to: 00:01 Monday 8 June 2015
Commenting on the publication of the ‘Solar Independence Plan for Britain’ by the Solar Trade Association , Guy Smith, Vice President of the National Farmers Union, highlighted the opportunity that solar power presents to British farmers.
Guy Smith said: “We’re pleased to see the fast-maturing solar industry calling for a responsible tapering-off in the level of public support it requires. Solar farmers are proud to be contributing renewable electricity into the British grid and the NFU is firmly in favour of using subsidies as efficiently as possible.”
“Our advice to government would be that as many farmers are finding, solar farms can easily be managed to support additional biodiversity such as bees and birds. The government is asking farmers to meet targets on biodiversity, and so we’d urge ministers to support solar farms as part of the solution.”
“Farm economists seem agreed that in the future farm-gate prices will become more volatile. Increased weather volatility is a key factor in this. To help manage this volatility farmers need to spread risk across a number of diverse income streams, and solar power and the other land-based renewables are an excellent way of doing this thus helping secure a robust rural economy.”
Catherine Mitchell, Professor of Energy Policy at the University of Exeter , said that smart policies could support the development of the solar industry in the UK.
Catherine Mitchell said: “We are seeing a profound global transformation in how we think about and build energy systems, and solar is the technology that is leading it.”
“Where governments enact good policy, healthy industries emerge and costs fall. Citizens become entrepreneurs.”
“As the Solar Independence Plan shows, Britain is potentially just five years away from a tipping point in this transformation, and I’d certainly urge ministers to encourage the inevitable rather than fighting it.”
Notes to editors:
1. The ‘Solar Independence Plan for Britain’ by the Solar Trade Association is published on Monday 8 June.
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Supporters of pricing carbon dioxide emissions urge the “give it time” approach, believing that continuing down the road of tweaking the price of energy in the global economy will cause a significant change in the types of resources being extracted.
My view is that economic policy and the strengthening of carbon markets and cross-border carbon taxes cannot provide a framework for timely and major shifts in the carbon intensity of energy resources, and here’s a brief analysis of why.
1. A price on carbon shifts the locus of action on to the energy consumer and investor
A price on carbon could be expected to alter the profitability of certain fossil fuel mining, drilling and processing operations. For example, the carbon dioxide emissions of a “tank of gas” from a well-to-wheel or mine-to-wheel perspective, could be made to show up in the price on the fuel station forecourt pump. Leaving aside the question of how the carbon tax or unit price would be applied and redistributed for the moment, a price on carbon dioxide emissions could result in fuel A being more expensive than fuel B at the point of sale. Fuel A could expect to fall in popularity, and its sales could falter, and this could filter its effect back up the chain of production, and have implications on the capital expenditure on the production of Fuel A, and the confidence of the investors in investing in Fuel A, and so the oil and gas company would pull out of Fuel A.
However, the business decisions of the oil and gas company are assumed to be dependent on the consumer and the investor. By bowing to the might god of unit price, Shell and its confederates are essentially arguing that they will act only when the energy consumers and energy investors act. There are problems with this declaration of “we only do what we are told by the market” position. What if the unit price of Fuel A is only marginally affected by the price on carbon ? What if Fuel A is regarded as a superior product because of its premium price or other marketing factors ? This situation actually exists – the sales of petroleum oil-based gasoline and diesel are very healthy, despite the fact that running a car on Natural Gas, biogas or electricity could be far cheaper. Apart from the fact that so many motor cars in the global fleet have liquid fuel-oriented engines, what else is keeping people purchasing oil-based fuels when they are frequently more costly than the alternative options ?
And what about investment ? Fuel A might become more costly to produce with a price on carbon, but it will also be more expensive when it is sold, and this could create an extra margin of profit for the producers of Fuel A, and they could then return higher dividends to their shareholders. Why should investors stop holding stocks in Fuel A when their rates of return are higher ?
If neither consumers nor investors are going to change their practice because Fuel A becomes more costly than Fuel B because of a price on carbon, then the oil and gas company are not going to transition out of Fuel A resources.
For Shell to urge a price on carbon therefore, is a delegation of responsibility for change to other actors. This is irresponsible. Shell needs to lead on emissions reduction, not insist that other people change.
2. A price on carbon will not change overall prices or purchasing decsions
In economic theory, choices about products, goods and services are based on key factors such as trust in the supplier, confidence in the product, availability and sustainability of the service, and, of course, the price. Price is a major determinant in most markets, and artificially altering the price of a vital commodity will certainly alter purchasing decisions – unless, that is, the price of the commodity in question increases across the board. If all the players in the field start offering a more expensive product, for example, because of supply chain issues felt across the market, then consumers will not change their choices.
Now consider the global markets in energy. Upwards of 80% of all energy consumed in the global economy is fossil fuel-based. Putting a price on carbon will raise the prices of energy pretty much universally. There will not be enough cleaner, greener product to purchase, so most purchasing decisions will remain the same. Price differentiation in the energy market will not be established by asserting a price on carbon.
A key part of Shell’s argument is that price differentiation will occur because of a price on carbon, and that this will drive behaviour change, and yet there is nothing to suggest it could do that effectively.
3. A price on carbon will not enable Carbon Capture and Storage
Athough a key part of Shell’s argument about a price on carbon is the rationale that it would stimulate the growth in Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), it seems unlikely that the world will ever agree to a price on carbon that would be sufficient to stimulate significant levels of CCS. A price on carbon will be deemed to be high enough when it creates a difference in the marginal extra production cost of a unit of one energy resource compared to another. A carbon price can only be argued for on the basis of this optimisation process – after all – a carbon price will be expected to be cost-efficient, and not punitive to markets. In other words, carbon prices will be tolerated if they tickle the final cost of energy, but not if they mangle with it. However, CCS could imply the use of 20% to 45% extra energy consumption at a facility or plant. In other words, CCS would create a parasitic load on energy resources that is not slim enough to be supported by a cost-optimal carbon price.
Some argue that the technology for CCS is improving, and that the parasitic load of CCS at installations could be reduced to around 10% to 15% extra energy consumption. However, it is hard to imagine a price on carbon that would pay even for this. And additionally, CCS will continue to require higher levels of energy consumption which is highly inefficient in the use of resources.
Shell’s argument that CCS is vital, and that a price on carbon can support CCS, is invalidated by this simple analysis.
4. Shell needs to be fully engaged in energy transition
Calling for a price on carbon diverts attention from the fact that Shell itself needs to transition out of fossil fuels in order for the world to decarbonise its energy.
Shell rightly says that they should stick to their “core capabilities” – in other words geology and chemistry, instead of wind power and solar power. However, they need to demonstrate that they are willing to act within their central business activities.
Prior to the explosion in the exploitation of deep geological hydrocarbon resources for liquid and gas fuels, there was an energy economy that used coal and chemistry to manufacture gas and liquid fuels. Manufactured gas could still replace Natural Gas, if there are climate, economic or technological limits to how much Natural Gas can be resourced or safely deployed. Of course, to meet climate policy goals, coal chemistry would need to be replaced by biomass chemistry, and significant development of Renewable Hydrogen technologies.
Within its own production facilities, Shell has the answers to meet this challenge. Instead of telling the rest of the world to change its economy and its behaviour, Shell should take up the baton of transition, and perfect its production of low carbon manufactured gas.
And so it has begun – Shell’s public relations offensive ahead of the 2015 Paris climate talks. The substance of their “advocacy” – and for a heavyweight corporation, it’s less lobbying than badgering – is that the rest of the world should adapt. Policymakers should set a price on carbon, according to Shell. A price on carbon might make some dirty, polluting energy projects unprofitable, and there’s some value in that. A price on carbon might also stimulate a certain amount of Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, the capturing and permanent underground sequestration of carbon dioxide at large mines, industrial plant and power stations. But how much CCS could be incentivised by pricing carbon is still unclear. Egging on the rest of the world to price carbon would give Shell the room to carry on digging up carbon and burning it and then capturing it and burying it – because energy prices would inevitably rise to cover this cost. Shell continues with the line that they started in the 1990s – that they should continue to dig up carbon and burn it, or sell it to other people to burn, and that the rest of the world should continue to pay for the carbon to be captured and buried – but Shell has not answered a basic problem. As any physicist could tell you, CCS is incredibly energy-inefficient, which makes it cost-inefficient. A price on carbon wouldn’t solve that. It would be far more energy-efficient, and therefore cost-efficient, to either not dig up the carbon in the first place, or, failing that, recycle carbon dioxide into new energy. Shell have the chemical prowess to recycle carbon dioxide into Renewable Gas, but they are still not planning to do it. They are continuing to offer us the worst of all possible worlds. They are absolutely right to stick to their “core capabilities” – other corporations can ramp up renewable electricity such as wind and solar farms – but Shell does chemistry, so it is appropriate for them to manufacture Renewable Gas. They are already using most of the basic process steps in their production of synthetic crude in Canada, and their processing of coal and biomass in The Netherlands. They need to join the dots and aim for Renewable Gas. This will be far less expensive, and much more efficient, than Carbon Capture and Storage. The world does not need to shoulder the expense and effort of setting a price on carbon. Shell and its fellow fossil fuel companies need to transition out to Renewable Gas.
An underlying issue not much aired is that increased gas infrastructure is necessary not just to improve competition in the energy markets – it is also to compensate for Peak Natural Gas in the North Sea – something many commentators regularly strive to deny. The new Conservative Government policy on energy is not fit to meet this challenge. The new Secretary of State has gone public about the UK Government’s continued commitment to the exploitation of shale gas – a resource that even her own experts can tell her is unlikely to produce more than a footnote to annual gas supplies for several decades. In addition, should David Cameron be forced to usher in a Referendum on Europe, and the voters petulantly pull out of the Europe project, Britain’s control over Natural Gas imports is likely to suffer, either because of the failure of the “Energy Union” in markets and infrastructure, or because of cost perturbations.
Amber Rudd MP is sitting on a mountain of trouble, undergirded by energy policy vapourware : the promotion of shale gas is not going to solve Britain’s gas import surge; the devotion to new nuclear power is not going to bring new atomic electrons to the grid for decades, and the UK Continental Shelf is going to be expensive for the Treasury to incentivise to mine. What Amber needs is a proper energy policy, based on focused support for low carbon technologies, such as wind power, solar power and Renewable Gas to back up renewable electricity when the sun is not shining and wind is not blowing.
Volatile crude petroleum oil commodity prices over the last decade have played some undoubted havoc with oil and gas company strategy. High crude prices have pushed the choice of refinery feedstocks towards cheap heavy and immature gunk; influenced decisions about the choices for new petrorefineries and caused ripples of panic amongst trade and transport chiefs : you can’t keep the engine of globalisation ticking over if the key fuel is getting considerably more expensive, and you can’t meet your carbon budgets without restricting supplies.
Low crude commodity prices have surely caused oil and gas corporation leaders to break out into the proverbial sweat. Heavy oil, deep oil, and complicated oil suddenly become unprofitable to mine, drill and pump. Because the economic balance of refinery shifts. Because low commodity prices must translate into low end user refined product prices.
There maybe isn’t an ideal commodity price for crude oil. All the while, as crude oil commodity prices jump around like a medieval flea, the price of Natural Gas, and the gassy “light ends” of slightly unconventional and deep crude oil, stay quite cheap to produce and cheap to use. It’s a shame that there are so many vehicles on the road/sea/rails that use liquid fuels…all this is very likely to change.
Shell appear to be consolidating their future gas business by buying out the competition. Hurrah for common sense ! The next stage of their evolution, after the transition of all oil applications to gas, will be to ramp up Renewable Gas production : low carbon gas supplies will decarbonise every part of the economy, from power generation, to transport, to heating, to industrial chemistry.
This is a viable low carbon solution – to accelerate the use of renewable electricity – wind power and solar principally – and at the same time, transition the oil and gas companies to become gas companies, and thence to Renewable Gas companies.
"While a large emissions cut sure sounded good, this scenario still showed substantial use of natural gas in the electricity sector. That’s because today’s renewable energy sources are limited by suitable geography and their own intermittent power production."
Erm. Yes. Renewable electricity is variable and sometimes not available, because, well, the wind doesn’t always blow and the sun doesn’t always shine, you know. This has been known for quite some time, actually. It’s not exactly news. Natural Gas is an excellent complement to renewable electricity, and that’s why major industrialised country grid networks rely on the pairing of gas and power, and will do so for some time to come. Thus far, no stunner.
What is astonishing is that these brain-the-size-of-a-planet guys do not appear to have asked the awkwardly obvious question of : "so, can we decarbonise the gas supply, then ?" Because the answer is "yes, very largely, yes."
And if you have Renewable Gas backing up Renewable Power, all of a sudden, shazam !, kabam ! and kapoom !, you have An Answer. You can use excess wind power and excess solar power to make gas, and you can store the gas to use when there’s a still, cold period on a wintry night. And at other times of low renewable power, too. And besides using spare green power to make green gas, you can make Renewable Gas in other ways, too.
The Google engineers write :-
"Now, [Research and Development] dollars must go to inventors who are tackling the daunting energy challenge so they can boldly try out their crazy ideas. We can’t yet imagine which of these technologies will ultimately work and usher in a new era of prosperity – but the people of this prosperous future won’t be able to imagine how we lived without them."
Actually, Renewable Gas is completely non-crazy. It’s already being done all over the world in a variety of locations – with a variety of raw resources. We just need to replace the fossil fuel resources with biomass – that’s all.
And there’s more – practically all the technology is over a century old – it just needs refining.
I wonder why the Google boys seem to have been so unaware of this. Maybe they didn’t study the thermodynamics of gas-to-gas reactions at kindergarten, or something.
Thanks to the deliberate misinterpretation of the Google "brothers" article, The Register, James Delingpole’s Breitbart News and Joanne Nova are not exactly helping move the Technological Debate forward, but that’s par for the course. They rubbished climate change science. Now they’ve been shown to be wrong, they’ve moved on, it seems, to rubbishing renewable energy systems. And they’re wrong there, too.
Onwards, my green engineering friends, and upwards.
I was in a meeting today held at the Centre for European Reform in which Shell’s Chief Financial Officer, Simon Henry, made two arguments to absolve the oil and gas industry of responsibility for climate change. He painted coal as the real enemy, and reiterated the longest hand-washing argument in politics – that Shell believes that a Cap and Trade system is the best way to suppress carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, it’s not up to Shell to do anything about carbon. He argued that for transportation and trade the world is going to continue to need highly energy-dense liquid fuels for some time, essentially arguing for the continuation of his company’s current product slate. He did mention proudly in comments after the meeting that Shell are the world’s largest bioethanol producers, in Brazil, but didn’t open up the book on the transition of his whole company to providing the world with low carbon fuels. He said that Shell wants to be a part of the global climate change treaty process, but he gave no indication of what Shell could bring to the table to the negotiations, apart from pushing for carbon trading. Mark Campanale of the Carbon Tracker Initiative was sufficiently convinced by the “we’re not coal” argument to attempt to seek common cause with Simon Henry after the main meeting. It would be useful to have allies in the oil and gas companies on climate change, but it always seems to be that the rest of the world has to adopt Shell’s and BP’s view on everything from policy to energy resources before they’ll play ball.
During the meeting, Mark Campanale pointed out in questions that Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs are going to bring Indian coal to trade on the London Stock Exchange and that billions of dollars of coal stocks are to be traded in London, and that this undermines all climate change action. He said he wanted to understand Shell’s position, as the same shareholders that hold coal (shares), hold Shell. I think he was trying to get Simon Henry to call for a separation in investment focus – to show that investment in oil and gas is not the same as investing in Big Bad Coal. But Simon Henry did not bite. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s report of 2013, Unburnable Carbon, coal listed on the London Stock Exchange is equivalent to 49 gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (gtCO2), but oil and gas combined trade shares for stocks equivalent to 64 gtCO2, so there’s currently more emissions represented by oil and gas on the LSX than there is for coal. In the future, the emissions held in the coal traded in London have the potential to amount to 165 gtCO2, and oil and gas combined at 125 gtCO2. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is only responsible for about 1.6% of direct country carbon dioxide emissions (excluding emissions embedded in traded goods and services), the London Stock Exchange is set to be perhaps the world’s third largest exchange for emissions-causing fuels.
Here’s a rough transcript of what Simon Henry said. There are no guarantees that this is verbatim, as my handwriting is worse than a GP’s.
[Simon Henry] I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and use notes. Building a long-term sustainable energy system – certain forces shaping that. 7 billion people will become 9 billion people – [many] moving from off-grid to on-grid. That will be driven by economic growth. Urbanisation [could offer the possibility of] reducing demand for energy. Most economic growth will be in developing economies. New ways fo consuming energy. Our scenarios – in none do we see energy not growing materially – even with efficiencies. The current ~200 billion barrels of oil equivalent per day today of energy demand will rise to ~400 boe/d by 2050 – 50% higher than today. This will be demand-driven – nothing to do with supply…
[At least one positive-sounding grunt from the meeting – so there are some Peak Oil deniers in the room, then.]
[Simon Henry] …What is paramount for governments – if a threat, then it gets to the top of the agenda. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes climate change…
[A few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks around the table, including mine]
[Simon Henry] …in the absence of ways we change the use of energy […] Any approach to climate change has got to embrace science, policy and technology. All three levers must be pulled. Need a long-term stable policy that enables technology development. We think this is best in a market mechanism. […] Energy must be affordable at the point of use. What we call Triple A – available, acceptable and affordable. No silver bullet. Develop in a responsible way. Too much of it is soundbite – that simplifies what’s not a simple problem. It’s not gas versus coal. [Although, that appeared to be one of his chief arguments – that it is gas versus coal – and this is why we should play nice with Shell.]
1. Economy : About $1.5 to $2 trillion of new money must be invested in the energy industry each year, and this must be sustained until 2035 and beyond. A [few percent] of the world economy. It’s going to take time to make [massive changes]. […] “Better Growth : Better Climate” a report on “The New Climate Economy” by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the Calderon Report. [The world invested] $700 billion last year on oil and gas [or rather, $1 trillion] and $220 – $230 billion on wind power and solar power. The Calderon Report showed that 70% of energy is urban. $6 trillion is being spent on urban infrastructure [each year]. $90 trillion is available. [Urban settings are] more compact, more connected, there’s public transport, [can build in efficiencies] as well as reducing final energy need. Land Use is the other important area – huge impact on carbon emissions. Urbanisation enables efficiency in distributed generation [Combined Heat and Power (CHP)], [local grids]. Eye-popping costs, but the money will be spent anyway. If it’s done right it will [significantly] reduce [carbon emissions and energy demand]…
2. Technology Development : Governments are very bad at picking winners. Better to get the right incentives in and let the market players decide [optimisation]. They can intervene, for example by [supporting] Research and Development. But don’t specify the means to an end…The best solution is a strong predictable carbon price, at $40 a tonne or more or it won’t make any difference. We prefer Cap and Trade. Taxes don’t actually decrease carbon [emissions] but fundamentally add cost to the consumer. As oil prices rose [in 2008 – 2009] North Americans went to smaller cars…Drivers [set] their behaviour from [fuel] prices…
[An important point to note here : one of the reasons why Americans used less motor oil during the “Derivatives Bubble” recession between 2006 and 2010 was because the economy was shot, so people lost their employment, and/or their homes and there was mass migration, so of course there was less commuter driving, less salesman driving, less business driving. This wasn’t just a response to higher oil prices, because the peak in driving miles happened before the main spike in oil prices. In addition, not much of the American fleet of cars overturned in this period, so Americans didn’t go to smaller cars as an adaptation response to high oil prices. They probably turned to smaller cars when buying new cars because they were cheaper. I think Simon Henry is rather mistaken on this. ]
[Simon Henry] …As regards the Carbon Bubble : 65% of the Unburnable fossil fuels to meet the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is coal. People would stuggle to name the top five coal companies [although they find it easy to name the top five oil and gas companies]. Bearing in mind that you have to [continue to] transport stuff [you are going to need oil for some time to come.] Dealing with coal is the best way of moving forward. Coal is used for electricity – but there are better ways to make electricity – petcoke [petroleum coke – a residue from processing heavy and unconventional crude oil] for example…
[Simon Henry] …It will take us 30 years to get away entirely from coal. Even if we used all the oil and gas, the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is still possible…
3. Policy : We tested this with the Dutch Government recently – need to create an honest dialogue for a long-term perspective. Demand for energy needs to change. It’s not about supply…
[Again, some “hear hears” from the room from the Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas deniers]
[Simon Henry] …it’s about demand. Our personal wish for [private] transport. [Not good to be] pushing the cost onto the big bad energy companies and their shareholders. It’s taxes or prices. [Politicians] must start to think of their children and not the next election…
…On targets and subsidies : India, Indonesia, Brazil […] to move on fossil fuel subsidies – can’t break the Laws of Economics forever. If our American friends drove the same cars we do, they’d reduce their oil consumption equivalent to all of the shale [Shale Gas ? Or Shale Oil ?]… Targets are an emotive issue when trying to get agreement from 190 countries. Only a few players that really matter : USA, China, EU, India – close to 70% of current emissions and maybe more in future. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency in the United States of America] [announcement] on power emissions. China respondedin 24 hours. The EU target on 27% renewables is not [country-specific, uniform across-the-board]. Last week APEC US deal with China on emissions. They switched everything off [and banned traffic] and people saw blue sky. Coal with CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] we see as a good idea. We would hope for a multi-party commitment [from the United Nations climate talks], but [shows doubt]… To close : a couple of words on Shell – have to do that. We have only 2% [of the energy market], but we [hope we] can punch above our weight [in policy discussions]. We’re now beginning to establish gas as a transport fuel. Brazil – low carbon [bio]fuels. Three large CCS projects in Canada, EU… We need to look at our own energy use – pretty trivial, but [also] look at helping our customers look at theirs. Working with the DRC [China]. Only by including companies such as ourselves in [climate and energy policy] debate can we get the [global deal] we aspire to…
[Question from the table, Ed Wells (?), HSBC] : Green Bonds : how can they provide some of the finance [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] ? The first Renminbi denominated Green Bond from [?]. China has committed to non-fossil fuels. The G20 has just agreed the structure on infrastructure – important – not just for jobs and growth – parallel needs on climate change. [Us at HSBC…] Are people as excited about Green Bonds as we are ?
[Stephen Tindale] Yes.
[Question from the table, Anthony Cary, Commonwealth Scholarship Commission] …The key seems to be pricing carbon into the economy. You said you preferred Cap and Trade. I used to but despite reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) – [failures and] gaming the system. Tax seems to be a much more solid basis.
[Simon Henry] [The problem with the ETS] too many credits and too many exemptions. Get rid of the exemptions. Bank reserve of credits to push the price up. Degress the number of credits [traded]. Tax : if people can afford it, they pay the tax, doesn’t stop emissions. In the US, no consumption tax, they are very sensitive to the oil price going up and down – 2 to 3 million barrels a day [swing] on 16 million barrels a day. All the political impact on the US from shale could be done in the same way on efficiency [fuel standards and smaller cars]. Green Bonds are not something on top of – investment should be financed by Green Bonds, but investment is already being done today – better to get policy right and then all investment directed.
[Question from the table, Kirsten Gogan, Energy for Humanity] The role of nuclear power. By 2050, China will have 500 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power. Electricity is key. Particularly coal. Germany is building new coal as removing nuclear…
[My internal response] It’s at this point that my ability to swallow myths was lost. I felt like shouting, politely, across the table : ACTUALLY KIRSTEN, YOU, AND A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM ARE JUST PLAIN WRONG ON GERMANY AND COAL.
[Kirsten Gogan]…German minister saying in public that you can’t phase out nuclear and coal at the same time. Nuclear is not included in that conversation. Need to work on policy to scale up nuclear to replace coal. Would it be useful to have a clear sectoral target on decarbonising – 100% on electricity ?
[Stephen Tindale] Electricity is the least difficult of the energy sectors to decarbonise. Therefore the focus should be on electricity. If a target would help (I’m not a fan) nuclear certainly needs to be a part of the discussions. Angela Merkel post-Fukushima has been crazy, in my opinion. If want to boost renewable energy, nuclear power will take subsidies away from that. But targets for renewable energy is the wrong objective.. If the target is keeping the climate stable then it’s worth subsidising nuclear. Subsidising is the wrong word – “risk reduction”.
[Simon Henry] If carbon was properly priced, nuclear would become economic by definition…
[My internal response] NO IT WOULDN’T. A LOT OF NUCLEAR CONSTRUCTION AND DECOMMISSIONING AND SPENT FUEL PROCESSING REQUIRES CARBON-BASED ENERGY.
[Simon Henry] …Basically, all German coal is exempted (from the EU ETS). If you have a proper market-based system then the right things will happen. The EU – hypocrisy at country level. Only [a couple of percent] of global emissions. The EU would matter if it was less hypocritical. China are more rational – long-term thinking. We worked with the DRC. Six differing carbon Cap and Trade schemes in operation to find the one that works best. They are effectively supporting renewable energy – add 15 GW each of wind and solar last year. They don’t listen to NIMBYs [they also build in the desert]. NIMBYism [reserved for] coal – because coal was built close to cities. [Relationship to Russia] – gas replacing coal. Not an accident. Five year plan. They believe in all solutions. Preferably Made in China so we can export to the rest of the world. [Their plans are for a range of aims] not just climate.
[Simon Henry] [in answer to a question about the City of London] We don’t rely on them to support our activities [my job security depends on a good relationship with them]]. We have to be successful first and develop [technological opportunities] [versus being weakened by taxes]. They can support change in technology. Financing coal may well be new money. Why should the City fund new coal investments ?
[Question from the table, asking about the “coal is 70% of the problem” message from Simon Henry] When you talk to the City investors, do you take the same message to the City ?
[Simon Henry] How much of 2.7 trillion tonnes of “Unburnable Carbon” is coal, oil and gas ? Two thirds of carbon reserves is coal. [For economic growth and] transport you need high density liquid fuels. Could make from coal [but the emissions impact would be high]. We need civil society to have a more serious [understanding] of the challenges.
After the discussion, I asked Simon Henry to clarify his words about the City of London.
[Simon Henry] We don’t use the City as a source of capital. 90% is equity finance. We don’t go to the market to raise equity. For every dollar of profit, we invest 75 cents, and pay out 25 cents as dividend to our shareholders. Reduces [problems] if we can show we can reinvest. [ $12 billion a year is dividend. ]
I asked if E&P [Exploration and Production] is working – if there are good returns on investment securing new reserves of fossil fuels – I know that the company aims for a 10 or 11 year Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) to ensure shareholder confidence.
Simon Henry mentioned the price of oil. I asked if the oil price was the only determinant on the return on investment in new E&P ?
[Simon Henry] If the oil price is $90 a barrel, that’s good. At $100 a barrel or $120 a barrel [there’s a much larger profit]. Our aim is to ensure we can survive at $70 a barrel. [On exploration] we still have a lot of things in play – not known if they are working yet… Going into the Arctic [At which point I said I hope we are not going into the Arctic]… [We are getting returns] Upstream is fine [supply of gas and oil]. Deepwater is fine. Big LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] is fine. Shale is a challenge. Heavy Oil returns could be better – profitable, but… [On new E&P] Iraq, X-stan, [work in progress]. Downstream [refinery] has challenges on return. Future focus – gas and deepwater. [On profitability of investment – ] “Gas is fine. Deepwater is fine.”
[My summary] So, in summary, I think all of this means that Shell believes that Cap and Trade is the way to control carbon, and that the Cap and Trade cost would be borne by their customers (in the form of higher bills for energy because of the costs of buying carbon credits), so their business will not be affected. Although a Cap and Trade market could possibly cap their own market and growth as the sales envelope for carbon would be fixed, since Shell are moving into lower carbon fuels – principally Natural Gas, their own business still has room for growth. They therefore support Cap and Trade because they believe it will not affect them. WHAT THEY DON’T APPEAR TO WANT PEOPLE TO ASK IS IF A CAP AND TRADE SYSTEM WILL ACTUALLY BE EFFECTIVE IN CURBING CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS. They want to be at the negotiating table. They believe that they’re not the problem – coal is. They believe that the world will continue to need high energy-dense oil for transport for some time to come. It doesn’t matter if the oil market gets constrained by natural limits to expansion because they have gas to expand with. They don’t see a problem with E&P so they believe they can keep up their R/P and stay profitable and share prices can continue to rise. As long as the oil price stays above $70 a barrel, they’re OK.
However, there was a hint in what Simon Henry talked about that all is not completely well in Petro-land.
a. Downstream profit warning
Almost in passing, Simon Henry admitted that downstream is potentially a challenge for maintaining returns on investment and profits. Downstream is petrorefinery and sales of the products. He didn’t say which end of the downstream was the issue, but oil consumption has recovered from the recent Big Dip recession, so that can’t be his problem – it must be in petrorefinery. There are a number of new regulations about fuel standards that are going to be more expensive to meet in terms of petroleum refinery – and the chemistry profiles of crude oils are changing over time – so that could also impact refinery costs.
b. Carbon disposal problem
The changing profile of crude oils being used for petrorefinery is bound to cause an excess of carbon to appear in material flows – and Simon Henry’s brief mention of petcoke is more significant than it may first appear. In future there may be way too much carbon to dispose of (petcoke is mostly carbon rejected by thermal processes to make fuels), and if Shell’s plan is to burn petcoke to make power as a solution to dispose of this carbon, then the carbon dioxide emissions profile of refineries is going to rise significantly… where’s the carbon responsiblity in that ?
The UK Government’s Electricity Market Reform (EMR) is a moving feast, or “trough”, if you are of the opinion that any state subsidy is a subsidy too far. My, how people complained and complained about the Renewables Obligation (RO), perhaps one of the world’s best stimuli for pushing forward wind power development. Yes, some rich engineering firms and rich landowners got richer on the back of the RO. What do you expect ? The wealthy always leverage their capital. But at least the RO has produced some exceptional wind power generation numbers. In the period 2017 to 2018 however, the RO is set to be staged down and replaced by several elements in the EMR, most notably, the CfD or Contracts for Difference, otherwise affectionately and quite inaccurately described as the FiT CfD – Feed-in Tariff Contracts for Difference.
The basic plan for the CfD is to guarantee to new electricity generators, or old generators building new plant, a definite price on power sold, in order to ensure they can get debt and equity invested in their projects. However, this is a huge state intervention and potentially entirely scuppers the efforts to create a market in electricity. More dangerously, although the CfD is supposed to encourage the freeing up of capital to support new energy investment, it might fail in that, at least in the short-term, and it may even fail to make capital cheaper. This is due to the new kinds of risk associated with the CfD – particularly because of the long lead time from auction to allocation, and the cap on allocations. The CfD is designed to create project failures, it seems.
I recently attended an event hosted at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre in Westminster in London, called Energy4PowerLive 2014 and managed by GMP. The first session I attended was in the RenewablesLive 2014 stream, and featured a panel discussion between Andrew Buglass from Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Philip Bazin of Triodos and Steve Hunter, Investment Director of Low Carbon.
What follows is not verbatim, and is based on my handwritten notes, and my handwriting is appalling, so that sometimes, even I cannot read it.
[ Andrew Buglass, Managing Director and Head of Energy, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) : “Financing CfD projects – initial impressions from a lender” ]
[You may have an interest in the actions of] RBS [heckle from the audience, “We own it !”]. We built our first renewable energy project in 1991 – an onshore wind turbine. Now we [have helped] finance 9 gigawatts of renewable energy. I have 15 minutes – only possible to scratch the surface of CfDs [Contracts for Difference – a subsidy under the UK Government Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) Electricity Market Reform (EMR))]. The EMR journey has been a very long one – four years. We have offered advice to the government – about the bankability of the policy. DECC have a different policy perspective – they are going over here [in this direction] whether or not… [Their aim was to] encourage new sources of investment debt and equity, [currently] not here in the UK. […] Matt Hancock, new [energy] minister […] £115 [billion ?] […]. Half of £100 billion needed by end of decade. The EMR framework is [intended] to bring in new sources of debt and equity – its ability to track that into the market. I’m not going to review whether the EMR will be successful. It’s a “Nought to Sixty” question [reference to how quickly it takes for cars to accelerate], how quickly is capital going to be delivered [getting up and running]. There will be a big step up in terms of work […] how are different counterparties [countersigning parties in the CfD contracts] responding ? Now is the time to deliver on the [practical economics] for those to decide whether to invest or not. Need to engage the ratings agencies – getting debt from bond markets – to convince Standard and Poor etc to convince […] The first projects are going to take a long time – cutting their teeth. Cost, availability, terms of debt. The risks that will [come into play] :
A. OFFTAKE RISK – BASIS RISK
[At the start of the EMR discussions] we highlighted that small generators found it hard to get PPAS [Power Purchase Agreements]. With the CfDs “lender of last resort” “offtaker of last resort” […] may support less strong balance sheets for PPAs. Great – because we need a lot more liquidity in PPAs. [However] the basis risks on the strike price compared to the reference price – if this is [changed, different] – a concern about whether they might be matching in the middle [and so conferring no benefit to having arranged the CfD]].
B. WHOLESALE PRICE RISK
In offshore wind – wild – the economics of generating. In onshore wind power, the wholesale price has less of a way to fall [because of many years of learning and maturing of supply chains etc].
C. INDEX INFLATION RISK
The CfDs are to be linked to CPI [Consumer Price Index] rather than the RPI [Retail Price Index]. This may seem like a not very important difference – but at the moment you cannot hedge against the CPI. […] we recommend RPI – linked to lock in. Can’t do that with CPI.
D. FORCE MAJEURE RISK
[Risk] especially during construction. The CfD does not pick up during construction – need to see [how this pans out].
E. CHANGE IN LAW (CIL) RISK
Twenty pages of the CIL clause – doesn’t seem to give you much protection – what is a “foreseeable change in law” ? Unless you’re a big utility you will not have been tracking [policy and legislation] for the last ten years. Big risk ? In the RO [Renewables Obligation], CIL risk was set to the offtaker. Law firms are going to really agonise [over this in the CfD].
F. LIFETIME MANAGEMENT RISK
Risk relating to managing CfD contract during its lifetime. There is a risk from the termination of a CfD – more than in the RO. May need to do more work to keep lender involved to manage termination risk.
Leads to a gloomy approach – in banking paying back on time is good – anything else is bad.
The EMR has cross-party support, but this is the most interventionist approach since the CEGB (Central Electricity Generating Board market). The politicians are saying “no, no, we’d never change anything” – from three parties. It would help if there were a public statement on that (I get calls about “too many turbines”). Initial projects will probably take longer to start than [under] RO. Collectively fund pragmatic solutions.
[ Philip Bazin, Head Project Finance Team, Triodos Bank : “Financing CfD projects – initial impressions from a different bank” ]
Triodos was established in 1980, and started in the UK in 1995 with the acquisition of Mercury […] Our portfolio in the UK is still relatively small. Over a third of the £500 million is in renewable energy. Our investment […] basis of positive social and environmental outcomes. […] Core lending of £1 to £15 million finance […] construction […] and up to 15 years [on loan repayment]. Smaller developers – best fit. The bank is almost becoming part of the supply chain in the bidding process. Give a forward fixed rate of interest. We’ve had to think about how we provide this derivative. Discussions with PPA providers. Feeling that most a lot of new players. The whole rush around CfD was quite unhelpful. We haven’t been engaging with any bidders for this round [of CfDs]. Our customers are small generators or community groups. Smaller projects are risk-averse and would [probably] use the RO instead of the CfD [for now]. These markets are going to find this new structure [offputting]. Not ideal if you’re a professional investor. [Andrew has explained the risks well] The biggest one for me is the risk of failing to achieve your LONGSTOP DATE [failure to start electricity generation by an agreed date], which would risk a termination [of the CfD subsidy agreement. This would destroy the economics of the whole project and therefore the investment]. What protections do you have as a sub-contractor ? Another point is about wayleaves. [If you can’t get your wayleaves in time…] Fundamentally, the [CfD] mechanism is bankable. [However] in trying to fix a problem it [may] have created a total mess. Don’t know if more capital will be going into projects.
[ Steve Hunter, Investment Director, Low Carbon : “CfDs from an equity perspective” ]
[Our business is in] Solar PV, Onshore wind, CSP in the Mediterranean area. We get there when project developer is doing land deals. We have a cradle-to-grave perspective. Land planning and grid access are major risks [and the guarantee of biomass feedstock for a biomass project]. The WHOLESALE POWER PRICE RISK – someone needs to take it. Your view depends on your equity horizon. For us, the two big changes [from the RO] are the introduction of the ALLOCATION RISK and the removal of the power price risk. Don’t know the budget for allocation. Only know one month before the [CfD] auction ! The government has not released [a budget] for “emerging technology”. Timing : doesn’t really work for solar. The idea of CfD versus RO for solar will not work. [It’s all down to the project lifecycle] – you could be waiting 14 or 15 months for a CfD allocation after making a bid, but grid connection deals are now closing in [at around 12 months – if you do not take up your grid connection permission, you will lose it]. At the moment there is no competition between technologies. Is there enough CfD set aside for offshore wind projects ? Yes. If CfDs are intended to deliver technology-neutral [energy mix] – it doesn’t yet. The REFERENCE PRICES for me are the significant risk. This is entirely new for CfDs. Because the CfD intended to bring lower cost of capital – there is an implication for return [on investment] to the investor. Government will set [the reference prices]. Government just released [for some technologies] – decreased [in a forward period]. The Government may have a very different view on forward power prices… These reference prices come out of the air [there seems to be no basis for them]. When is final not final ? When it comes from DECC. If consider 2018/2019 September, the tightest budget, you could afford 1,000 MW of offshore, [if there is a change in the reference price] you could only afford 700 MW. In the TEC Register from National Grid – download this – there is 1,000 to 1,200 MG in the pipeline onshore. If I was a wind developer with [grid] connection dates after the end of the RO, you can bet I’ve already bid [for a CfD allocation] already. The political risk of changing the RO. May be a small amount of solar – but anyway it’s too expensive. If the CfD is only to support onshore wind power – is it achieving its goals ? There will almost certainly be some modification [to the CfD or the reference prices ?]. Transparency ? Oversupply ? [Oversight ?] of setting reference prices. Increase in frequency of the CfD auction would be helpful. Would give developers more time to bid. Technologies like solar PV that could deliver large savings… If no large solar is built… They could put a minimum in [for the subsidy allocated to each technology] – more positive. CfD represents long-term support. If the industry drives down the cost of renewable energy, CfD gives us an infill fix on revenue. It will give that certainty to get debt [and equity] in. It may be the support mechanism we need in the long-term. It could be the support mechanism we need for renewable energy…
So I was in a meeting on a dateless date, at an organisation with a nameless name, with some other unidentifiable people in the room with me. For some reason I had been invited, I cannot think why. Ah, yes, I can. I was invited to attend because, apparently, I am a “campaigner”. I am, allegedly, somebody who buys into the notion that communications should serve the purpose of directing public attention and support towards a particular outcome, decided in advance by a political elite. And it seems, if I believe something is right, and that a message needs communicating, I will take action, but never invoice, because I am a believer. Well let me tell you right here and now, I am not that person. I may have that reputation, but really, I despise propaganda : the deliberate formation of a murmur of Tweet starlings, or the collective wall-to-wall newspaper coverage of the same story, the scandal story hauled out to scare the horses and herd them to the salt water shore, the faux narrative of collective political or social will for change.
I want to believe that even though I am occasionally paid to communicate a story (but most often not), that my narrative, and importantly my agenda, is my own. I will not be co-opted. I shall not be defined by storytelling, I shall not be paid for spreading information – for if I were to be telling money-backed tales, I may end up peddling lies. And I do not want lies to be spoken. I am an ontologist. My ontology is :-
There is no “therefore” in what I write. When I say “should”, like, “we should adopt renewable energy”, it’s your choice as to whether you agree with me. You shouldn’t read anything and be swayed or directed, except by the force of reason based on evidence. I am the photographer, the recorder, but not the public relations consultant. And I am especially not an unsalaried volunteer. I paint the future using my own perspective, my own understanding, my own research, my own best judgement, but I am not telling people what to think. Although I go slightly beyond merely noting and analysing what is happening, to articulate possible futures, I am not a persuader.
I do not want to write the script for the actions of the readers or listeners. I do not want to precipitate a revolution, or dehydrate the horses before leading them to the river bank. I want to describe rather than proscribe or prescribe. I want to scribe the way I see things, I do not do it in order to create waves or push buttons or light beacons. The facts should speak for themselves, and if anybody consumes my communication, they should be free to act as they feel fit, or suits. I am not a paid-for, paid-up, in-the-pocket campaigner. I am not spun round other peoples’ fingers like a talking puppet. I am a free person.
So, there I was in this meeting, and the people in the room were discussing an event that is likely to take place. It appears from some analysis that the next British Government could well be another Coalition Government, with the Conservative Party having only a shaving of a majority for rule. And when they have crossed the i’s and dotted the t’s and formed a currently impossible political marriage, which I’m guessing will involve the Green Party as well as the Liberal Democrats, then they will need to live up to their promise to hold a referendum on British participation in the Grand European Experiment – economic union with other European countries.
But nobody talks about Europe. Except to complain. In the meeting I attended, the hosts of the meeting were consulting for ways to highlight the Europe Question, and to give it a pro-Union light.
For me, it’s facile. The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland is just a bunch of mediocre-sized islands off the coast of the European continent. Something like 80% of UK trade is with European countries, because Europe is our gateway to the rest of the global market, and you always do the most trade with your neighbours. It’s natural. Can anybody seriously suggest we ditch the Common Market – the agreements that European countries have come to to ensure common standards of goods and services, common terms and conditions of trade and common legal processes regulating trade ? So we want to reserve some kind of sovereignty over some kinds of decisions ? Why ? The UK is heavily involved in the central European institutions and governance bodies. We have massive input. We vote for MEPs. Why should things not go our way ? And even if things don’t go perfectly our way, will the negotiated compromises be so bad ? Subsidiarity – making decisions at the lowest/best/most appropriate level of administration – that’s still going to keep a lot of British control over British affairs. Surely the UK suffers a greater risk of interference from any pan-Atlantic trade deal that it does from Europe ?
The UK have made commitments. Our Parliament has agreed that we need to work on climate change, social justice and economic stability. We have implicitly agreed that to address climate change we need Energy Change and environmental regulation; to achieve social justice we need human rights, justice, health, education and a benefits system; and for economic stability we need economic stimuli – for example, in national infrastructure projects. In terms of climate change and Energy Change there is so much we need to do. If we stay in Europe, all of this will be so much easier. Within the European project for energy market harmonisation is the work on standards to achieve gas and electricity grid harmonisation. The improvement and augmenting of interconnections between countries, and the provision of wider energy storage, will enable the balanced use of renewable energy. Governments need to create incentives for deploying renewable energy. Governments need to create mechanisms to leverage and facilitate renewable energy deployment. Without Europe, outwith Europe, it will cost us more, and be more complex. Within Europe, it will be easier.
So, in the meeting I attended, I put forward my vision : if the UK stays in Europe, it will be easier to handle problems of energy – improving and replacing infrastructure and plant, co-ordinating the uptake of new renewable energy technologies and dealing with emerging energy security issues. Why, the North Sea, as everybody knows, is draining dry, and we can only build certain levels of relationship with countries outside the European Union, such as Russia. If the UK left the EU, the EU would be competitors with the UK for Russian Natural Gas, for example. I said I thought that energy security was a good thing to explain to people and a good reason to raise support for UK’s continued participation in Europe.
So, somebody else in the meeting, who shall remain faceless and nameless, poured very cold water on this idea. They seemed to disbelieve that the UK faces risks to energy security. Instead, they suggested that the pro-Europe argument should be based on how the UK can “keep our place at the table”. How out of touch can one get, I thought to myself ? This kind of patrician argument is not going to wash. Appealing to some non-existent pride in the UK’s continued role as stakeholder in the European project is going to go down like a lead balloon. It’s a vote loser, for sure.
What most people care about first is money. Their money. Any appeal to their pockets is going to help. We live in tough times – thanks to Government austerity policy – and we still cannot get a handle on public borrowing and spending. Because of the Government’s austerity policy.
So how about we cast it like this : your energy is going to get much more expensive if the UK abandons the European community of nations. Plus, your lights could genuinely go out, unless you, the people, either as taxpayers or billpayers, fork out for new energy investments that the energy companies haven’t made for 20 years. Because of privatisation. Without taking part in the European energy market harmonisation, and the European development of new and renewable energy infrastructure, plant and networks, your bills could significantly rise/spiral out of control. If European companies were required to sell energy assets back to the UK, because the UK pulled out of Europe, we would be in a very fine mess indeed. Do you really want this kind of chaos ? Energy policy in the UK is already bad enough.
The facts are available to those who search : British production of oil and gas from the North Sea is declining at something like 6% a year. The UK became a net energy importer between 2004 and 2006 (depending on how you define it). The Netherlands will become a net Natural Gas importer in the 2020s. Norway’s Natural Gas will reach a peak some time in the 2020s. It’s no good thinking that because the UK is a “gas hub”, and that British finance can currently spin up gas imports to the UK, that this situation is going to remain true. Within 10 to 15 years, I think that the UK will face significant competition for Natural Gas supplies with other European countries. Better to be in the debating chamber, surely, rather than scratching at the wind-and-rain-splattered window from outside ? So can the UK forge a gas alliance with countries outside the European Union, and apart from Norway ? A gas import alliance that sticks ? And that isn’t demolished by competition from the rest of the European Union for gas supplies that come through pipes sitting in European Union territory ? OK, the UK might want to leave full European Union membership, and join Norway in the European Economic Area, but will this guarantee beneficial import status for Natural Gas from countries that supply the full members of the European Community ?
I said, instead of trying to talk about direct opposites – either Inside Europe or Outside Europe – let’s talk about how things can be helped by wider co-operation. The European Union was founded on energy treaties – coal and nuclear energy (and steel), and now Europe needs to move to a union forged on renewable power and Natural Gas – and later Renewable Gas – and it’s going to be so much easier to do if the UK stays at the party.
The North Sea needs re-developing. Not for oil, but for wind power. This is going to happen best with full cross-border co-operation. Already, the UK has agreed to play a large part in the “North Sea Offshore Grid” wind power project in league with Ireland, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. And Luxembourg, strangely, although it doesn’t have a coast. Unlike new nuclear power, which could be decades in construction, offshore and onshore wind in Europe can be quick-build. If you want new power, you pick wind and solar. And, despite policy fumbles, this is happening. Actually, in the end, who really cares about subsidies for renewable energy, when the most capital-heavy organisations in the world start backing renewable power ? In some ways, I don’t care who brings me low carbon energy, and I don’t care if I have to pay for it through my tax or my bills, I just want it to happen. OK, offshore wind power is for the big boys, and you’re never going to get a diversity of suppliers with this project, and the dreams of decentralised energy are vapours, whisked away by giant engineering firms, but at least renewable energy is going to happen. One day people will realise that for the newspapers to rehearse the arguments of High Net Worth Individuals, and for sheep-like energy ministers to complain about onshore wind power and solar farms, is just a way to keep small electricity generators out of the energy markets, and allow the incumbent energy players to keep making profits. But when the need for a multiplicity of small energy installations becomes critical, I think this tune will change.
I can see all this. But, because I am not a spin meister, or spin meistress, or a campaigner, I’m not going to be crafting fine messages to share with my networks on this particular subject. I did start (see below), but then I thought better of it. I dislike the use of social media, web logging and journalism to push an agenda. The trouble is, I know that the people who are vehemently against the European endeavour have so many trigger arguments tested and ready to deploy, such as : immigration, regulations, budgetary demands. None of these stand up to scutiny, but they are very easy props on which to deploy Corpse Factory scares and scandals, up there with the War on Terror. The pro-European segment of the population always stays so silent. If there were to be a Referendum on Europe today, I can pretty much guarantee a kneejerk exit. The British public act collectively by reflex. They never re-analyse their position. They mob, gang and plunder.
I don’t think pro-Europe organisations know how to sell Europe. But they shouldn’t need to “sell” Europe. European membership should be an obvious best choice. So why should I try to talk up Europe ? I couldn’t have any influence, as one lone voice, against the Daily Mails, Daily Expresses and Daily Telegraphs of this world. And anyway, it’s not really my fight to fight. I don’t have a job title that reads “arch propagandist”. I am not that person. It does not become me. I prefer straight-talking, not mind-bending.
I won’t get invited back. That’s just fine. I am not a volunteer campaigner. I’m not a political pusher. I’ve only played the role of “evangelist” on climate change, renewable energy and good policy because sometimes there is little else I can think of that might help or make a difference. But I don’t have any influence. And I don’t want any. I am just going to continue telling it the way I see it. Giving my perspective. I cannot guarantee any outcomes. And anyway, I prefer democratic engagement over salesmanship. Don’t ask me to sell your ideas, your policies, your projections. I don’t want to.
Full membership of the European Union is the logical option for the United Kingdom, no matter how many tired dead donkey corpses the rabid tabloid media keep digging up to appall us all. Sooner or later, we also need to consider joining the Euro currency, and I predict we will, but I’m not your convincer on that argument, either.
“What has Europe ever done for us ?”
Common Climate : Common Cause : Common Market
On climate change, the United Kingdom has secured the Climate Change Act, legislation with broad-based support across all political parties. The UK shares the concerns of other European countries about the potential risks and impacts from climate change in our geographical region. Society-level change in response to climate change includes energy change – changing the sources and use of energy – and changing policies for land use to include planting forests and energy crops. Within the European Community, the UK has worked to secure region-wide legislation on renewable energy, energy efficiency, waste control and air quality. All of these contribute to the response to climate change, and have developed action on climate change into a common cause. In addition to regulatory change, the European Community is seeking to develop trading mechanisms to enable carbon dioxide emissions control, and it working to develop a common market in carbon.
Common Future : Common Purpose : Common Interest
Common Values : Common Opportunities : Common Voice
Common Security : Common Goals : Common Networks
Common Infrastructure : Common Society : Common Protection
Common Standards : Common Framework : Common Development
I’m all for peak shaving, so we tried a low power kettle at home, but it rusted. So we tried another one, and the lid broke. Seriously, the low wattage appliance manufacturers need to get their act together. No, we don’t just want low energy appliances because we spend our holidays in a motor home powering everything off a cigarette lighter in a car, or a 12 volt car battery. Our kettle is not for occasional use. It needs to last.
So, we plugged in the spare kettle – the one that had been sitting on top of the kitchen cupboard attracting spiders and flying fat in the form of aerosols from frying pans. Ergh. Sticky. Yuck. So we cleaned it. Then it caused a power surge and blew the fuses and melted a plug socket. Yikes. Time to buy a new kettle. Again. And time to call an NICEIC registered tradesperson. Man of the moment, Carl, turned up ready for a chat.
We discussed some of the finer points of electrical conductivity and sparks and arcing, and why I prefer to turn the toaster off at night. Because of the dangers of carbonised breadcrumbs. Carl replaces the double wall socket, and then he asks me what I’m doing at the moment, since he recalls chatting with me last year on a service call.
I say I’m writing a book about Renewable Gas, and then I leave silence in the air for a few seconds for his brain to fire off some neurons and make a few connections. He asks whether I mean biogas. I say, yes, partly. We talk about cow burps, and why some humans cannot expel methane, because of the differing flora and fauna in their guts. I say that people can produce appreciable amounts of hydrogen gas from their intestines as well as hydrogen sulfide and other sulfur compounds. We talk about mercaptans, the smelly sulfur chemicals added to Natural Gas to make sure people can detect leaks because both methane and hydrogen are actually colourless and odourless. Both of us appear to be pretty good at detecting gas leaks in the urban landscape – he once reported one at a gasometer – an old-fashioned gas storage device with a lifting centre. We both commented that the mercaptans seem to stick to gas appliances as they always seem to be smelly close up.
I say that although it’s not really practical to capture cow burps unless they’re all in a shed at night, I say that there is a lot of scope for developing biogas from anaerobic digestion of waste, and also gas from sewage treatment. And then I say that Renewable Gas needs to get bigger than just biologically-derived gas – there is scope for manufacturing gas. We used to manufacture gas, from coal, stored in gasometers in a decentralised fashion. I say Renewable Gas is about scaling up industrial gas – such as producing Renewable Hydrogen, recycling carbon dioxide by methanation with Renewable Hydrogen.
I say, look at Germany. Germany has a plan. By around 2025 they aim to have at least 10% of their gas supplies coming from sustainable and renewable resources – 2% hydrogen and 8% renewable methane. And of course, Natural Gas is 75% to 95% methane, so green methane can be directly substituted for fossil methane.
I talk about the basic chemistry comparing combustion to gasification. He asks what gasification is – is it like making liquids into gas ? No, I say, it’s chemistry. In normal combustion, or oxidation, the end products are steam, or water – H2O – and carbon dioxide – CO2. I draw on a piece of paper. In gasification, the oxygen is restricted – partial oxidation – and the end products are hydrogen – H2 – instead of H2O, and carbon monoxide – CO – instead of CO2. These are both useful fuels, although the carbon monoxide is toxic. Plus, after you’ve removed tars, carbon dust and ash, these are clean fuels, unlike the raw resources. You could use biomass as the feedstock and make this a useful way to make larger volumes of green gas.
I said that Renewable Gas is a good complement to Renewable Electricity – because the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine. I said that to really promote the use of both, we need to have massive amounts of new renewable power, to provide spare electricity to make Renewable Gas.
We talked about how there could be so much more progress with Renewable Electricity. We talked about Liz Truss dismissing solar farms because she believes they conflict with agricultural production. Carl and I both shrugged. I said sheep may safely graze under solar panels mounted on frames. Or chickens. I asked Carl somewhat rhetorically what the difference was between a solar farm and a field of greenhouses ? He couldn’t know, and he told me about how he’d been to see a fascinating farm where they had solar greenhouses, making power to grow vegetables.
How do we get things changed in a democracy ? The model of political campaigning that has been established over the last century is failing us. In the past, if there was a problem, a small group of people could create a fuss about it, march some placards to somewhere relevant, write some letters, talk to some dignitaries, chain themselves to some railings, occupy a lobby, get some press, and after some years, maybe, get something done.
These days there are just too many complaints for them all to be heard. Philanthropic, charitable and political messages crowd the stage. In this age of social media, the campaign metaphor has been replaced by a ladder of concern. Concern is expressed. Hopefully others will find that they too are sufficiently concerned, and reflect that concern through some medium. And slowly, it is hoped, this concern climbs the ladder of attention, until it is visible, audible. The entitled and endowed middle classes catch the concern, and repeat it. Lots of emails fly. George Monbiot writes about it in The Guardian. Some speeches are made at serious meetings. Angelina Jolie is invited to grace a conference. And then, hopefully, this concern hits the people who have some kind of leverage over the problem, and they act.
Action is almost guaranteed if the concern is the result of a specific outrage, committed by a specific person or group, and has a specific solution. But otherwise, who knows ? How universal and impactful does a concern need to be before it gets acted upon ? And surely some things don’t need campaigns, because the governments already know enough about problems such as people trafficking, slavery, animal welfare, crime and torture ? After all, things such as prostitution and illegal drug trade are included in national economic statistics.
I took public transport today in London and I was doused in outrage pouring from advertisements asking for charitable giving to prevent the inhuman practice of Female Genital Mutilation (FGM). As I read these appeals, I felt two overwhelming sensations – one of intense anger that children are being permanently injured because of insane and unjustifiable, hateful beliefs about female sexuality. And a second feeling of dragging despair that giving a small donation every month to this organisation would have very little impact on abusive culture, which leads to many forms of violation, not just the unimaginably painful and destructive incision and even resection of a child’s clitoris and the sewing together of her labia, leading to permanent nerve damage, lasting wounds, loss of sexual function, complications from incontinence, ruined relationships, injuries from sexual intercourse, and serious medical risks during childbirth, and possibly the need for reconstructive surgery.
Switch to BBC News. Roger Harrabin reports that “The UK’s chief scientist says the oceans face a serious and growing risk from man-made carbon emissions. […] Sir Mark Walport warns that the acidity of the oceans has increased by about 25% since the industrial revolution, mainly thanks to manmade emissions. […] He told BBC News: “If we carry on emitting CO2 [carbon dioxide] at the same rate, ocean acidification will create substantial risks to complex marine food webs and ecosystems.” […] The consequences of acidification are likely to be made worse by the warming of the ocean expected with climate change, a process which is also driven by CO2.”
Media Lens Editors reported this piece. My reaction was – who would be paying attention to this ? This is not the “dangerous climate change comes from global warming” story, this is the “other” carbon problem, the decimation of marine productivity and the whole pyramid of life, resulting from increasing levels of dissolved carbon dioxide in seawater because of higher levels of carbon dioxide in the air. The overwhelmingly major causes of this problem are irrefutably and definitely fossil fuel combustion, and its seriousness is hard to deny, even though Roger Harrabin attempts to make light of it by devoting column inches to a laboratory crab who isn’t getting with the programme.
Ocean acidification is a concern that shouldn’t get lost in amongst other concerns. It should be paid serious levels of attention. And not just by middle class philanthropists who work for non-governmental organisations and charities. And yet, cursory analysis of the segmentation of the population who treat BBC News as a main and trusted information source may suggest that the only readers who would act on this piece are exactly these middle class charity staff, or at a push, retired middle class charity staff.
My Media Lens comment was, “Right expert. Right message. Wrong audience. Wrong medium. The UK Government’s chief scientist. OK. Good. Ocean acidification. OK. Good. No quibbles about whether or not extra carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is a real problem or not (as known as “climate change” or “global warming”, which is real by the way). The BBC News. Wrong medium. Wrong audience. The only people going to listen to this are those who already know about the problem but are still as powerless to act as they were yesterday. The UK Government should present this information to the oil, gas and coal companies with a polite request for them to unveil their plan of action in the face of this undeniable problem.”
There is no reason why this story should be covered in BBC News by Roger Harrabin. What can anybody reading it do about the problem ? There is no purpose for this article. It is a pointless statement of concern, or rather, a belittling rehearsal of the concern. Unless this article, and the thousands like it, lead to the Government demanding answers on Energy Change from the fossil fuel companies, there is no point in reporting it, or in this case, disparaging it with faint humour.
The only time that ocean acidification should appear in a media piece is to report that the problem has been presented to the architects of increased ocean carbon dioxide, and answers have been requested.
And who are the architects of increased atmospheric and ocean carbon dioxide ? Those who mine fossil fuels. Those companies like BP and Shell, ExxonMobil, and all the coal extraction companies should act. They should offer us alternative non-fossil fuel energy. And the news should be about how these companies are taking action to offer us Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane, solar power, wind power and Zero Carbon transport fuels.
Answers from the past will simply not do. Trying to assert that somebody needs to pay for pollution won’t prevent pollution occurring. Carbon taxes or carbon pricing won’t work – since they won’t prevent the mining of fossil fuels – and if fossil fuels are mined, of course they will be burned. Carbon combustion quotas won’t work – since economic wealth is based on burning carbon, so many forces will conspire to maintain levels of fossil fuel combustion. Carbon mining quotas won’t work, since the forces for increasing mining quotas are strong. Carbon trading won’t work, since it won’t reduce the amount of fossil fuels mined – because, obviously, if fossil fuels are mined, they will be burned.
I am tired of reading about climate change, global warming, freshwater stress and ocean acidification in the news. It seems there is nothing I can do that I have not already done that can provide a solution to these problems. Enough with communicating the disaster. I want to read about engineering and energy companies who have switched business models to producing Zero Carbon energy. I want to hear how energy security concern is taking oil, gas and coal companies towards Renewable Everything.
How to organise a political campaign around Climate Change : ask a group of well-fed, well-meaning, Guardian-reading, philanthropic do-gooders into the room to adopt the lowest common denominator action plan. Now, as a well-fed, well-meaning, Guardian-reading (well, sometimes), philanthropic do-gooder myself, I can expect to be invited to attend such meetings on a regular basis. And always, I find myself frustrated by the outcomes : the same insipid (but with well-designed artwork) calls to our publics and networks to support something with an email registration, a signed postcard, a fistful of dollars, a visit to a public meeting of no consequence, or a letter to our democratic representative. No output except maybe some numbers. Numbers to support a government decision, perhaps, or numbers to indicate what kind of messaging people need in future.
I mean, with the Fair Trade campaign, at least there was some kind of real outcome. Trade Justice advocates manned stall tables at churches, local venues, public events, and got money flowing to the international co-operatives, building up the trade, making the projects happen, providing schooling and health and aspirations in the target countries. But compare that to the Make Poverty History campaign which was largely run to support a vain top-level political attempt to garner international funding promises for social, health and economic development. Too big to succeed. No direct line between supporting the campaign and actually supporting the targets. Passing round the hat to developed, industrialised countries for a fund to support change in developing, over-exploited countries just isn’t going to work. Lord Nicholas Stern tried to ask for $100 billion a year by 2020 for Climate Change adaptation. This has skidded to a halt, as far as I know. The economic upheavals, don’t you know ?
And here we are again. The United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), which launched the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports on climate change, oh, so, long, ago, through the person of its most charismatic and approachable Executive Secretary, Christiana Figueres, is calling for support for a global Climate Change treaty in 2015. Elements of this treaty, being drafted this year, will, no doubt, use the policy memes of the past – passing round the titfer begging for a couple of billion squid for poor, hungry people suffering from floods and droughts; proposing some kind of carbon pricing/taxing/trading scheme to conjure accounting bean solutions; trying to implement an agreement around parts per million by volume of atmospheric carbon dioxide; trying to divide the carbon cake between the rich and the poor.
Somehow, we believe, that being united around this proposed treaty, few of which have any control over the contents of, will bring us progress.
What can any of us do to really have input into the building of a viable future ? Christiana – for she is now known frequently only by her first name – has called for numbers – a measure of support for the United Nations process. She has also let it be known that if there is a substantial number of people who, with their organisations, take their investments out of fossil fuels, then this could contribute to the mood of the moment. Those who are advocating divestment are yet small in number, and I fear that they will continue to be marginal, partly because of the language that is being used.
First of all, there are the Carbon Disclosers. Their approach is to conjure a spectre of the “Carbon Bubble” – making a case that investments in carbon dioxide-rich enterprises could well end up being stranded by their assets, either because of wrong assumptions about viable remaining resources of fossil fuels, or because of wrong assumptions about the inability of governments to institute carbon pricing. Well, obviously, governments will find it hard to implement effective carbon pricing, because governments are in bed with the energy industry. Politically, governments need to keep big industry sweet. No surprise there. And it’s in everybody’s interests if Emperor Oil and Prince Regent Natural Gas are still wearing clothes. In the minds of the energy industry, we still have a good four decades of healthy fossil fuel assets. Royal Dutch Shell’s CEO can therefore confidently say at a public AGM that There Is No Carbon Bubble. The Carbon Discloser language is not working, it seems, as any kind of convincer, except to a small core of the concerned.
And then there are the Carbon Voices. These are the people reached by email campaigns who have no real idea how to do anything practical to affect change on carbon dioxide emissions, but they have been touched by the message of the risks of climate change and they want to be seen to be supporting action, although it’s not clear what action will, or indeed can, be taken. Well-designed brochures printed on stiff recycled paper with non-toxic inks will pour through their doors and Inboxes. Tick it. Send it back. Sign it. Send it on. Maybe even send some cash to support the campaign. This language is not achieving anything except guilt.
And then there are the Carbon Divestors. These are extremely small marginal voices who are taking a firm stand on where their organisations invest their capital. The language is utterly dated. The fossil fuel industry are evil, apparently, and investing in fossil fuels is immoral. It is negative campaigning, and I don’t think it stands a chance of making real change. It will not achieve its goal of being prophetic in nature – bearing witness to the future – because of the non-inclusive language. Carbon Voices reached by Carbon Divestor messages will in the main refuse to respond, I feel.
Political action on Climate Change, and by that I mean real action based on solid decisions, often taken by individuals or small groups, has so far been under-the-radar, under-the-counter, much like the Fair Trade campaign was until it burst forth into the glorious day of social acceptability and supermarket supply chains. You have the cyclists, the Transition Towners, the solar power enthusiasts. Yet to get real, significant, economic-scale transition, you need Energy Change – that is, a total transformation of the energy supply and use systems. It’s all very well for a small group of Methodist churches to pull their pension funds from investments in BP and Shell, but it’s another thing entirely to engage BP and Shell in an action plan to diversify out of petroleum oil and Natural Gas.
Here below are my email words in my feeble attempt to challenge the brain of Britain’s charitable campaigns on what exactly is intended for the rallying cry leading up to Paris 2015. I can pretty much guarantee you won’t like it – but you have to remember – I’m not breaking ranks, I’m trying to get beyond the Climate Change campaigning and lobbying that is currently in play, which I regard as ineffective. I don’t expect a miraculous breakthrough in communication, the least I can do is sow the seed of an alternative. I expect I could be dis-invited from the NGO party, but it doesn’t appear to be a really open forum, merely a token consultation to build up energy for a plan already decided. If so, there are probably more important things I could be doing with my time than wasting hours and hours and so much effort on somebody else’s insipid and vapid agenda.
I expect people might find that attitude upsetting. If so, you know, I still love you all, but you need to do better.
A lot of campaigning over the last 30 years has been very negative and divisive, and frequently ends in psychological stalemate. Those who are cast as the Bad Guys cannot respond to the campaigning because they cannot admit to their supporters/employees/shareholders that the campaigners are “right”. Joe Average cannot support a negative campaign as there is no apparent way to make change happen by being so oppositional, and because the ask is too difficult, impractical, insupportable. [Or there is simply too much confusion or cognitive dissonance.]
One of the things that was brought back from the […] working group breakout on […] to the plenary feedback session was that there should be some positive things about this campaign on future-appropriate investment. I think […] mentioned the obvious one of saying effectively “we are backing out of these investments in order to invest in things that are more in line with our values” – with the implicit encouragement for fossil fuel companies to demonstrate that they can be in line with our values and that they are moving towards that. There was some discussion that there are no bulk Good Guy investment funds, that people couldn’t move investments in bulk, although some said there are. […] mentioned Ethex.
Clearly fossil fuel production companies are going to find it hard to switch from oil and gas to renewable electricity, so that’s not a doable we can ask them for. Several large fossil fuel companies, such as BP, have tried doing wind and solar power, but they have either shuttered those business units, or not let them replace their fossil fuel activities.
[…] asked if the [divestment] campaign included a call for CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage – and […] referred to […] which showed where CCS is listed in a box on indicators of a “good” fossil fuel energy company.
I questioned whether the fossil fuel companies really want to do CCS – and that they have simply been waiting for government subsidies or demonstration funds to do it. (And anyway, you can’t do CCS on a car.)
I think I said in the meeting that fossil fuel producer companies can save themselves and save the planet by adopting Renewable Gas – so methods for Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU) or “carbon recycling”. Plus, they could be making low carbon gas by using biomass inputs. Most of the kit they need is already widely installed at petrorefineries. So – they get to keep producing gas and oil, but it’s renewably and sustainably sourced with low net carbon dioxide emissions. That could be turned into a positive, collaborative ask, I reckon, because we could all invest in that, the fossil fuel companies and their shareholders.
Anyway, I hope you did record something urging a call to positive action and positive engagement, because we need the co-operation of the fossil fuel companies to make appropriate levels of change to the energy system. Either that, or they go out of business and we face social turmoil.
If you don’t understand why this is relevant, that’s OK. If you don’t understand why a straight negative campaign is a turn-off to many people (including those in the fossil fuel industry), well, I could role play that with you. If you don’t understand what I’m talking about when I talk about Renewable Gas, come and talk to me about it again in 5 years, when it should be common knowledge. If you don’t understand why I am encouraging positive collaboration, when negative campaigning is so popular and marketable to your core segments, then I will resort to the definition of insanity – which is to keep doing the same things, expecting a different result.
I’m sick and tired of negative campaigning. Isn’t there a more productive thing to be doing ?
There are no enemies. There are no enemies. There are no enemies.
As far as I understand the situation, both the […] and […] campaigns are negative. They don’t appear to offer any positive routes out of the problem that could engage the fossil fuel companies in taking up the baton of Energy Change. If that is indeed the main focus of […] and […] efforts, then I fear they will fail. Their work will simply be a repeat of the negative campaigning of the last 30 years – a small niche group will take up now-digital placards and deploy righteous, holy social media anger, and that will be all.
Since you understand this problem, then I would suggest you could spend more time and trouble helping them to see a new way. You are, after all, a communications expert. And so you know that even Adolf Hitler used positive, convening, gathering techniques of propaganda to create power – and reserved the negative campaigning for easily-marginalised vulnerable groups to pile the bile and blame on.
Have a nicer day,
The important thing as far as I understand it is that the “campaigning” organisations need to offer well-researched alternatives, instead of just complaining about the way things are. And these well-researched alternatives should not just be the token sops flung at the NGOs and UN by the fossil fuel companies. What do I mean ?
Well, let’s take Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS). The injection of carbon dioxide into old oil and gas caverns was originally proposed for Enhanced Oil Recovery (EOR) – that is – getting more oil and gas out the ground by pumping gas down there – a bit like fracking, but with gas instead of liquid. The idea was that the expense of CCS would be compensated for by the new production of oil and gas – however, the CCS EOR effect has shown to be only temporary. So now the major oil and gas companies say they support carbon pricing (either by taxation or trading), to make CCS move forward. States and federations have given them money to do it. I think the evidence shows that carbon pricing cannot be implemented at a sufficiently high level to incentivise CCS, therefore CCS is a non-answer. Why has […] not investigated this ? CCS is a meme, but not necessarily part of the carbon dioxide solution. Not even the UNFCCC IPCC reports reckon that much CCS can be done before 2040. So, why does CCS appear in the […] criteria for a “good” fossil fuel company ? Because it’s sufficiently weak as a proposal, and sufficiently far enough ahead that the fossil fuel companies can claim they are “capture ready”, and in the Good Book, but in reality are doing nothing.
Non-starters don’t just appear from fossil fuel companies. From my point of view, another example of running at and latching on to things that cannot help was the support of the GDR – Greenhouse Development Rights, of which there has been severe critique in policy circles, but the NGOs just wrote it into their policy proposals without thinking about it. There is no way that the emissions budgets set out in the GDR policy could ever get put into practice. For a start, there is no real economic reason to divide the world into developing and developed nations (Kyoto [Protocol]’s Annex I and Annex II).
If you give me some links, I’m going to look over your […] and think about it.
I think that if a campaign really wants to get anywhere with fossil fuel companies, instead of being shunted into a siding, it needs to know properly what the zero carbon transition pathways really are. Unequal partners do not make for a productive engagement, I reckon.
I’m sorry to say that this still appears to be negative campaigning – fossil fuel companies are “bad”; and we need to pull our money out of fossil fuel companies and put it in other “good” companies. Where’s the collective, co-operative effort undertaken with the fossil fuel companies ? What’s your proposal for helping to support them in evolving ? Do you know how they can technologically transition from using fossil fuels to non-fossil fuels ? And how are you communicating that with them ?
They call me the “Paradigm Buster”. I’m not sure if “the group” is open to even just peeking into that kind of approach, let alone “exploring” it. The action points on the corporate agenda could so easily slip back into the methods and styles of the past. Identify a suffering group. Build a theory of justice. Demand reparation. Make Poverty History clearly had its victims and its saviours. Climate change, in my view, requires a far different treatment. Polar bears cannot substitute for starving African children. And not even when climate change makes African children starve, can they inspire the kind of action that climate change demands. A boycott campaign without a genuine alternative will only touch a small demographic. Whatever “the group” agrees to do, I want it to succeed, but by rehashing the campaigning strategies and psychology of the past, I fear it will fail. Even by adopting the most recent thinking on change, such as Common Cause, [it] is not going to surmount the difficulties of trying to base calls to action on the basis of us-and-them thinking – polar thinking – the good guys versus the bad guys – the body politic David versus the fossil fuel company Goliath. By challenging this, I risk alienation, but I am bound to adhere to what I see as the truth. Climate change is not like any other disaster, aid or emergency campaign. You can’t just put your money in the [collecting tin] and pray the problem will go away with the help of the right agencies. Complaining about the “Carbon Bubble” and pulling your savings from fossil fuels is not going to re-orient the oil and gas companies. The routes to effective change require a much more comprehensive structure of actions. And far more engagement that agreeing to be a flag waver for whichever Government policy is on the table. I suppose it’s too much to ask to see some representation from the energy industry in “the group”, or at least […] leaders who still believe in the fossil fuel narratives, to take into account their agenda and their perspective, and a readiness to try positive collaborative change with all the relevant stakeholders ?
In the last few weeks I have attended a number of well-intentioned meetings on advances in the field of carbon dioxide emissions mitigation. My overall impression is that there are several failing narratives to be encountered if you make even the shallowest foray into the murky mix of politics and energy engineering.
As somebody rightly pointed out, no capitalist worth their share price is going to spend real money in the current economic environment on new kit, even if they have asset class status – so all advances will necessarily be driven by public subsidies – in fact, significant technological advance has only ever been accomplished by state support.
Disturbingly, free money is also being demanded to roll out decades-old low carbon energy technology – nuclear power, wind power, green gas, solar photovoltaics – so it seems to me the only way we will ever get appropriate levels of renewable energy deployment is by directed, positive public investment.
More to the point, we are now in an era where nobody at all is prepared to spend any serious money without a lucrative slap on the back, and reasons beyond reasons are being deployed to justify this position. For example, the gas-fired power plant operators make claims that the increase in wind power is threatening their profitability, so they are refusing to built new electricity generation capacity without generous handouts. This will be the Capacity Mechanism, and will keep gas power plants from being mothballed. Yes, there is data to support their complaint, but it does still seem like whinging and special pleading.
And the UK Government’s drooling and desperate fixation with new nuclear power has thrown the European Commission into a tizzy about the fizzy promises of “strike price” guaranteed sales returns for the future atomic electricity generation.
But here, I want to contrast two other energy-polity dialogues – one for developing an invaluable energy resource, and the other about throwing money down a hole.
First, let’s take the white elephant. Royal Dutch Shell has for many years been lobbying for state financial support to pump carbon dioxide down holes in the ground. Various oil and gas industry engineers have been selling this idea to governments, federal and sub-federal for decades, and even acted as consultants to the Civil Society process on emissions control – you just need to read the United Nations’ IPCC Climate Change Assessment Report and Special Report output to detect the filigree of a trace of geoengineering fingers scratching their meaning into global intention. Let us take your nasty, noxious carbon dioxide, they whisper suggestively, and push it down a hole, out of sight and out of accounting mind, but don’t forget to slip us a huge cheque for doing so. You know, they add, we could even do it cost-effectively, by producing more oil and gas from emptying wells, resulting from pumping the carbon dioxide into them. Enhanced Oil Recovery – or EOR – would of course mean that some of the carbon dioxide pumped underground would in effect come out again in the form of the flue gas from the combustion of new fossil fuels, but anyway…
And governments love being seen to be doing something, anything, really, about climate change, as long as it’s not too complicated, and involves big players who should be trustworthy. So, you get the Peterhead project picking up a fat cheque for a trial of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) in Scotland, and the sidestep hint that if Scotland decides to become independent, this project money could be lost…But this project doesn’t involve much of anything that is really new. The power station that will be used is a liability that ought to be closing now, really, according to some. And the trial will only last for ten years. There will be no EOR – at least – not in the public statements, but this plan could lead the way.
All of this is like pushing a fat kid up a shiny slide. Once Government take their greasy Treasury hands off the project, the whole narrative will fail, falling to an ignominious muddy end. This perhaps explains the underlying desperation of many – CCS is the only major engineering response to emissions that many people can think of – because they cannot imagine burning less fossil fuels. So this wobbling effigy has to be kept on the top of the pedestal. And so I have enjoyed two identical Shell presentations on the theme of the Peterhead project in as many weeks. CCS must be obeyed.
But, all the same, it’s big money. And glaring yellow and red photo opps. You can’t miss it. And then, at the other end of the scale of subsidies, is biogas. With currently low production volumes, and complexities attached to its utilisation, anaerobically digesting wastes of all kinds and capturing the gas for use as a fuel, is a kind of token technology to many, only justified because methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so it needs to be burned.
The subsidy arrangements for many renewable energy technologies are in flux. Subsidies for green gas will be reconsidered and reformulated in April, and will probably experience a degression – a hand taken off the tiller of driving energy change.
At an evening biogas briefing given by Rushlight this week, I could almost smell a whiff of despair and disappointment in the levels of official support for green gas. It was freely admitted that not all the planned projects around the country will see completion, not only because of the prevailing economic climate, but because of the vagaries of feedstock availability, and the complexity of gas cleaning regulations.
There was light in the tunnel, though, even if the end had not been reached – a new Quality Protocol for upgrading biogas to biomethane, for injection into the gas grid, has been established. You won’t find it on the official UK Goverment website, apparently, as it has fallen through the cracks of the rebranding to gov.uk, but here it is, and it’s from the Environment Agency, so it’s official :-
To get some picture of the mess that British green energy policy is in, all you need do is take a glance at Germany and Denmark, where green gas is considered the “third leg of the stool”, stabilising renewable energy supply with easily-stored low carbon gas, to balance out the peaks and troughs in wind power and solar power provision.
Green gas should not be considered a nice-to-have minor addition to the solutions portfolio in my view. The potential to de-carbonise the energy gas supply is huge, and the UK are missing a trick here – the big money is being ladled onto the “incumbents” – the big energy companies who want to carry on burning fossil fuels but sweep their emissions under the North Sea salt cavern carpet with CCS, whilst the beer change is being reluctantly handed out as a guilt offering to people seeking genuinely low carbon energy production.
From: Richard A. Sears
Date: 24 February 2014
To: Jo Abbess
Subject: Question from your TED talk
I was looking back over older emails and saw that I had never responded to your note. It arrived as I was headed to MIT to teach for a week and then it got lost. Sorry about that.
Some interesting questions. I don’t know anybody working specifically on wind power to gas options. At one time Shell had a project in Iceland using geothermal to make hydrogen. Don’t know what its status is but if you search on hydrogen and Iceland on the Shell website I’m sure there’s something. If the Germans have power to gas as a real policy option I’d poke around the web for information on who their research partners are for this.
Here are a couple of high level thoughts. Not to discourage you because real progress comes from asking new questions, but there are some physical fundamentals that are important.
Direct air capture of anything using current technology is prohibitively expensive to do at scale for energy. More energy will be expended in capture and synthesis than the fuels would yield.
Gaseous fuels are problematic on their own. Gas doesn’t travel well and is difficult to contain at high energy densities as that means compressing or liquefying it. That doesn’t make anything impossible, but it raises many questions about infrastructure and energy balance. If we take the energy content of a barrel of oil as 1.0, then a barrel of liquefied natural gas is about 0.6, compressed natural gas which is typically at about 3600psi is around 0.3, and a barrel (as a measure of volume equal to 42 US gallons) of natural gas at room temperature and pressure is about 0.0015 (+/-). Also there’s a real challenge in storing and transporting gasses as fuel at scale, particularly motor fuel to replace gasoline and diesel.
While there is some spare wind power potential that doesn’t get utilized because of how the grid must be managed, I expect it is a modest amount of energy compared to what we use today in liquid fuels. I think what that means is that while possible, it’s more likely to happen in niche local markets and applications rather than at national or global scales.
If you haven’t seen it, a nice reference on the potential of various forms of sustainable energy is available free and online here. http://www.withouthotair.com/
Hope some of this helps.
Richard A. Sears
Department of Energy Resources Engineering
From: Jo Abbess
Date: 24 February 2014
To: Richard A. Sears
Many thanks for getting back to me. Responses are nice – even if they
are months late. As they say – better late than never, although with
climate change, late action will definitely be unwise, according to an
increasing number of people.
I have indeed seen the website, and bought and spilled coffee on the
book of Professor David MacKay’s “Sustainable Energy Without The Hot
Air” project. It is legendary. However, I have checked and he has only
covered alternative gas in a couple of paragraphs – in notes. By
contrast, he spent a long chapter discussing how to filter uranium out
of seawater and other nuclear pursuits.
Yet as a colleague of mine, who knows David better than I do, said to
me this morning, his fascination with nuclear power is rather naive,
and his belief in the success of Generation III and Generation IV
lacks evidence. Plus, if we get several large carbon dioxide
sequestration projects working in the UK – Carbon Capture and Storage
(CCS) – such as the Drax pipeline (which other companies will also
join) and the Shell Peterhead demonstration, announced today, then we
won’t need new nuclear power to meet our 4th Carbon Budget – and maybe
not even the 5th, either (to be negotiated in 2016, I hear) :-
We don’t need to bury this carbon, however; we just need to recycle
it. And the number of ways to make Renewable Hydrogen, and
energy-efficiently methanate carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide with
hydrogen, is increasing. People are already making calculations on how
much “curtailed” or spare wind power is likely to be available for
making gas in 10 years’ time, and if solar power in the UK is
cranked/ramped up, then there will be lots of juicy cost-free power
ours for the taking – especially during summer nights.
Direct Air Capture of carbon dioxide is a nonsensical proposition.
Besides being wrong in terms of the arrow of entropy, it also has the
knock-on effect of causing carbon dioxide to come back out of the
ocean to re-equilibrate. I recently read a paper by climate scientists
that estimated that whatever carbon dioxide you take out of the air,
you will need to do almost all of it again.
Instead of uranium, we should be harvesting carbon dioxide from the
oceans, and using it to make gaseous and liquid fuels.
Gaseous fuels and electricity complement each other very well –
particularly in storage and grid balancing terms – there are many
provisions for the twins of gas and power in standards, laws, policies
and elsewhere. Regardless of the limitations of gas, there is a huge
infrastructure already in place that can store, pipe and use it, plus
it is multi-functional – you can make power, heat, other fuels and
chemicals from gas. In addition, you can make gas from a range of
resources and feedstocks and processing streams – the key quartet of
chemical gas species keep turning up : hydrogen, methane, carbon
monoxide and carbon dioxide – whether you are looking at the exhaust
from combustion, Natural Gas, industrial furnace producer gas,
biological decomposition, just about everywhere – the same four gases.
Energy transition must include large amounts of renewable electricity
– because wind and solar power are quick to build yet long nuclear
power lead times might get extended in poor economic conditions. The
sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow (and the
tide is not always in high flux). Since demand profiles will never be
able to match supply profiles exactly, there will always be spare
power capacity that grids cannot use. So Power to Gas becomes the
optimal solution. At least until there are ways to produce Renewable
Hydrogen at plants that use process heat from other parts of the
Renewable Gas toolkit. So the aims are to recycle carbon dioxide from
gas combustion to make more gas, and recycle gas production process
heat to make hydrogen to use in the gas production process, and make
the whole lot as thermally balanced as possible. Yes. We can do that.
Lower the inputs of fresh carbon of any form, and lower the energy
requirements to make manufactured gas.
I met somebody working with Jacobs who was involved in the Carbon
Recycling project in Iceland. Intriguing, but an order of magnitude
smaller than I think is possible.
ITM Power in the UK are doing a Hydrogen-to-gas-grid and methanation
project in Germany with one of the regions. They have done several
projects with Kiwa and Shell on gas options in Europe. I know of the
existence of feasibility reports on the production of synthetic
methane, but I have not had the opportunity to read them yet…
I feel quite encouraged that Renewable Gas is already happening. It’s
a bit patchy, but it’s inevitable, because the narrative of
unconventional fossil fuels has many flaws. I have been looking at
issues with reserves growth and unconventionals are not really
commensurate with conventional resources. There may be a lot of shale
gas in the ground, but getting it out could be a long process, so
production volumes might never be very good. In the USA you’ve had
lots of shale gas – but that’s only been supported by massive drilling
programmes – is this sustainable ?
BP have just finished building lots of dollars of kit at Whiting to
process sour Natural Gas. If they had installed Renewable Gas kit
instead of the usual acid gas and sulfur processing, they could have
been preparing for the future. As I understand it, it is possible to
methanate carbon dioxide without first removing it from the rest of
the gas it comes in – so methanating sour gas to uprate it is a viable
option as far as I can see. The hydrogen sulfide would still need to
be washed out, but the carbon dioxide needn’t be wasted – it can be
made part of the fuel. And when the sour gas eventually thins out,
those now methanating sour gas can instead start manufacturing gas
from low carbon emissions feedstocks and recycled carbon.
A normal, everyday Monday morning at Energy Geek Central. Yes, this is a normal conversation for me to take part in on a Monday morning. Energy geekery at breakfast. Perfect.
Nuclear Flower Power
This whole UK Government nuclear power programme plan is ridiculous ! 75 gigawatts (GW) of Generation III nuclear fission reactors ? What are they thinking ? Britain would need to rapidly ramp up its construction capabilities, and that’s not going to happen, even with the help of the Chinese. (And the Americans are not going to take too kindly to the idea of China getting strongly involved with British energy). And then, we’d need to secure almost a quarter of the world’s remaining reserves of uranium, which hasn’t actually been dug up yet. And to cap it all, we’d need to have 10 more geological disposal repositories for the resulting radioactive spent fuel, and we haven’t even managed to negotiate one yet. That is, unless we can burn a good part of that spent fuel in Generation IV nuclear fission reactors – which haven’t even been properly demonstrated yet ! Talk about unconscionable risk !
Baseload Should Be History By Now, But…
Whatever the technological capability for nuclear power plants to “load follow” and reduce their output in response to a chance in electricity demand, Generation III reactors would not be run as anything except “baseload” – constantly on, and constantly producing a constant amount of power – although they might turn them off in summer for maintenance. You see, the cost of a Generation III reactor and generation kit is in the initial build – so their investors are not going to permit them to run them at low load factors – even if they could.
There are risks to running a nuclear power plant at partial load – mostly to do with potential damage to the actual electricity generation equipment. But what are the technology risks that Hinkley Point C gets built, and all that capital is committed, and then it only runs for a couple of years until all that high burn up fuel crumbles and the reactors start leaking plutonium and they have to shut it down permanently ? Who can guarantee it’s a sound bet ?
If they actually work, running Generation III reactors at constant output as “baseload” will also completely mess with the power market. In all of the scenarios, high nuclear, high non-nuclear, or high fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there will always need to be some renewables in the mix. In all probability this will be rapidly deployed, highly technologically advanced solar power photovoltaics (PV). The amount of solar power that will be generated will be high in summer, but since you have a significant change in energy demand between summer and winter, you’re going to have a massive excess of electricity generation in summer if you add nuclear baseload to solar. Relative to the demand for energy, you’re going to get more Renewable Energy excess in summer and under-supply in winter (even though you get more offshore wind in winter), so it’s critical how you mix those two into your scenario.
The UK Government’s maximum 75 GW nuclear scenario comprises 55 GW Generation III and 20 GW Generation IV. They could have said 40 GW Gen III to feed Gen IV – the spent fuel from Gen III is needed to kick off Gen IV. Although, if LFTR took off, if they had enough fluoride materials there could be a Thorium way into Gen IV… but this is all so technical, no MP [ Member of Parliament ] is going to get their head round this before 2050.
The UK Government are saying that 16 GW of nuclear by 2030 should be seen as a first tranche, and that it could double or triple by 2040 – that’s one heck of a deployment rate ! If they think they can get 16 GW by 2030 – then triple that by 10 years later ? It’s not going to happen. And even 30 GW would be horrific. But it’s probably more plausible – if they can get 16 GW by 2030, they can arguably get double that by 2040.
As a rule of thumb, you would need around 10 tonnes of fissionable fuel to kickstart a Gen IV reactor. They’ve got 106 tonnes of Plutonium, plus 3 or 4 tonnes they recently acquired – from France or Germany (I forget which). So they could start 11 GW of Gen IV – possibly the PRISM – the Hitachi thing – sodium-cooled. They’ve been trying them since the Year Dot – these Fast Reactors – the Breeders – Dounreay. People are expressing more confidence in them now – “Pandora’s Promise” hangs around the narrative that the Clinton administration stopped research into Fast Reactors – Oak Ridge couldn’t be commercial. Throwing sodium around a core 80 times hotter than current core heats – you can’t throw water at it easily. You need something that can carry more heat out. It’s a high technological risk. But then get some French notable nuclear person saying Gen IV technologies – “they’re on the way and they can be done”.
Radioactive Waste Disposal Woes
The point being is – if you’re commissioning 30 GW of Gen III in the belief that Gen IV will be developed – then you are setting yourself up to be a hostage to technological fortune. That is a real ethical consideration. Because if you can’t burn the waste fuel from Gen III, you’re left with up to 10 radioactive waste repositories required when you can’t even get one at the moment. The default position is that radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be left at the power stations where they’re created. Typically, nuclear power plants are built on the coast as they need a lot of cooling water. If you are going for 30 GW you will need a load of new sites – possibly somewhere round the South East of England. This is where climate change comes in – rising sea levels, increased storm surge, dissolving, sinking, washed-away beaches, more extreme storms […] The default spent fuel scenario with numerous coastal decommissioned sites with radioactive interim stores which contain nearly half the current legacy radioactive waste […]
Based on the figures from the new Greenpeace report, I calculate that the added radioactive waste and radioactive spent fuel arisings from a programme of 16 GW of nuclear new build would be 244 million Terabequerel (TBq), compared to the legacy level of 87 million TBq.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are due to publish their Radioactive Waste Inventory and their Report on Radioactive Materials not in the Waste Inventory at the end of January 2014. We need to keep a watch out for that, because they may have adapted their anticipated Minimum and Maxmium Derived Inventory.
Politics Is Living In The Past
What you hear from politicians is they’re still talking about “baseload”, as if they’ve just found the Holy Grail of Energy Policy. And failed nuclear power. Then tidal. And barrages. This is all in the past. Stuff they’ve either read – in an article in a magazine at the dentist’s surgery waiting room, and they think, alright I’ll use that in a TV programme I’ve been invited to speak on, like Question Time. I think that perhaps, to change the direction of the argument, we might need to rubbish their contribution. A technological society needs to be talking about gasification, catalysis. If you regard yourselves as educated, and have a technological society – your way of living in the future is not only in manufacturing but also ideas – you need to be talking about this not that : low carbon gas fuels, not nuclear power. Ministers and senior civil servants probably suffer from poor briefing – or no briefing. They are relying on what is literally hearsay – informal discussions, or journalists effectively representing industrial interests. Newspapers are full of rubbish and it circulates, like gyres in the oceans. Just circulates around and around – full of rubbish.
I think part of the problem is that the politicians and chief civil servants and ministers are briefed by the “Old Guard” – very often the ex-nuclear power industry guard. They still believe in big construction projects, with long lead times and massive capital investment, whereas Renewable Electricity is racing ahead, piecemeal, and private investors are desperate to get their money into wind power and solar power because the returns are almost immediate and risk-free.
Together in Electric Dreams
Question : Why are the UK Government ploughing on with plans for so much nuclear power ?
1. They believe that a lot of transport and heat can be made to go electric.
2. They think they can use spent nuclear fuel in new reactors.
3. They think it will be cheaper than everything else.
4. They say it’s vital for UK Energy Security – for emissions reductions, for cost, and for baseload. The big three – always the stated aim of energy policy, and they think nuclear ticks all those three boxes. But it doesn’t.
What they’ll say is, yes, you have to import uranium, but you’ve got a 4 year stock. Any war you’re going to get yourselves involved in you can probably resolve in 4 days, or 4 weeks. If you go for a very high nuclear scenario, you would be taking quite a big share of the global resource of uranium. There’s 2,600 TWh of nuclear being produced globally. And global final energy demand is around 100,000 TWh – so nuclear power currently produces around 2.6% of global energy supply. At current rates of nuclear generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, you’ve got around 80 years of proven reserves and probably a bit more. Let’s say you double nuclear output by 2050 or 2040 – but in the same time you might just have enough uranium – and then find a bit more. But global energy demand rises significantly as well – so nuclear will still only provide around 3% of global energy demand. That’s not a climate solution – it’s just an energy distraction. All this guff about fusion. Well.
Cornering The Market In Undug Uranium
A 75 GW programme would produce at baseload 590 TWh a year – divide by 2,600 – is about 23% of proven global uranium reserves. You’re having to import, regardless of what other countries are doing, you’re trying to corner the market – roughly a quarter. Not even a quarter of the market – a quarter of all known reserves – it’s not all been produced yet. It’s still in the ground. So could you be sure that you could actually run these power stations if you build them ? Without global domination of the New British Empire […]. The security issues alone – defending coastal targets from a tweeb with a desire to blow them up. 50 years down the line they’re full of radioactive spent fuel that won’t have a repository to go to – we don’t want one here – and how much is it going to cost ?
My view is that offshore wind will be a major contributor in a high or 100% Renewable Electricity scenario by 2050 or 2060. Maybe 180 GW, that will also be around 600 TWh a year – comparable to that maximum nuclear programme. DECC’s final energy demand 2050 – several scenarios – final energy demand from 6 scenarios came out as between roughly 1,500 TWh a year and the maximum 2,500 TWh. Broadly speaking, if you’re trying to do that just with Renewable Electricity, you begin to struggle quite honestly, unless you’re doing over 600 TWh of offshore wind, and even then you need a fair amount of heat pump stuff which I’m not sure will come through. The good news is that solar might – because of the cost and technology breakthroughs. That brings with it a problem – because you’re delivering a lot of that energy in summer. The other point – David MacKay would say – in his book his estimate was 150 TWh from solar by 2050, on the grounds that that’s where you south-facing roofs are – you need to use higher efficiency triple junction cells with more than 40% efficiency and this would be too expensive for a rollout which would double or triple that 150 TWh – that would be too costly – because those cells are too costly. But with this new stuff, you might get that. Not only the cost goes down, but the coverage goes down. Not doing solar across swathes of countryside. There have always been two issues with solar power – cost and where it’s being deployed.
Uh-Oh, Summer Days. Uh-Oh, Summer Nights
With the solar-wind headline, summer days and summer nights are an issue.
With the nuclear headline, 2040 – they would have up to 50 GW, and that would need to run at somewhere between 75% and 95% capacity – to protect the investment and electric generation turbines.
It will be interesting to provide some figures – this is how much over-capacity you’re likely to get with this amount of offshore wind. But if you have this amount of nuclear power, you’ll get this amount […]
Energy demand is strongly variable with season. We have to consider not just power, but heat – you need to get that energy out in winter – up to 4 times as much during peak in winter evenings. How are you going to do that ? You need gas – or you need extensive Combined Heat and Power (CHP) (which needs gas). Or you need an unimaginable deployment of domestic heat pumps. Air source heat pumps won’t work at the time you need them most. Ground source heat pumps would require the digging up of Britain – and you can’t do that in most urban settings.
District Heat Fields
The other way to get heat out to everyone in a low carbon world – apart from low carbon gas – is having a field-based ground source heat pump scheme – just dig up a field next to a city – and just put in pipes and boreholes in a field. You’re not disturbing anybody. You could even grow crops on it next season. Low cost and large scale – but would need a District Heating (DH) network. There are one or two heat pump schemes around the world. Not sure if they are used for cooling in summer or heat extraction in the winter. The other thing is hot water underground. Put in an extra pipe in the normal channels to domestic dwellings. Any excess heat from power generation or electrolysis or whatever is put down this loop and heats the sub-ground. Because heat travels about 1 metre a month in soil, that heat should be retained for winter. A ground source heat sink. Geothermal energy could come through – they’re doing a scheme in Manchester. If there’s a nearby heat district network – it makes it easier. Just want to tee it into the nearest DH system. The urban heat demand is 150 TWh a year. You might be able to put DH out to suburban areas as well. There are 9 million gas-connected suburban homes – another about 150 TWh there as well – or a bit more maybe. Might get to dispose of 300 TWh in heat through DH. The Green Deal insulation gains might not be what is claimed – and condensing gas boiler efficiencies are not that great – which feeds into the argument that in terms of energy efficiency, you not only want to do insulation, but also DH – or low carbon gas. Which is the most cost-effective ? Could argue reasonable energy efficiency measures are cheapest – but DH might be a better bet. That involves a lot of digging.
Gas Is The Logical Answer
But everything’s already laid for gas. (…but from the greatest efficiency first perspective, if you’re not doing DH, you’re not using a lot of Renewable Heat you could otherwise use […] )
The best package would be the use of low carbon gases and sufficient DH to use Renewable Heat where it is available – such as desalination, electrolysis or other energy plant. It depends where the electrolysis is being done.
The Age of Your Carbon
It also depends on which carbon atoms you’re using. If you are recycling carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels into Renewable Gas, that’s OK. But you can’t easily recapture carbon emissions from the built environment (although you could effectively do that with heat storage). You can’t do carbon capture from transport either. So your low carbon gas has to come from biogenic molecules. Your Renewable Gas has to be synthesised using biogenic carbon molecules rather than fossil ones.
[…] I’m using the phrase “Young Carbon”. Young Carbon doesn’t have to be from plants – biological things that grow.
Well, there’s Direct Air Capture (DAC). It’s simple. David Sevier, London-based, is working on this. He’s using heat to capture carbon dioxide. You could do it from exhaust in a chimney or a gasification process – or force a load of air through a space. He would use heat and cooling to create an updraft. It would enable the “beyond capture” problem to be circumvented. Cost is non-competitive. Can be done technically. Using reject heat from power stations for the energy to do it. People don’t realise you can use a lot of heat to capture carbon, not electricity.
Young Carbon from Seawater
If you’re playing around with large amounts of seawater anyway – that is, for desalination for irrigation, why not also do Renewable Hydrogen, and pluck the Carbon Dioxide out of there too to react with the Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane ? I’m talking about very large amounts of seawater. Not “Seawater Greenhouses” – condensation designs mainly for growing exotic food. If you want large amounts of desalinated water – and you’re using Concentrated Solar Power – for irrigating deserts – you would want to grow things like cacti for biological carbon.
Say you had 40 GW of wind power on Dogger Bank, spinning at 40% load factor a year. You’ve also got electrolysers there. Any time you’re not powering the grid, you’re making gas – so capturing carbon dioxide from seawater, splitting water for hydrogen, making methane gas. Wouldn’t you want to use flash desalination first to get cleaner water for electrolysis ? Straight seawater electrolysis is also being done.
It depends on the relative quantities of gas concentrated in the seawater. If you’ve got oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that would be nice. You might get loads of oxygen and hydrogen, and only poor quantities of carbon dioxide ?
But if you could get hydrogen production going from spare wind power. And even if you had to pipe the carbon dioxide from conventional thermal power plants, you’re starting to look at a sea-based solution for gas production. Using seawater, though, chlorine is the problem […]
Look at the relative density of molecules – that sort of calculation that will show if this is going to fly. Carbon dioxide is a very fixed, stable molecule – it’s at about the bottom of the energy potential well – you have to get that reaction energy from somewhere.
How Much Spare Power Will There Be ?
If you’ve got an offshore wind and solar system. At night, obviously, the solar’s not working (unless new cells are built that can run on infrared night-time Earthshine). But you could still have 100 GWh of wind power at night not used for the power grid. The anticipated new nuclear 40 GW nuclear by 2030 will produce about 140 GWh – this would just complicate problems – adding baseload nuclear to a renewables-inclusive scenario. 40 GW is arguably a reasonable deployment of wind power by 2030 – low if anything.
You get less wind in a nuclear-inclusive scenario, but the upshot is you’ve definitely got a lot of power to deal with on a summer night with nuclear power. You do have with Renewable Electricity as well, but it varies more. Whichever route we take we’re likely to end up with excess electricity generation on summer nights.
In a 70 GW wind power deployment (50 GW offshore, 20 GW onshore – 160 TWh a year), you might have something like 50 to 100 GWh per night of excess (might get up to 150 GWh to store on a windy night). But if you have a 16 GW nuclear deployment by 2030 (125 TWh a year), you are definitely going to have 140 GWh of excess per night (that’s 16 GW for 10 hours less a bit). Night time by the way is roughly between 9pm and 7am between peak demands.
We could be making a lot of Renewable Gas !
Can you build enough Renewable Gas or whatever to soak up this excess nuclear or wind power ?
The energy mix is likely to be in reality somewhere in between these two extremes of high nuclear or high wind.
But if you develop a lot of solar – so that it knocks out nuclear power – it will be the summer day excess that’s most significant. And that’s what Germany is experiencing now.
Choices, choices, choices
There is a big choice in fossil fuels which isn’t really talked about very often – whether the oil and gas industry should go for unconventional fossil fuels, or attempt to make use of the remaining conventional resources that have a lower quality. The unconventionals narrative – shale gas, coalbed methane, methane hydrates, deepwater gas, Arctic oil and gas, heavy oil, is running out of steam as it becomes clear that some of these choices are expensive, and environmentally damaging (besides their climate change impact). So the option will be making use of gas with high acid gas composition. And the technological solutions for this will be the same as needed to start major production of Renewable Gas.
But you still need to answer the balancing question. If you have a high nuclear power scenario, you need maybe 50 TWh a year of gas-fired power generation. If high Renewable Electricity, you will need something like 100 TWh of gas, so you need Carbon Capture and Storage – or low carbon gas.
Even then, the gas power plants could be running only 30% of the year, and so you will need capacity payments to make sure new flexible plants get built and stay available for use.
If you have a high nuclear scenario, coupled with gas, you can meet the carbon budget – but it will squeeze out Renewable Electricity. If high in renewables, you need Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Recycling into Renewable Gas, but this would rule out nuclear power. It depends which sector joins up with which.
Carbon Capture, Carbon Budget
Can the Drax power plant – with maybe one pipeline 24 inches in diameter, carrying away 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – can it meet the UK’s Carbon Budget target ?
It constantly amazes and intrigues me how human individuals operate in networks to formulate, clarify and standardise ideas, tools, machines, procedures and systems. Several decades ago, Renewable Electricity from sources such as wind power was considered idealistic vapourware, esoteric, unworkable and uncertain, and now it’s a mainstream generator of reliable electricity in the UK’s National Grid. Who would have thought that invisible, odourless, tasteless gas phase chemicals would heat our homes ? It’s now just so normal, it’s impossible to imagine that Natural Gas was once considered to be so insignificant that it was vented – not even flared – from oil wells.
Judging by the sheer number of people working on aspects of Renewable Gas, I expect this too to be mainstream in the energy sector within a decade. What do others think ? I have begun the process of asking, for example, see below.
from: Jo Abbess
to: Richard A. Sears
date: Mon, May 2, 2011 at 11:59 PM
subject: Question from your TED talk
Dear [Professor] Sears,
I was intrigued by your TED talk that I recently viewed :-
Yes, I am interested in the idea of “printing” solar cells, which is what I think you might be alluding to with your reference to abalone shells.
But I am more interested in what you base your estimate of “Peak Gas” on. I recently did some very basic modelling of hydrocarbon resources and electricity, which look somewhat different from the IEA and EIA work and reports from BP and Royal Dutch Shell. My conclusion was that Peak Oil is roughly now, Peak Natural Gas will be around 2030, and Peak Electricity around 2060 :-
I am going to try to improve these charts before I submit my MSc Masters Thesis, so I am trying to find out what other people base their projections on. Could you help me by pointing me at the basis of your assessment of Peak Natural Gas ?
from: Richard A. Sears
to: Jo Abbess
date: Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 5:30 PM
I am just now finding a number of old emails that got archived (and ignored) when I moved from MIT to Stanford a few years ago. A quick answer is that I did about what Hubbert did in 1956. No detailed statistical modeling, just look at the trends, think about what’s happening in the industry, and make what seem like reasonable statements about it.
A number of interesting things have happened just in the last two years since you wrote to me. Significantly, US oil production is on the rise. When you count all hydrocarbon liquids, the US is or will soon be, the world largest producer. This just goes to one of my points from TED. Don’t expect oil and gas to go away any time soon. There are plenty of molecules out there. I first said this internally at Shell in the mid 1980’s when I was Manager of Exploration Economics and since then I’ve felt that I got it about right.
I did just look at your website and would caution you about extrapolating very recent trends into the future. The rate of growth in shale gas production has slowed, but there’s an important economic factor driving that. Gas prices in the US are very low compared to oil. With the development of fraccing technology to enable oil and liquids production from shale formations, the industry has shifted their effort to the liquids-rich plays. A few statistics. Gas is currently around $3.50/mcf. On an energy equivalent basis, this equates to an oil price of about $20/barrel. Brent currently sells for $110/barrel and the light oils produced from the shale plays in the US are getting between $90 and $100/barrel, depending on where they can be delivered. As a consequence, in the 3rd quarter of 2013, compared to one year ago, oil well completions are up 18% while natural gas well completions declined 30%.
Yes, you are right. Printing solar cells is an example of what I was talking about with Abalone shells. Similarly, what if you had paint that as it dried would self assemble into linked solar cells and your entire house is now generating electricity. I was totally amazed at the number of people that didn’t actually think about what I was saying and called me an !d!*t for imagining that I was going to transform coal itself into some magical new molecule. […]
In any case, I think it’s good that you’re thinking about these problems, and importantly it appears from your website that you’re thinking about the system and its complexity.
Richard A. Sears
MIT Energy Initiative
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
from: Jo Abbess
to: Richard A Sears
sent: Monday, May 02, 2011 3:59 PM
Dear [Professor] Sears,
Many thanks for your reply.
I had kinda given up of ever hearing back from you, so it’s lovely to
read your thoughts.
May I blog them ?
from: Richard A Sears
date: Fri, Oct 25, 2013 at 5:03 PM
to: Jo Abbess
I have personally avoided blogging because I don’t want to put up with people writing mean comments about me. But the data is worth sharing. You should also know the sources of that data otherwise you open yourself to more criticism.
The data on production comes from the International Energy Agency and a research firm PIRA. All of it was in recent press releases. The Energy Information Administration makes similar projections about future production. The data on well completions was recently released by API.
No need to reference me. The data is out there for all to see. But if you do, fair warning. You will get stupid comments about how I used to be a VP at Shell so of course these are the things I’m going to say. […]
By the way, there’s something else that’s very interesting in the world of peak oil and various peaks. I have long believed, as hinted in my TED talk that the most important aspect of peak oil is the demand driven phenomena, not the supply side. It’s worth noting in this context that US oil consumption peaked in 2005 and has declined about 10% since then. This data can be found easily in the BP Statistical Report on World Energy. This is real and is a result of economic shifts, greater efficiency, and the penetration of renewables. Future energy projections (references above) show that this trend continues. A big component of US energy consumption is gasoline, and US gasoline consumption peaked in 2007. I think that data can be found at http://www.eia.gov, although I haven’t looked for it lately. It’s a little factoid that I think I remember.
Richard A. Sears
Department of Energy Resources Engineering
from: Jo Abbess
to: Richard A Sears
date: Sun, Jan 12, 2014 at 11:47 AM
Dear Professor Sears,
HNY 2014 !
This year I am hoping to attempt the climb on my own personal K2 by writing an academic book on Renewable Gas – sustainable, low-to-zero carbon emissions gas phase fuels.
I am not a chemist, nor a chemical engineer, and so I would value any suggestions on who I should approach in the gas (and oil) industry to interview about projects that lean in this direction.
Examples would be :-
* Power-to-Gas : Using “spare” wind power to make Renewable Hydrogen – for example by electrolysis of water. Part of the German Power-to-Gas policy. Some hydrogen can be added to gas grids safely without changing regulations, pipework or end appliances.
* Methanation : Using Renewable Hydrogen and young or recycled carbon gas to make methane (using the energy from “spare” wind power, for example). Also part of the German Power-to-Gas policy.
NB “Young” carbon would be either carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide, and be sourced from biomass, Direct Air Capture, or from the ocean. “Old” carbon would come from the “deeper” geological carbon cycle, such as from fossil fuel, or industrial processes such as the manufacture of chemicals from minerals and/or rocks.
Precursors to Renewable Gas also interest me, as transitions are important – transitions from a totally fossil fuel-based gas system to a sustainable gas system. I have recently looked at some basic analysis on the chemistry of Natural Gas, and its refinery. It seems that methanation could be useful in making sour gas available as sweetened, as long as Renewable Hydrogen is developed for this purpose. It seems that there is a lot of sour gas in remaining reserves, and the kind of CCS (Carbon Capture and Storage) that would be required under emissions controls could make sour gas too expensive to use if it was just washed of acids.
I don’t think the future of energy will be completely electrified – it will take a very long time to roll out 100% Renewable Electricity and there will always be problems transitioning out of liquid fuels to electricity in vehicular transportation.
If you could suggest any names, organisations, university departments, companies, governance bodies that I should contact, or research papers that I should read, I would be highly grateful.