The Renewable Gas Ask : Part M

Simple molecules, such as hydrogen, methane and methanol, are highly important in industrial chemistry and petroleum refinery. These molecules in particular are appropriate targets for synthesis from renewable resources. With Renewable Gas, the synthesis of clean, and clean-burning alternative and advanced Renewable Fuels can displace fossil fuels.

The technologies for Renewable Gas are known and viable; the question is, who will ask for Renewable Gas ? We know who could make it, but how would its production come to be volumised ?

Elements of a production chain already have examplars, for example, the Shell Pearl GTL project, that makes liquid hydrocarbons from what is essentially methane gas. They are using Natural Gas as the feedstock, but they could just as easily use Renewable Methane.

The Pearl project is massive, and by comparison, the Standard Gas operation is small. Their work revolves around diverting end-of-use materials at waste disposal plants into what could be termed “targas”, a gas synthesised from the volatile components of the waste, via pyrolysis, heating the waste in the absence of air. As the syngas produced is not as free of tars and other residuals as syngas produced from very high temperature gasification, it cannot easily be used to feed the gas grid, so it is instead used fuel for power generation equipment, and the char that’s left over from the pyrolysis gets used in building materials. Whilst the use of waste to create energy is innovative and important, and replaces the use of fossil fuels, the gas and char would only be renewable if the input waste were originally from renewable resources.

11. The Fossil Oil and Gas Producers (Continued)

There has been a strong emphasis on Natural Gas from large fossil fuels companies such as BP. According to their annual accounts for 2018, their production of Natural Gas in 2018 was 7374 million cubic feet per day, compared to 6436 mcfd in 2017 and 5796 mcfd in 2016. They have made important new Natural Gas resources acquisitions, amongst other investments.

If they were to centre their business around Natural Gas, for example, shale gas from the United States, could they become vulnerable to an early peak of some reserves ? For example, compared to oil reserves, where pumping a field can continue for decades, even after depletion sets in, drilling for gas is not like that.

As they and other companies reorient themselves towards gas, because gas is popular, and produces less carbon dixoide emissions on combustion, so is used to replace coal in power stations, will they come to the realisation that Natural Gas resources have significant limitations ? For example, will the amount of sulfur they need to reject to process Natural Gas could rise incredible. If so, they could end up seeing the need to go for Renewable Gas.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part L

11.   The Fossil Oil and Gas Producers (Continued)

In the European Union, the Renewable Energy Directive II (RED II) sets an EU-wide target of 14% in renewable energy for road and rail transport by 2030, whilst capping the amount of crop-based biofuels at 7%, as concerns have been raised over sustainability. In addition, the amount of palm oil used for biodiesel is to be phased out by 2030. Individual countries in the European Union have their own different mandates, and must set out their strategy in National Renewable Energy Action Plans :-

RED I : “Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council of 23 April 2009 on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources and amending and subsequently repealing Directives 2001/77/EC and 2003/30/EC”

RED II : “Directive (EU) 2018/2001 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 11 December 2018 on the promotion of the use of energy from renewable sources” : “Directive 2009/28/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council […] recast in the interests of clarity.”

The Fuel Quality Directive sets out that oil companies must reduce the carbon intensity of their transport fuels by 6% by 2020, compared with 2010. As an article from 17 September 2019 suggests, this poses some problems.

The Fuel Quality Directive ( 2009/30/EC, amended from the 98/70/EC original) sets out in Annex I and Annex II the limits of what could be blended with petrol-gasoline and diesel, to meet the requirements of Article 3 and Article 4.

Annex I : “Environmental Specifications for Market Fuels to be Used for Vehicles Equipped With Positive-Ignition Engines : Type : Petrol” (Petrol or Gasoline) : Oxygenates (% volume for volume)

Note : “Other oxygenates” refers to, “Other mono-alcohols and ethers with a final boiling point no higher than that stated in EN 228:2004”

Ethanol (with any necessary stabilising agents)10%E10
Iso-propyl alcohol (IPA, isoPropanol)12%
Tert-butyl alcohol (tert-Butanol)15%
Iso-butyl alcohol (isoButanol)15%
Ethers containing five or more carbon atoms per molecule (for example Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ether 3, OME-3, PODE-3, OMDME-3)22%
Other oxygenates (See note)15%

Annex II : Environmental Specifications for Market Fuels to be Used for Vehicles Equipped With Compression Ignition Engines : Type : Diesel

FAME (Fatty Acid Methyl Ester) content : EN 14078 (complying with EN 14214)7%B7

Each country has their own fuel standards. For example, the UK, although barring some administrative nightmare, negotiation complexity or legal challenge, is scheduled to depart the European Union in the near future, will still, hopefully, retain E5 and B7 blended fuels as well as the overall 6% biofuel use target of the RTFO Renewable Transport Fuel Obligation.

But can the fuel sellers create high enough biofuels demand across the European region (of which the United Kingdom geographically and market-wise remains a part, regardless of the exiting from Treaties) ? And can the fuel producers get higher renewable percentage blends through engineering standards committees ? This has been called the “blend wall” limitation, and has been experienced in the United States as well.

Given the higher percentage of OME and other high carbon oxygenate ethers permitted for blending with petrol-gasoline, will the fuel refiners plump for these, or the alcohols ?

And given that research into using longer chain OMEs for blending with or largely replacing diesel is advancing rapidly, will the fuel producers be taking this route ?

Since OMEs can be synthesised from renewable feedstocks, via Renewable Hydrogen, by a variety of processing routes, the race is on to find optimised methods of producing them.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part K

Reviewing the range of actors or agencies that will possibly or probably demanding Renewable Gas, it seems that money could make the world of Energy Transition turn around.

12.   The Investment Community (Continued)

Divestment, the process of taking investments away from certain classes of stocks and shares based on a range of criteria, is something that has been happening for decades or longer. Ethical investors have been pulling out of guns, weapons, tobacco, slavery, South Africa and other questionable holdings.

Of late, with the firming up of ambition for action on climate change, a range of shareholders are increasingly keen to make sure their capital is not supporting net carbon dioxide and methane emissions. Especially significant are aggregated investors from financial organisations, such as banks; and social organisations, such as churches, universities and local authorities.

Some may question the actionability of calls for change, but the words have been spoken, and influence will be felt, particularly as data is accumulated over time.

There has been a major exit from coal, and there will likely be an exit from firms dealing with other firms that do coal.

As it becomes clear to investors that major energy companies are speaking with green lips, but have carbon-spewing hearts, or are not making their transitions to low carbon resources in a decent timescale, assets are being withdrawn and placed with clean technology operators.

As the volume of divestment increases, a major problem with emerge : since almost everybody holds energy stock, it will be impossible for every investor group to divest away from the petroleum, Natural Gas and coal in their portfolios.

Demand for cleaner energy investing will definitely outstrip supply. There is a risk that funds will be removed from the real assets of energy, and placed in virtual or service-based commodities elsewhere; thereby placing stock markets at high risk of implosion, should there be an economic or financial crisis.

Investors want solid securities : bricks and mortar, mining, infrastructure, energy, food, water – these are the bedrock of the economy. Any clean energy stocks that open up will be flooded.

It is clear that a real possibility exists that divestment will trigger oil and gas companies to get serious about Renewable Gas. Renewable Gas technologies are within the skill set, and even the back catalogue of patents, of oil and gas companies. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, oil and gas companies matured a number of relevant synthetic gas processes. Back in the 1930s, synthetic gases and oils were already developed on a grand scale.

It will be necessary, however, to make sure that coal doesn’t sneak back in under the cover of synthetic gas. Renewable Gas needs to be resourced from biomass, renewable electricity, water, air and recycled carbon dioxide. Gas that is synthesised from coal, oil or Natural Gas is just not renewable.

For investors to ask for Renewable Gas of the oil and gas majors is not an ask too remote or too difficult.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part J

The tenth part in a series looking at the actors and forces behind the adoption of Renewable Gas.

15.   Sub-Sector Civil Society Action Takers (Continued)

Within history, even within living memory, gas supplied to consumers was made by gasifying coal or heavy oil. Known as “town gas”, it was mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and hence poisonous. Gas was provided to townsfolk by city-scale gas plants, which were under municipal management. This model could perhaps be readopted, if cities are determined to regulate the embedded carbon emissions of gas supplies within their geographical jurisdiction.

This level of intervention is already being implemented in connection with transport. For example, civic events such as “Car Free Sundays” could become normalised, and could lead to redesigning urban spaces to be permanently carfree

Cities are already involved in measures to curb the numbers of certain kinds of car being driven in urban centres, such as Oxford, Hamburg, London and Paris; and it would be a logical extension of this level of local authority to request that all gas supplies and gas use within the city limits met climate change and air pollution criteria.

It’s a short leap to go from controlling vehicles to making requirements on fuelling by geography, for example, making sure that electric vehicle charging, and hydrogen and compressed Natural Gas (CNG) fuelling stations are provided.

Where cities are ramping up action on climate change, after addressing the energy used by public buildings, the next level would be to exact controls on the carbon dioxide emissions of private dwellings and corporately-owned business properties. Whilst a tax could be seen as a high level of punitive interference, demands that energy companies supply green gas to consumers within the city boundaries could come to be seen as a reasonable and appropriate ask.

At the moment, action would be in terms of the provision of infrastructre; later on, it would become mandated. For example, cities such as Leeds are directly involved in projects to decarbonise the gas fuels used in the locality.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part I

I am continuing to consider who will build the ask for Renewable Gas and why.

14.   Power Grid Operators

For now, those who manage electricity distribution are most concerned about how to manage the increasing amounts of sometimes zero cost, but variable, renewable power.

They are working to strengthen grid hardiness, to compensate for uncontrollable, but calculable, changes in supply and demand, as weather conditions alter what is available from wind and sun.

As the amount of renewable power soars, grid operators will increasingly need to turn their attention to energy buffering and energy storage – how to offset demand in one sector of the grid with supply in another; and how to offset excess supply, by offloading power to storage, in order to compensate for scarcity in supply in a later time period.

After pumping water to set up hydroelectricity storage for future use, perhaps the most obvious solution to this question is the use of solid state power batteries – although some are looking at flow batteries and other chemical flow solutions – even including pressurised gas systems and gravity batteries.

The question of which technology is appropriate and cost-efficient for which scenario will depend on ramp times and scale. Where large volumes of energy storage are required, particularly for long periods, many are proposing the making of gas with excess power.

If the power grid operators want to have oversight of much or all of the energy storage they depend on, they might choose to go for some kind of power-to-gas solution, as it will match the kind of scale they need.

15.   Sub-Sector Civil Society Action Takers

Whilst economic actors such as power grid operators as a group will seek solutions that include Renewable Gas, there will be sub-sector groups that might also choose to go down this route. They will need to have a certain scale in order for it to make economic sense, however.

International processes and colloquia, such as C40 Cities, include some bold action takers. Will cities not only ban certain types of cars travelling in their centres, but also require all gas that flows into urban areas be low carbon ?


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part H

Who is going to ask for Energy Change ? And why ? Does anything speak more clearly than the flow of money – whether as investment or tax-and-revenue spend ?

Policymakers, academics and “campaigning” non-governmental groups might form a cluster around a call for decarbonising the gas side of the energy system, but this call will not be anywhere near as potent as demands coming from other parts of the economy and society.

12.   The Investment Community

Electricity is great, but converting everything to power is likely to be an uphill struggle, and take a very long time; and so it might be better policy just to accept that gas and liquid energy fuels are useful, and coalesce around a strategy that builds out the low carbon transition on the back of fast-growing Renewable Gas.

Deploying Renewable Gas and synthetic renewable fuels produced from Renewable Gas could grow several magnitudes faster than electrification; primarily because they would substitute directly for gases and fuels already in play. No need to change the equipment, vehicles or industrial plant very much – just roll with the low carbon fuel replacements.

To grow Renewable Gas requires a parallel growth in renewable electricity, as much Renewable Gas will be made as something-to-gas by the power of moving electrons, but Renewable Gas could be a significant multiplier of impact from renewable power on its own.

The second reason why Renewable Gas might accumulate energy market share quickly is that Renewable Gas can serve the chemicals industry as well as the energy sector.

Thirdly, Renewable Gas might attract investment significantly more rapidly than wind power and solar power because its production chain would follow the currently established model of chemistry and industry, where there is centralised and large scale output.

Fourth, Renewable Gas is likely to be “investable” and “bankable” because large industrial projects are an appropriate size for significant financing and investment. And in fact, for investment funds and pension funds, where fiduciary responsility is pushing fund managers to scout out safe hands with a view to building climate-friendly portfolios, business-to-business level holdings are very important, as they offer the prospect of being secure and good value.

Small private investors are likely to be interested in small green gas ventures; but when large private investors are looking to do something climatey, they will want to put their capital into the hands of large well-established industrial partners. Although the “green” investment by large chemicals and energy companies until now has been in terms of very small percentages, and this has rightly been accused of “greenwashing”, that does not need to remain the case if there is focus on growing syngas and synfuels with very low embedded and final product net carbon dioxide emissions.

The calls that will be significant could come from co-ordinated and highly public shareholder action – shareholder groups leading the vanguard for change as they learn the possibilities for the collective industrial-energy chemistry set.

Large institutional, national and aggregated funds may call for 100% carbon transition plans from the giant energy and chemical engineering firms. It isn’t enough for major oil and gas companies to buy a few wind farms or sell renewable electricity – they need to start transforming their core businesses to remove fossil carbon from their products.

It will be up to the financial markets to vote on individual company decarbonisation strategies. As knowledge about Renewable Chemistry improves, a big tick will go to holdings that adopt it.

Many investors hold property, as it is “safe as houses”. And yet, there is a large carbon risk attached to bricks and mortar, as it is very costly to properly insulate extant buildings that were erected without proper energy control features. It is in the interests of landlords, who are under pressure to go green, to ask the energy companies to go greener : green in, green out in terms of energy into homes.

13.   Economists

Governments and their pet economists are always looking for something they can claim as a new economic stimulus. A “Green New Deal” where part public-part private capital investment in new energies and new technologies, and the concomitant new employment, might just provide this : and a large part of this could be Renewable Gas. Creating long-lasting Renewable Gas assets might appear to be a single round of investment with no repeaters for economic development, but creating sustainable assets will permit piggybacking for other economic movement, such as creating energy access for all around the world.

Yes, there will be a need to expend capital. But the returns for the global economy could pay back many times.

As for investment security, well, Renewable Gas, with its feed-in of renewable electricity, will eat up risks; not just the climate risks, but also threats to the survival of trading entities from poor economic conditions brought about by adherence to fossil fuels causing dangerous climate change.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part G

I asked a proper chemist about my table of synthetic fuels (synfuels). They said something to the effect that they were in two minds about the use of carbon in fuels, and that they thought it was a shame to put so much effort into synthesising molecules, only to burn them. On the other hand, they were perfectly happy with synthesised molecules being used as raw materials for chemical engineering.

I have encountered the expression of similar ideas before, and I think it partly results from a well-established paradigm that considers chemical engineering somewhat apart from energy engineering. The fact of the matter is that molecules are being restructured all the time, everywhere in the vast and sprawling petroleum- and Natural Gas-based energy system, as well as in Big Chemistry.

These days, there are very few things that happen at oil refineries that don’t involve altering molecules; including the use of combustion and gasification to deal with waste disposal, and provide on-site energy. Synthesis is part of the bedrock and fabric of fuel production – it’s not a step too alien.

My reply was basically to say that I understood the chemist’s reticence about maintaining the use of carbon in the new fuels of the Energy Transition. It would make a lot of sense to jump straight to a Hydrogen-and-Renewable-Power Economy. But, I said, as there are a billion Internal Combustion Engines (ICE) on the road around the world, and this is going to be that case for at least the next couple of decades, we need to continue to provide liquid fuels, and that this can be most easily done using carbon-based molecules, as they naturally have higher boiling points.

As for the implication that there is a high cost and high inefficiency in synthesising molecules for use as road/rail/ship/plane fuel, that ain’t necessarily so. Like all things, it will depend on concentrating effort in improving processes and equipment. Task forces. Investment. Focus.

Basically, as we are stuck with needing to provide liquid carbon-based drive for the global fleet for decades to come, and yet we need to undergo an Energy Transition to much lower net emissions fuels, we have two main choices for an approach :-

1.   Decomposition

Decomposition of biomass can be done in a range of biological and thermochemical ways, some of which result in complex hydrocarbon/carbohydrate molecules; and others of which produce simple compounds (usually gases) that would need synthesis to make them into appropriate liquid fuels.

Where biomass can be decomposed directly to liquid fuels, there are often problems arising from contaminants and unwanted by-products. This sometimes gives a poor “atom economy”, and will lead to continuing criticism about waste disposal – essentially rejecting molecules and atoms – which is innately inefficient.

The current petroleum production and refining system has high levels of rejected molecules, such as carbon dioxide and sulfur. Managing this carries a high burden. Do we really want to reproduce that ? Where’s the optimisation ?

2.   Synthesis

By taking biomass and water and industrial waste gases and using thermochemistry to break them all down into basic, foundational molecules, and then using renewable electricity to synthesise them into usuable fuels, stands a chance of being highly efficient in the use of molecules. Starting chemistry with smaller and neater molecules, and choosing which ones we use, means a higher possible eventual atom economy.

Sure, it would require a certain amount of solar power and wind power, but this wouldn’t be inefficiency in the traditional sense. There are plenty more sunshine where the last rays came from, and no waste is created by using their energy with less than 100% efficiency. And the wind keeps on blowing, even though we might use up a lot of wind power for chemistry, without creating slag heaps, or needing to bury carbon dioxide.

With synthesis, energy is chemistry, and chemistry is energy. But then, that’s the way it’s becoming anyway. Virtually every atom that goes into a petroleum refinery has to be processed before it’s fit for purpose. We are getting to the point where crude petroleum is no longer the best option for input feedstocks for liquid fuels.

In addition, synthesis allows us to put carbon dioxide to good use. At the moment, this would be unavoidable carbon dioxide created by industrial processes, and gathered for use in synthetic fuels.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part F

Synthetic and renewable fuels are likely to be able to answer both climate change and air pollution concerns, to a greater or lesser extent.

Which gases are best to use for which purpose ? Gases good for combustion release a lot of heat when oxidised. Gases good for trade by liquefaction have boiling points closer to 0° C than further away from it. Simple covalently-bound molecules are most appropriate for reactor chemistry – where transformational reactions are fostered.

Which liquids are best for which application ? Liquids for cleaner combustion are likely to be oxygenate – have oxygen in their formula; and when their thermochemical properties suit the engines they are to be burned in.

Here is a first pass at summarising some of the molecules being investigated – molecules that can be synthesised from basic input chemical feedstocks.

Table : A Selection of Compounds in Industrial Gas and Fuels Chemistry

Note : STP = Standard Temperature and Pressure (20° C to 25° C, at 1 atmosphere of pressure).

Note : DME is here used for Dimethyl ether, and not Dimethoxyethane.

Note : Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ethers are also known as PODE, Polyoxymethylene dimethyl ethers; POMDME or OMDME.

CompoundFormula Boiling Point
(° C)
State (STP)Use
HydrogenH2 -252.87GasFuel, Feedstock
WaterH2O +100LiquidFeedstock
OxygenO2 -182.95GasCombustion
Carbon monoxideCO -191.5GasFuel, Feedstock
Carbon dioxideCO2 -57GasExhaust, Feedstock
AmmoniaNH3 -33.34GasProduct
NitrogenN2 -195.8GasFeedstock
Nitrous oxideN2O -88.46GasExhaust
Nitrogen dioxideNO2 +21.15Liquid/GasExhaust
Nitric oxide, nitrogen monoxideNO -152GasExhaust
MethaneCH4 -161.50GasFuel, Feedstock
EthaneC2H6; H3C-CH3 -88.5GasFuel, Feedstock
PropaneC3H8; H3C-CH2-CH3 -42GasFuel, Feedstock
Butane, n-ButaneC4H10; H3C-CH2-CH2-CH3 -0.5GasFuel, Feedstock
isoButane, 2-MethylpropaneC4H10; H3C-CH(-CH3)-CH3 -11.7GasFuel, Feedstock
Ethene, EthyleneC2H4; H2C=CH2 -103.7GasFeedstock
Propene, Propylene, Methyl ethyleneC3H6; H2C=CH(-CH3) -185.2GasFeedstock
Butene, Butylene, as alpha-ButyleneC4H8; H2C=CH(-CH2CH3) -6.3GasFeedstock
Butene, Butylene, as cis-beta-ButyleneC4H8; H3C-CH=(CH(-CH3)) +2.25, +3.72…GasFeedstock
Butene, Butylene, as trans-beta-ButyleneC4H8; H3C-CH=(CH(-CH3)) +2.25, +3.73…GasFeedstock
Butene, Butylene, as isoButyleneC4H8; H2C=C(-CH3)CH3 -6.9GasFeedstock
Methanol, MeOHCH3OH; H3C-OH +64.7LiquidFuel, Feedstock
Ethanol, EtOHC2H6O; H3C-CH2-OH +78.24LiquidFuel, Feedstock
Propanol, 1-PropanolC3H8O; H3C-CH2-CH2-OH +97 to +98LiquidFuel, Feedstock
isoPropanol, isoPropyl Alcohol, IPA, 2-PropanolC3H8O; H3C-CH(-OH)-CH3 82.6LiquidFuel, Feedstock
Butanol, n-Butanol, 1-Butanol, butan-1-olC4H9OH; H3C-CH2-CH2-CH2-OH +117.6LiquidFuel, Feedstock
sec-Butanol, 2-Butanol, butan-2-olC4H9OH; H3C-CH2-CH(-OH)-CH3 +98 to +100LiquidFuel, Feedstock
isoButanol, 2-methylpropan-1-olC4H9OH; H3C-CH(-CH3)-CH2-OH +107.89LiquidFuel, Feedstock
tert-Butanol, 2-methylpropan-2-olC4H10O; H3C-CH3(-CH3)-OH +82.3LiquidFuel, Feedstock
Methanal, FormaldehydeCH2O; H2C=O +64.7LiquidFeedstock
Dimethyl ether, Methoxymethane, DME, PODE-0, OMDME-0C2H6O; H3C-O-CH3 -24GasFuel, Feedstock
Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ether 1, OME-1, Methylal, Dimethoxymethane,
C3H8O2; H3C-O-CH2-O-CH3 +42, +45.2LiquidFuel, Feedstock
Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ether 2, OME-2, PODE-2, OMDME-2C4H10O3; H3C-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH3 +105LiquidFuel
Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ether 3, OME-3, PODE-3, OMDME-3C5H12O4; H3C-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH3 +156LiquidFuel
Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ether 4, OME-4, PODE-4, OMDME-4C6H14O5; H3C-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH3 +202LiquidFuel
Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ether 5, OME-5, PODE-5, OMDME-5C7H16O6; H3C-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH3 +242LiquidFuel
TrioxaneC3H6O3; -CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O- +114.5LiquidFeedstock
Diethyl ether, Ether, Ethoxyethane, DEE, OMDEE-0C4H10O; H3C-H2C-O-CH2-CH3 +35LiquidFuel
Oxymethylene Diethyl Ether 1, Diethoxymethane,
Ethylal, DEM, OMDEE-1
C5H12O2; H3C-H2C-O-CH2-O-CH2-CH3 +88LiquidFuel, Feedstock
Oxymethylene Diethyl Ether 2, OMDEE-2C6H14O3; H3C-H2C-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-CH3 +140LiquidFuel
Oxymethylene Diethyl Ether 3, OMDEE-3C7H16O4; H3C-H2C-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-CH3 +185LiquidFuel
Oxymethylene Diethyl Ether 4, OMDEE-4C8H18O5; H3C-H2C-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-O-CH2-CH3 +225LiquidFuel
Dibutyl ether, DBEC8H18O; H3C-H2C-H2C-H2C-O-CH2-CH2-CH2-CH3 +140.8LiquidFuel

The Renewable Gas Ask : Part E

Previously, I have been considering what groups of economic actors in what sectors could be influential in calling for the development of Renewable Gas – low net carbon emissions gases, used as energy fuels and chemical feedstocks, thermochemically or biologically synthesised from renewable electricity, water and biomass :-

I need to go back a little bit to add some extra thoughts, so these will be paragraphs marked with “Continued”.

1.   The World of Chemical Engineering (Continued)

One key sector in the universe of molecule management is plastics, which are now so essential in trade, commerce and manufacturing. That there is so much ethane coming on-stream from the United States hydraulic fracturing oil rush in the form of high levels of NGLs (Natural Gas Liquids) is good news for petrochemical firms big in polymers. Yet, this bounty is unlikely to continue, so what should happen when fracking uncertainties start to mount ?

Will Big Chemistry start to ask for Renewable Gas ? And will they ask for Renewable Gas from themselves ? This would make sense, as the petrochemical industry will have need of a range of light organic and inorganic molecules, even if these are not being supplied as by-products from the mining and refining of fossil fuels.

Petrochemical plants need to to be able to ride changes in the composition of a barrel of oil, and the “balance of plant” in oil refineries. Here, there would be a huge sink for any Renewable Hydrogen that could be made by any sector. Hydrogen is necessary to synthesise a range of chemistry, for example the production of agricultural chemicals, such as ammonia. If the source of much of the world’s hydrogen continues to be fossil fuels, for example, through the gasification of coals and the steam reforming of the methane from Natural Gas, then Big Chemistry will live with increasing uncertainties about the guarantees of supply.

The agricultural sector could step in themselves and ask for Renewable Gas to underpin their supplies of fertiliser, pesticides and other chemicals feeding the world.

5.   Car Manufacturers (Continued)
6.   Utility Vehicle Manufacturers (Continued)
7.   Freight Vehicle Manufacturers (Continued)

It is anticipated to take a considerable amount of time to replace the current global fleet of internal combustion engine drive (ICE) vehicles, whether car (automobile), light duty vans or heavy duty, heavy goods vehicle trucks/lorries.

Vehicle manufacturing companies have divergent strategies. Many of them have launched electric-only ranges. Some of those serving the freight/haulage markets have brought out gas drive options, intended to be run on CNG, Compressed Natural Gas; in advance of electric models, perhaps because of concerns about power-to-weight ratios, or levels of confidence in batteries. Some automakers have brought out hydrogen fuel cells models, but this only makes sense where there is hydrogen distribution network for fuelling stations. By contrast, power and Natural Gas are distributed widely.

There is a lot of advertising for electric or electric-hybrid vehicles, but this will only impact on the sales of new vehicles – a vast majority of the global “fleet” will remain fuelled by liquids. Whilst sales of electric models pick up, companies will still be selling new ICE cars, vans and so on. As demand for electric models rises, there will likely be situations where production and supply cannot keep up. These imbalances will lead to stress in highly competitive markets.

This dynamic could make the car companies seek to create a levelising factor, to gain back control of sales densities by appealing to oil refiners to bring the net carbon in fuels down. Then customers could have the option to buy combustion engine models, but use “alternative”, “advanced” fuels, which have far lower net carbon emissions.

From the point of view of the economists, this would be preferable : vehicles running on new low carbon fuels would be tested in the market, competing against models driven on electric drive (and hybridised). And in addition, hybrids could use the new fuels too, and become 100% low carbon.

Running two streams of low-to-zero carbon energy to vehicles will also help to document the relative efficiency of power versus low carbon liquid fuels in the whole system.

The theoretical well-to-wheels energy efficiency of electric drive vehicles is significantly better than liquid fuels combustion drive vehicles; however, there is a need to buffer the electricity – running power to filling stations is not optimal. The energy from the electricity should be stored first, awaiting filling demand.

Synthesised gas could act as the buffer to power. This low carbon gas would be stored centrally, and as required, run to the filling stations by pipeline network. Because the gas is packed in the line, it will not be wasted. Fuel cells at the filling stations would convert the gas back to power, as and when needed.

Whilst low mileage/kilometrage electric vehicles might be the right answer for urban environments, particularly from the point of view of air quality, the question of freight – the haulage of food, resources and goods – is one that may be answered by gas drive vehicles rather than electric vehicles. Having a tankable fuel eliminates range anxiety, and means that heavy batteries do not need to be carried along with the merchandise. Any light duty vehicle too that needs to run long distances might be better propelled by liquid or gas fuels – another possible market for Renewable Gas and the liquid fuels that can be synthesised from it.

Besides the carmakers, and the light and heavy goods vehicle manufacturers, the road hauliers as trade bodies might put up the ask for Renewable Gas in the form of Renewable Fuels; traditionally there have been strong trade associations between fuel refiners, fuel distributors, filling station networks and those who run haulage.

11.   The Fossil Oil and Gas Producers

Strange as it may sound, the companies that produce crude petroleum oil and Natural Gas might themselves start to call for Renewable Gas. This would partly be because they are strongly vertically integrated enterprises, with refineries and they also often do distribution of fuels for sale.

Key oil majors have for some time been strategising about becoming gas majors – focussing their business plans on gas instead of oil. If it is true, that Peak Demand for Oil has been reached, oil majors, now gas majors, might begin to consider what would happen when there is a Peak in Demand for Gas, too; if consumers started to desert fossil hydrocarbons and head towards Renewable Electricity for their energy.

The ex-oil, now-gas majors would therefore need to have a plan to keep up their levels of income, and keep their shareholders happy. A good way to do that would be to enter into the field of providing energy services, and making and providing low carbon electricity – some companies such as Shell have been very overt about doing this.

If these companies go the next logical step and also get into energy storage, the wheel will have come full circle, as power storage is perhaps best as synthetic gas production and storage.

And so, Renewable Gas would be a strategy for ex-oil, now-gas majors to keep from contracting, to keep up sales of energy, whilst dropping the carbon from it.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part D

The extent to which Energy Change will take place in response to Climate Change depends on the set of technologies being pursued, and also on the influential voices and actors in energy and chemistry that call for those technologies to be deployed.

As gas fuels and gas chemicals are so flexible in their use, they can assist with Energy Change as well as securing industrial chemistry in a climate-constrained future, where petroleum-derived compounds – the leftovers from petroleum refining for fuels – may no longer enter the supply chain.

As petroleum-derived fuels fall from favour, the relative volumes of petroleum-derived chemical feedstocks available will inevitably change, as petroleum refineries have to adjust their processes.

As just one example, the availability of ethane, propane and butane, and the compounds made from ethane, propane and butane, will change as the resources of petroleum exploited change, and as demand for petroleum-based fuels will change.

The “balance of plant” in the petroleum refinery will see shifts both in input compounds and output compounds. As of now, the plastics industry is replete with ethane, as shale gas and shale oil exploitation affords extra supplies; but as the shale industry wanes, the Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) – a mixture of compounds part-liquid and part-gas – from shale hydraulic fracturing will no longer be on the supply side slate.

There is likely to be increasing demand for synthesised base chemicals, to guarantee the plastics and associated chemical industries.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part C

Ordinary citizens, even shareholders, have little agency when asking for change in energy systems. Oh yes, we can turn down the thermostat, and buy green gas, but we cannot prevent the sales and operation of millions of internal combustion engine vehicles, moving people and goods in a never-ending bonfire of fossil fuels.

Table : A Selection of “Green” Gas Energy Suppliers

UK “Green” Gas SellerHow “Green” the Gas ?
Good Energy“carbon neutral gas”;
6% biogas/biomethane
Ecotricity“Carbon neutral gas”;
building green gasmills
Bulb“100% carbon neutral”
Tonik“carbon neutral”
Green Energy (UK)“100% Certified Green Gas
Pure Planet (with BP)“100% carbon offset gas”; purchase of CER Carbon Emissions Reductions
npower : Go Green tariffClimateCare “100% carbon offset gas”; purchase of “Emissions Reductions”

To engineer an Energy Change commensurate with Climate Change, the larger players in society and the economy need to ask for it, and they need to know what precisely to ask for. Should they ask for more nuclear power, it were a long, expensive time coming and clearing up from be. Should they seek Carbon Capture and Storage, or even Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage, it were sub-sectoral, slow, inefficient and hard to implement be.

So far, this inspection has looked at the worlds of chemical engineering, renewable electricity, the smaller gas and oil production companies and also the gas turbine and gas-fired power generators. Here are some further actors that will be involved in the Giant Ask for Renewable Gas.

5.   Car Manufacturers

In the realm of advertising, the promotion of electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles has become ubiquitous. For the car-owning, car-proud, car-dependent population, this is a significant shift in the universal private car culture propaganda. Car advertisements are everywhere in car-ful societies, and copious, so this influence should not be dismissed.

However much this affects the desire to make the next car purchase electric or hybrid, it doesn’t change the basic arithmetic : higher demand cannot easily be met, because it involves a fundamental change in investment by the car manufacturers : they cannot run two factories in parallel place of one, so they need to make decisions about whether to go electric/hybrid or stay fossil.

Some car companies have made statements that they are going hyper-electric, meaning that they will become the alternative car makers of choice. This will tip the balance somewhat, but will still permit consumer choice by leaving some companies still making ICE internal combustion engine petrol-gasoline and diesel models.

Hybrid models are a little bit like sitting on the fence.

Yet, as electric vehicle (and hybrid vehicle) demand increases, partly in response to the switch in advertising, car makers will need to respond further, by making new investment.

It will not be DAU – driving as usual.

In the midst of all this change, there might be some car manufacturers who take a different tack. They might ask why they need to buy new factories and new industrial equipment. Why not ask the fuel producers to change their fuels ? I mean, car manufacturers have responded to scientific and regulatory concerns about air quality, by investing, and introducing new kit to combat deleterious exhaust emissions. So for them, petrol-gasoline and diesel can be made clean, burned in their vehicle engines and vented through their emissions control kit, without adding to the burden of air pollution. They’ve paid to clean up after themselves. If it’s net carbon emissions to air that potential consumers are now worried about, why not ask the fuel producers to lower the fossil carbon content of their fuels ?

Carbuyers are increasingly trying to choose better. Carmakers are trying to respond. Why don’t the fuel producers join in with this effort to reduce emissions ? Clean up the last link in the carbon chain.

In addition to asking for alternative/advanced/low carbon fuels from fuel producers, whih would all rely in Renewable Gas, the car manufacturers might get the electric bug for vehicles already in the global fleet and join in with projects to convert ICE vehicles to EV electric drive vehicles. This would be a way of making a business out of used cars as well as new cars; which might be a useful income stream if car sales plummet owing to a weak economy and efforts to reduce car sales.

6.   Utility Vehicle Manufacturers

The push from utility vehicle manufacturers on fuel producers, to take the fossil out of their fuels, might be even stronger than for the private automakers. You see, the light goods vehicle and service van market is deeply embedded in and interlinked to the functioning of the peripheral zone of the global economy – small businesses and trades people must use utility vehicles. Whilst individuals may take public transport/transit and relinquish owning a private vehicle, it is not a question of choice for small builder businesses and traders.

Whilst there might be efficiencies of scale in van makers turning over al their fabrication facilities to making electric models, for those that want to continue to offer ICE models, they will need to ask the fuel producers to lower the carbon content of the fuels.

7.   Freight Vehicle Manufacturers

Long distance freight in heavy goods vehicles, ships and aeroplanes is not susceptible to carbon reductions in the same way as other sectors.

Large hauliers might be significant enough in size to make an audible ask of the fuel producers to get out of fossil and into renewable.

8.   The IMO, Ship Builders & Shipping Companies

The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) have been enacting various articles and amendments of the MARPOL since the 1970s – the international Marine Pollution treaty. Recent edicts have impacted on the fuel provision for large cargo and passenger vessels. First there were the Sulfur Emission Control Areas (SECA), and now all ocean-going vessels must comply with the requirement to lower sulfur dioxide emissions. Whilst the recent emphasis has been on reducing the sulfur (sulphur) in marine bunker-fuels, the net result is that there is pressure coming on the fuel producers to substitute fossil fuels for biomass feedstocks in refinery. The reason ? Because the bottom of the barrel of crude petroleum has been used for marine oils, since there has been no other market for this viscous, heavy, long-carbon-chain hydrocarbon mix. And the sulfur from refining crude oil ends up mostly in the bottom of the barrel.

Apart from shale oils, most of the oil grades in the world are becoming heavier in complex hydrocarbons and sulfur. The shale oil “miracle” or “gale” might run out of steam within a decade or so, and the upwards sulfur trajectory across a range of crude oils will be resumed.

Proposals exist to convert shipping vessel drive from MHO/MDO (Marine Heavy Oil/Marine Diesel Oil) to LNG, Liquid Natural Gas, or Methanol in some cases, but this could take some time to invest the replacement equipment. LNG is a good choice, as LNG is transported via shipping ports. Other solutions include using sulfur “scrubbers” onboard.

Of course, another option would be to desulfurise marine oils at source, or replace fossil oils with renewable oils, which would naturally have low sulfur content. As marine fuels are going to remain fossil for some time to come, desulfurisation units must be incorporated into refineries, even for low quality fuel streams, such as marine oils. Refiners will baulk at doing this, because of the added cost of processing to what is consider a cheap, bulk, toxic, waste product.

If they joined the dots, however, they could see that the cheapest and most environmentally-friendly method of desulfurising is using hydrogen, where that hydrogen has been derived in the cheapest way possible from excess renewable electricity and water, produced at times of the day, week, month, season and year when there is a virtually zero-cost supply of renewable power. The best way to ensure low cost hydrogen would be to own your own dedicated renewable power supply.

Will the IMO regulations therefore be instrumental in oil and gas refiners buying wind farms for their own special use – to make the extra hydrogen they need for desulfurisation of marine fuels ?

There are tight and firm relationships between shipping companies and oil refineries. Will the shipping companies be making the ask for Renewable Hydrogen capacity to desulfurise the marine fuels they need ?

And will the shipping companies be asking for a gradual transition from the oil refineries, a way through to seeing more and more LRG – Liquid Renewable Gas (mostly methane) – become available for marine fuel needs ?

Renewable Methanol could be the choice of some short haul shipping services, such as the pleasure boats, smaller holiday cruise ships, passenger and car ferries. They would need to ask their fuel stockists, who would ask their refiners for this fuel.

Table : Petroleum Products and Blends Used as Fuel For Shipping Vessels

HSFOHigh Sulfur Fuel Oil
MFOMarine Fuel Oil
MDOMarine Diesel Oil, Marine Diesel, Distillate Marine Diesel
MGOMarine Gasoil

9.   Other International Agencies, such as IEA Bioenergy and Governments

The International Energy Agency (IEA) Bioenergy stream has been involved in the research and development of a number of biofuel displacements of fossil fuels. Biodiesel is now an accepted (if small) constituent of many fuel blends, for example. Bioethanol is also a globally recognised fuel.

Knowledge in the network is advanced, and work by partners in the tasks will undoubtedly influence directions in governmental policies, for example, the work on biorefining – replacing fossil fuel refineries with biomass-sources molecules.

The ask for Renewable Gas could well be triggered by governments utilising outcomes from IEA Bioenergy Tasks and similar research groups to make demands on their hosted “national” or privatised oil and gas companies.

Countries in north western Europe, including the United Kingdom, may have great cause to see biofuels replacing fossil fuels – as indigenous production of crude petroleum and Natural Gas has slumped significantly in the last decade.

The European Union already has strong policies on Renewable Gas, as part of the ever-evolving Energy Package, backed up by work done by the IEA and the European Commission, such as the Third Energy Package, which contains the Natural Gas Directive, in which Article 2 reads, “In relation to security of supply, energy efficiency/demand-side management and for the fulfilment of environmental goals and goals for energy from renewable sources, as referred to in this paragraph, Member States may introduce the implementation of long-term planning, taking into account the possibility of third parties seeking access to the system”; and Article 5 reads, “5. In order to protect the independence of the regulatory authority, Member States shall in particular ensure that: […] facilitating access to the network for new production capacity, in particular removing barriers that could prevent access for new market entrants and of gas from renewable energy sources […]”

Foundational documents include the Renewable Energy Directive (2018), in which Article 59 reads, “Guarantees of origin which are currently in place for renewable electricity should be extended to cover renewable gas. Extending the guarantees of origin system to energy from non-renewable sources should be an option for
Member States. This would provide a consistent means of proving to final customers the origin of renewable gas such as biomethane and would facilitate greater cross-border trade in such gas. It would also enable the creation of guarantees of origin for other renewable gas such as hydrogen.”; and the Fuel Quality Directive (2011).

Since the anticipiated ratio of biologically-derived biofuels (including gases) and synthetic biofuels (and gases) could be 1:10, there will naturally be a lot of emphasis on how best to produce synthetic, renewable fuels (including gases). Synthesising fuels requires hydrogen, methane and methanol. Under the terms of the legislation, this means that Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane and Renewable Methanol will be required. This means that one large part of the ask for Renewable Gas in the European region could well come from the federal parliament.

10.   Industrial High Energy Consumers

Industries like the manufacturers of steel, concrete and glass have centralised and high energy consumption : they may be influential in making a strong ask of the energy supply companies for renewable electricity and Renewable Gas to lower their sectoral carbon dioxide emissions. This would be particularly the case if they were required to purchase more costly carbon credits, or carbon taxation was implemented.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part B

In the continuing inquiry and introspection into which parties are likely to be asking the large oil and gas (and coal) companies to displace crude petroleum oil and Natural Gas (and coal) with Renewable Gas and liquid Renewable Fuels, we now move on to a wider caucus.

4. Gas Turbine and Other Power Engineers

Without Renewable Gas, the future of gas has several possible routes, and each one implies an increase in required processing before the gas can be piped into the consumer grids. It also has implications for power generation through gas combustion in gas turbines.

4a. Where Natural Gas Will Come From With Time

The chemical composition of Natural Gas will change over time, as conventional resources are depleted and unconventional resources are exploited. Much Natural Gas is produced alongside oil, as part of a spectrum of hydrocarbon molecules. A significant fraction of the gaseous constituents of conventional petroleum fields is methane, and there are very small amounts of ethane, propane and butane; but in unconventional systems, the ratios of these first four hydrocarbons are changed. In the United States for example, there is a surfeit of ethane being produced from hydraulically fractured (fracked) shale wells. Where the balance is tipped, and ethane propane and butane are in excess and there is no market for them, then these hydrocarbons would be considered to supplement Natural Gas for industrial and power generation purposes. The divergent molecular recipe for Natural Gas has an implication for gas turbine operation, and therefore also gas turbine design.

4b. Synthetically-Produced Gas

As conventional petroleum oil and gas resources enter the downward depletion trend and unconventional petroleum oil and gas resources start to falter, there will be a knock-on effect on those who are currently very focussed on one version of the “Hydrogen Economy” : in their preferred configuration, hydrogen is made from Natural Gas, but if Natural Gas becomes significantly constrained and supplies are uncertain, the case for using it to produce hydrogen will fade away. Other hydrocarbon and carbohydrate feedstocks will be considered for gas-making, but making pure hydrogen will be often be inefficient, so synthesised gas will be a mixture – a little bit like the Town Gas that used to be made by gasifying coal. Syngas being used as a fuel for power generation will also have implications for gas turbine operation and design.

The gas turbines of the future will there need to be more flexible as regards the fuel that they use. Gas-fired power plants will also need to be more flexible in terms of ramp up and ramp down, in response to variability in renewable electricity supplies. Can the need to adapt, to both a chemical change in fuels and the change in functionality required, together be too difficult to navigate ?

All this change might create chaos for gas-fired power generation utilities and gas turbine engineers. It is a possibility that they will therefore make approaches to the oil and gas companies asking for more standardised gas fuels. This would therefore lead to adoption of the cleanest and most basic gas fuels : Renewable Methane and Renewable Hydrogen.


The Renewable Gas Ask : Part A

The Energy Change for the major oil and gas (and coal) companies will not come about because of protestors barricading themselves outside corporate headquarters and gluing themselves to things. It won’t come about because a wildlife or environmental charity organises a postcard campaign. It won’t even come about because the United Nations meets once a year to discuss Climate Change.

The transition out of fossil fuels and into renewable fuel sources as the primary input to the world’s chemical engineering plants and refineries is going to come about because of a range of asks from a number of different actors.

Here is the start of a few ideas about which players could kickstart deep carbon-busting Energy Change :-

1. The World of Chemical Engineering

Oil, gas and coal companies cannot dig up their raw product and take it straight to market. They have to process the raw materials before they can be used for chemical and energy purposes. Any energy system that is not centred on electricity is essentially a giant chemistry set, and companies that make products in their own plants purchase chemical engineering machinery and skill from other chemical engineering companies. That coker that sits at your refinery ? That came from a third party chemical engineering manufacturer. That gasification reactor ? Ditto. That gas sweetening unit ? Same again. Whilst it’s true that some oil and gas refiners have patented their own chemical engineering processes, they still use metal casings, pipework and reactors made by others.

Within the network of chemical engineering companies, all mutually interdependent, there are stirrings of concern about climate change, and it can be envisaged that some companies will turn green, and negotiate new relationships with refineries and petrochemical plants. They will offer greener, cleaner chemical processes. They will sell greener, cleaner feedstocks as input raw materials. Already, we have seen environmental regulation and attention to health and safety change not only operational practices, but also cause a switch in chemical engineering processes – such as, in some process chains, the use of hydrogen in processing hydrocarbons, instead of dangerous acids.

The focus on hydrogen is continuing to mount, as hydrogen can be used for a number of essential chemical engineering needs. With general concern about global warming rising up engineering boss agendas, it is therefore to be anticipated that third parties will increasingly offer Renewable Hydrogen-based processing units and workflow options to refineries and chemoplastics businesses.

The methane in Natural Gas is a vital fuel and input to chemical engineering, and so for parties urging efficiency with the use of Natural Gas, it can be seen that more supply and demand of Renewable Methane into petroleum refinery and petrochemical plants will likely arise.

There is a range of chemistry that can be done to modify hydrocarbon molecules to meet desired criteria, and the ask for Renewable Gas will not require revolutionary, untrialled change in chemical engineering. This basic fact will enable seamless adoption. When the chemistry in an industry uses any kind of synthesis, whether of and from gas fuels, liquid fuels, gas chemicals or liquid chemicals, Renewable Gas can be part of that. Some of the essential Renewable Gas and Renewable Gas-derived molecules are : Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane and Renewable Methanol. With these three, most of today’s and tomorrow’s chemical engineering can be done.

2. The World of Renewable Electricity Engineering

Companies that are involved in the deployment of renewable electricity, in the form of wind power and solar power, continue to find themselves on the cusp of massive expansion in energy production. Ramping up renewable electricity supply is not without hurdles, and there are gluts and gaps that need smoothing over. Power grids are investing in network batteries for hour-to-hour, day-to-day coverage as backup, but there will remain a need for week-to-week, month-to-month and season-to-season storage of the energy provided by renewable electricity.

This is where synthesised, synthetic gases come in. When power grid transmission operators and electricity distribution companies start to ask for green long-term storage, they will ask for Renewable Gas of one kind or another.

As synthetic gas storage becomes widespread, the fossil fuel companies, who will be facing continuing calls to “green up”, will all decide to get into renewable electricity and Renewable Gas, because adding clean, green power and clean, green energy storage to their asset portfolios will be an easy way to downgrade their emissions, and tick climate change action boxes for their investors.

3. Smaller Oil and Gas Companies

Already, we see smaller energy companies publishing their strategies to act on climate change by undergoing Energy Change. Some are more ambitious than others. Their actions on energy transition will doubtless eventually impact the actions of the much larger oil and gas majors.

Vattenfall (with Preem)–press-releases/pressreleases/2019/preem-and-vattenfall-deepen-partnership-for-the-production-of-fossil-free-fuel-on-a-large-scale
Equinor (formerly Statoil and StatoilHydro)
Total (with Saft)

Renewable Gas : Corporate Strategies

A Still from BP Energy Illustrated on Natural Gas in the Net Zero World

Energy Change, a suite of responses to Climate Change, is happening at different rates in different sectors of society and economy. Amongst private enterprise, some companies and corporations are ideally placed to make bold, headline changes. They can do so because they are mostly energy consumers, rather than energy producers; although some of them are becoming renewable energy producers as a result of their actions. Examples include :-

Waitrose and John Lewisbiomethane fuel for delivery vehicles
Marks & SpencerPlan A, renewable electricity
Microsoftbiogas, fuel cell energy, renewable electricity
Amazonrenewable electricity
Googlerenewable electricity

Consultancies and agencies research the progress that companies are making and publish guides to investors, such as :-

As You SowCarbon Clean 200
Carbon Disclosure ProjectThe A List
UK Sustainable Investment and Finance AssociationOil pressure gauge

Although good progress is being made by many companies and international corporations, there is still one sector strongly resilient to change : the producers of crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas and coal, together with fossil fuel pipeline networks and refineries.

Taking just two companies, BP and Royal Dutch Shell, here is a short review of their strategies on the New Chemistry – how chemical engineering will be taking traditional non-renewable inputs, together with newly-sourced renewable inputs, and using both to make low carbon fuels.

1.   BP plc

Natural gas and the transition to net zero
Gas in a net-zero energy system

BP’s approach is strong on public relations, and neat-looking conceptuals, but weak on numbers as to the proportion of its products that it aims to properly decarbonise.

1.1 Decarbonisation

In fact, the word “decarbonise” is a BP buzzword, perhaps having been coined by BP public relations people in the first place. It means, variously, “to take the carbon emissions out of energy” and “to take the carbon out of energy”, but it is not used in the sense of “to reduce the amount of fossil fuels in energy”, and there is a very clear reason for that.

Of course, as could easily be expected, BP wants to continue to dig up zero cost ancient remains in the form of oil and gas – that’s the bedrock of their business model. Like all good capitalists, they want to capitalise on cheap dirt and make a pretty penny out of it. Unlike some private enterprises, they do not position themselves to capitalise on cheap labour, however their activities have included forging production contracts in unstable oil-rich and gas-rich states, so they do not necessarily have a clean record on human rights.

1.2 Blue Hydrogen

But BP using the concept of decarbonisation allows them to claim that Natural Gas is going to continue to be a viable fuel into the future, because it can have the carbon taken out. They even have the cheek to adopt the use of the term “Blue Hydrogen” for hydrogen sourced from Natural Gas, because they say that in future, the carbon dioxide from this reforming of Natural Gas methane into hydrogen will be captured and buried. Although they don’t say how much in percentage terms the amount of carbon dioxide they really think is possible to bury.

The term “Blue Hydrogen” should, in my view, be reserved for Renewable Hydrogen produced from water. Here are some suggested terms :-

Colour HydrogenTechnology
White HydrogenNatural Hydrogen from hydrogen wells. Non-renewable.
Yellow HydrogenHydrogen produced by solar energy, for example by electrolysis of water. Renewable.
Orange HydrogenHydrogen produced by using the heat from nuclear power. Non-renewable.
Red HydrogenHydrogen produced during chemical engineering. Non-renewable if the original chemical feedstocks are non-renewable.
Green HydrogenHydrogen produced from biomass, for example steam gasification of grass or wood. Renewable if the biomass correctly sourced.
Blue HydrogenHydrogen produced from water by the use of renewable electricity, for example by wind-powered electrolysis. Renewable.
Purple HydrogenHydrogen produced from the steam reforming of Natural Gas. Non-renewable.
Brown HydrogenHydrogen produced from the gasification or steam reforming of petroleum oil fractions. Non-renewable.
Black HydrogenHydrogen produced from the gasification of coals and peats. Non-renewable.

1.3 CCUS

CCUS or Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage is another concept buzzword, that tries to put itself in a different bucket to CCS – straight Carbon Capture and Storage.

With CCUS, the intention is to use the carbon dioxide for something before it is buried, or using it for something instead of burying it, and claiming that this reduces net carbon dioxide emissions overall.

CCS or even CCUS would not be necessary if the carbon in energy was not sourced from under the surface of the Earth, and yet BP seem to believe that the complicated process of digging carbon up only to bury it again is a high scorer in climate change action. Actually, it’s an own goal. The real way to keep advancing is to ditch the fossil fuel raw materials.

1.4 Net Zero

Yes, another buzzword that you will hear everywhere, including the UK Government. Again, it is a way of defending the rights of oil and gas companies to continue to dig up carbon for energy and profit. “Net Zero” means “net zero carbon dioxide emissions”, and suggests that there are ways to capture and neutralise carbon dioxide produced from the use of fossil fuels. That it doesn’t really matter if carbon dioxide is formed from ancient sedimentary carbon and blown into the sky – it can be captured again somehow. That it doesn’t really matter if the energy system remains dependent on fossil carbon, and that all fossil carbon as carbon dioxide can be caught and rendered harmless, whether at the point of its creation in combustion or chemical processes, or from the atmosphere when it has been exhausted in flue gas. That so-called “negative emissions” can universally be achieved with the right technology rolled out, and that it can be economically effective.

1.5 Strategy

BP’s published strategy headlines unconventional oil and gas asset acquisitions and new international start-up projects in a range of collaborations : calling this : “Growing advantaged oil and gas”.

The “decarbonisation” projects are mentioned almost as an afterthought in “Venturing and low carbon across multiple fronts”, including waste-to-fuel, where bananas become jet fuel, and CCS in its “Clean Gas Project”, where carbon dioxide will be used in the fabrication of building materials.

What is not explained is the relative investment funding for these various futures.

2. Royal Dutch Shell plc

The “Shell Energy Transition Report” has a section 4 on “Changing our portfolio in the long-term, after 2030”.

Like other oil and gas companies, it has a line for biofuels in its diagrams. It has ambitions to move into the electricity market. It has ambitions for CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage. And in addition, in its section on “Advanced Biofuels”, it mentions it is fostering the IH2 technology, developed by the Gas Technology Institute, to produce liquid fuels from hydrogen, heat and catalysts. The hydrogen is Green Hydrogen, sourced from biomass.

This would be properly Renewable Gas and Renewable Fuel, if it works the way it seems to from the description

Like BP, Shell produces biomass-sourced liquid fuels – biofuels – to meet regulations in different countries and regions on the percentage of blended fuels that should be green. More information is given in its Annual Report section,

Company2018 Annual Account LineAmount
Royal Dutch ShellProduction, manufacturing and exploration$ 28,310 million
Research and development$ 986 million
BPProduction and exploration$ 2,159 million
Research and development$ 429 million

3. Summary

Shell and BP make strong mentions of advanced biofuels and synthetic gas and liquid fuels manufacture, but aside from minor production projects, they do not appear to have ambition to venture far out of their core business of digging up fossil carbon. Their calculated projections do not give much space to the contributions of green electricity, green gas and green liquids towards the energy of 2030, 2040, 2050 and beyond. Their energy projections are self-determining, self-referential and self-fulfilling : they don’t have a strong ambition to transition, so they don’t project a significant transition.

BP’s energy projection
Shell’s energy projection

It is possible to substitute biomass, water, renewable electricity and renewable heat for crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas and coal in the global energy system. It is the only surefire way to remove fossil carbon from the equation and prevent a build-up of carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere.

So the question is, who will ask them to do this ?


Renewable Gas : Where The Ask Is

Today, I’m trying to think through where the conversations about renewable chemical feedstocks must be taking place. Where high level strategists, government departments or agencies, company directors and shareholder action groups must be discussing how to displace crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas and coal as inputs to the global energy and chemicals machine.

Naturally, the conflicting demands of pumping fossil fuels and lowering carbon emissions have reached the boardroom of the major oil and gas company.

Their strategy is ideally for them one that highlights their operations and ignores their product; celebrates their alternative and renewable energy work, yet obscures its minuscule contribution to their total business model.

They need to be asked to focus their attention on synthesised low carbon gas and fuels, to re-centre their businesses on gas, and eventually synthetic gas and synthetic fuels.

So, just where is the ask ? Can the ask come from shareholders, based on annual company reports ?


Renewable Gas : Making Allies Out Of Opponents

[Image Credit : Films for Action : Image Permission : Decolonial Media License : Image Link : : Image WebPage :]

In the English-speaking world, much energy in political and social progress is channelled into running quasi-military style “campaigns”. We are urged to rally and take action against the political and social opposition, through the assertion that these real people, and real companies, and real power groups, who are responsible for causing or maintaining these real evils, are motivated by nastiness, or greed, or selfishness.

Endless leaflets and speeches and petitions are produced. And so, for example, we have learned that destitution, malnutrition and poor health in England is being caused by such things as dodgy landlords, greedy estate agents, an unnecessary drive towards a smaller state, with smaller governance budgets, done by a policy of austerity, a hostile environment towards foreign-born citizens, selfish company directors who lobby Members of Parliament, and democratic representatives who have private financial interests. And we are being called to wrestle with evil by struggling against a range of powers, to “take the fight” to the opposition of our cause.

Whilst this pattern and method of focussed Civil Society action has been successful over several centuries, and whilst there are certainly some genuinely evil forces incarnated in those organisations, corporates and government agencies who reinforce poverty and other ills, this style of action cannot work in tackling the dangerous risks of climate change.

It is true that there is a tiny group of names and faces that are, via their roles, killing the chances for a liveable Earth, but to set these people and their groups up as our enemies is not going to break the deadlock, or gain traction on solutions-building. They’re only doing their job, these “enemies of the climate”. The leaders of BP, Royal Dutch Shell and ExxonMobil don’t get up in the morning as say, “Today, by proxy, I am going to spew fossil carbon dioxide and methane into the air and flood Indonesia, desiccate Central Africa, burn Amazonian and Australian forests to the ground, and kill all the remaining koala bears.”

And anyway, the problems of addressing global warming is systemic, and not segmental. This is a universal problem, and so requires united action. Somehow we have to make allies out of opponents.

With Renewable Electricity, Renewable Gas, and the consequent Renewable Fuels, we have a group of technologies that can be used as a toolbox by the “planetkillers” to rescue us all. This would make us all collaborators in decarbonising the global economy, whether as energy producers or energy consumers. The main question is : how can such processing and production chains for such things as Renewable Methane, Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methanol become a main plank in the strategy for the fossil fuel companies ? What will it take for the chemical engineering giants of the planet, including the large corporations mining and refining crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas, coal and other ancient sedimentised remains, to switch out their core feedstocks for renewable solids, liquids and gases ?

The way forward cannot be through “fighting”; and it will take a lot of reasoning. So where is the debate taking place ? Are governments and parliaments asking the oil and gas majors to substitute renewable feedstocks into their input energy streams ? Are shareholders, investment funds and banks setting ambitious targets for taking out fossil carbon from their business activities, and pointing the way to their preferences on renewables ? What are the non-governmental organisations and charities doing to foster engagement, rather than clamour ? And can we all find a way to work together without the lobbyists sucking the air out of the low carbon transition, and stop the public relations people “greenwashing” everything to insignificance ? Co-operation has to lead to meaningful change.

Responsibility needs to be taken, by those parties that need to make change. In a sense, that is all of us. But this is not by sub-sectoral individual actions, such as changing light bulbs, eating less meat, and turning down the thermostat – although those things are useful.

We need to be responsible for deconstructing the “us and them” oppositional diatribe of the past, whilst creating a space for dialogue on how to get a major change of direction implanted and adopted at the heart of large carbon-spewing businesses. Speaking truth to power, without marching with placards and holding shouty rallies.

It is entirely possible for the world’s oil, gas and coal companies to substitute their primary fossil fuel feedstocks with renewable fuel feedstocks. Who is going to ask them to do that ? And how ? It can’t be done by carbon-shaming or carbon-framing. It needs to be done with other argumentation.

If this negotiation cannot be done, then the fossil fuel energy companies will falter and collapse, sooner or later, due to a range of pressures. Other chemical engineering groups, those that do Renewable Chemistry, will rise to take their place, but this period of change will be slow and chaotic, reforming at a pace too slow to prevent dangerous global warming.

We have only one boat on the ocean of environmental change, and we are all in it.


Renewable Gas : Concerted Concentration

In the field of energy, trade and co-operation is, and always has been, essential. In the time before petroleum products, muddied methane and killer coal ruled the stock markets, people organised together to light, heat and mobilise. And now to combat climate change, increase energy efficiency and spread out access to energy for all, people need to organise again.

Collecting and storing firewood is an activity as old as civilisation, as much part of humanity’s collective memory as drawing fresh water. Arranging the provision of wood, water and light for the night are all part of myths, tales and legends, endlessly retold. Before money was used to trade, strong social and familial obligations made the gathering, storing and sharing of energy and water occupations that formed part of the collective human survival protocol.

Today, despite whatever political, military or social drama is in the throes of being played out, people continue to trade in energy (and increasingly, water), across boundaries and borders, through grids and networks, and fleets of tanks and tankers, on land and sea. When energy trade stops, it because a region or a nation has received the ultimate sanction against their governmental body. People don’t deny people energy (and increasingly, water), unless there is a resident evil that needs to be purged. Arguably, the Third Reich of the National Socialists in Germany was broken through an energy embargo and an airborne campaign against indigenous energy production facilities.

Even as climate change worsens, and efforts mount to combat it, energy (and increasingly, water) sharing through trade must continue, to guarantee humane living conditions, economic development, and the advancement of civilisation through learning and technology. Even where political co-operation and economic treaties are sacrificed for whatever reason, energy trade (and increasingly, water) must continue to keep peace, keep stability, keep progress.

Energy is a sprawling and integral social enterprise, regardless of the ownership and management of the organisations that exist to produce and trade energy (and increasingly, water). Energy creates a brotherhood and sisterhood between private corporations, national agencies, governments and manufacturers. You and I can only address a small personal portion of global warming emissions – the energy system around us, that we are locked into, with its many complex and powerful actors, is responsible for upwards of half of the carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide emissions attributed to us as individuals in global warming accounting. The energy system is the governments who commission energy projects; the energy companies; the vehicle manufacturers; the globalised traders and the entire edifice of the commercial economy, all interdependent. It is this interlocked wheel or whorl of bodies that makes action on climate change so difficult. And yet, it is the fact that these organisations move in lock-step that can make some changes fast and light.

One of the strategies that can break the hold of fossil carbon in the global economy is to use all the levers available to change the contents of the basket of inputs into the energy system. Where we want electricity as an output, substitute renewable electricity for fossil electricity. Where we want heat, move from Natural Gas to Renewable Gas. But what do we do where we want movement, transportation ? What can substitute for crude petroleum oil ? And how do we do this without breaking the global economy – and hence civilisation ?

Any solutions proffered must involve all the players in the tightly-packed and interlocked energy game, and they must address all the problems : climate change, air pollution, energy security, economic depression, energy access, and, increasingly, water security.

This is where chemical engineering of useful low-to-zero carbon fuels, including Renewable Methane, Renewable Hydrogen and base chemicals such as Renewable Methanol, could break the greatest deadlock caused by the dead weight of petroleum.


All Roads Lead to Renewable Gas

Renewable Gas will be a solution of choice in the low carbon transition for many energy applications. It stands to reason that because it can be useful in a number of ways, addressing a range of problems, it will become increasingly important and developed.

Gas Is A Good Partner To Renewable Electricity

The deployment of renewable electricity, principally wind power and solar power, is accelerating, but in order to navigate the transition to a much greener electricity mix, support will be needed from infrastructure put in place by power network operators, in such areas as grid capacity upgrades and backup power generation, as renewable electricity will always remain variable in supply.

Any storable fuel is useful from an operational point of view; but gas fuels can be combusted through oxidation for power generation more efficiently and cleanly than liquid or solid fuels, because the oxygen can be well-mixed with the gas. Although it is somewhat more complicated to store gas than liquid or solid fuels, because of issues of fugitive emissions, with good design and monitoring, gas can be safely and securely stored, season to season.

Different kinds of gas are useful as fuels, and they can be used by different power technologies. Not only can combustible gases be used in engines, for example, methane; pressurised gas can be used to run power generating equipment, for example, non-burning carbon dioxide, and ordinary air. Carbon dioxide and methane are both global warming gases, and so their containment is a priority, and where possible, the aim should be to not emit them as a byproduct or through leaks.

Gas heating systems have become widespread in many regions of the developed world, as has gas-powered chilling. Owing to its relative cleanliness and efficiency, gas combustion is becoming recognised as the preferred option, not only for power generation and building temperature control, but also for vehicle fuelling.

Rebalancing Regional Heterogeneity Of Fossil Fuel Resources

Although coals of varying quality and quantity can be found almost everywhere, the uneven global distribution and local concentration of petroleum oil and Natural Gas deposits could reasonably be implicated in the augmentation of regional resource conflict and the promotion of economic imbalance, owing to the tendency for corporocratic influences, as governments and fossil fuel markets form mutual dependencies.

Resource concentration geographies, modelled on the history of fossil fuel machinations, could be seen arising afresh in the need for increasing supplies of rare earth elements, used in electrolytes and catalysts for new energy technologies. These “resource curses” could cause delicate and bruised situations to degenerate further, as localised deposits of fossil fuels and other geographically-constrained mined materials experience significant depletion.

Renewable Gas can be made in a wide number of locations, using a variety of technologies and feedstocks, and so would prevent and preclude the systemic pressure points of fossil fuel resource exploitation. Additionally, it could ameliorate the situation if there are any flare-ups in the process of the decline of petroleum and Natural Gas resource provision : Renewable Gas could salve and soothe the aching voids left by empty wells.

Just as highly decentralised projects in wind power and solar power are providing energy access to the energy-deprived, and economic stimulus, local Renewable Gas facilities will both complement and expand the range and coverage of low carbon and low air pollution energy supply at the same geocodes. This will reduce fossil fuel import dependencies, and could help unpick systems of energy colonialism, whilst also rolling back situational triggers for conflict. No more will the passage of oil or other resource tankers through the Straits of Hormuz be a potential flashpoint, one could hope.

Even in energy-rich regions, with strongly-developed power and gas grid and pipeline networks, boosting the production and supply of local Renewable Gas will promote economic stability and regeneration. It will also offset regional and state centralised supplies, and can be carried by the same networks.

Enabling The Low Carbon Transport Transition

The sheer scale of private, corporate and state fleets of fossil-fuelled vehicles, and the manufacture and sale of new units, means that liquid vehicle fuels are necessitated for a number of decades to come. Sales and use of alternative drive vehicles is accelerating, but starting from such a low base, it seems likely that it will take many years to create an impact on this market dominance. This pragmatic truth has been used by the projectioners of the oil and gas companies to claim that their products, and hence their business models, are secure for investment.

Oil and gas majors, when offering to act on climate change, proffer such things as their increasing engineering efficiency and operations streamlining as evidence that they are constraining emissions. They are working together in a global pact to curb Natural Gas venting and flaring. They are using the most environmentally-sound chemical engineering. However, the oil and gas companies, just as the rest of society, need to address the net end-use carbon dioxide and methane emissions of their products, as well as their mining and refining operations.

As the numerical size of the global fossil fuel fleets is so large, it is not feasible to wait for electric drive cars, hydrogen buses and compressed biomethane trucks to form the major segment of the market before seeing an important transition. That would be waiting too late to make a dent in net global warming emissions. Measures that could help would include mandating the reduction in the size of private road vehicles, launching schemes to perform diesel-to-electric conversions, and promoting public transport and vehicle sharing; but these measures will be small in scale compared to the total fleets in use, at least to begin with. As the liquid fuel engines will continue to roll, the best inroad to addressing the emissions of fuels is to transition the feedstocks and processes used to produce the fuels themselves.

Increasing manufacture and sales of alternative drive vehicles, and transitioning fossil fuels to alternative liquid fuels could be viewed as an essential two-pronged attack on the scourge of global warming emissions from transport and freight, predicated by the intractable nature of this sector’s emissions, embedded deeply in the economy, with its tentacle hold on governance.

There have been several coordinated or independent attempts at introducing alternative liquid fuels over the last century, and regional fuel standards sometimes require or permit a selection of chemical substitutes or additives for diesel or petrol-gasoline fuels. Yet, these regulatory transitions are overall insignificant compared to the quantities of fossil fuels that are still sold, and will continue to be sold, unless impactful and consequential change is imposed or agreed.

The chemical engineering needed to create low net carbon liquid vehicle fuels has existed since the development of industrial scale catalysis; for example, the widespread production of methanol from syngas – a mixture of primarily hydrogen, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide, that results from high temperature oxygen-constrained gasification of a range of substrates (feedstocks, base materials).

Although movement towards alternative liquid fuels is making progress, it will probably need global private and public investment projects to push forward towards meaningful gains and hold significant ground. Disparate and uncoordinated, uncentralised measures might not cross thresholds of cost and efficiency fast enough for enterprises to succeed.

Unlike many Renewable Gas projects, alternative liquid fuels plants will need to be centralised, at least to kickstart production capability, and provide learning; engaging the economies of scale until cost reductions are enabled. This is where the inclusion and leadership of the fossil fuel companies will be essential; they are some of the most appropriate industrial bases with the requisite chemical engineering capabilities to markedly develop alternative fuel production. If the oil and gas companies make alternative fuel production one of their central strategies, it will enable these entities to weather and survive. If they let other engineering corporates take up the mantle of Renewable Fuel production, the oil and gas companies face the possibility of annihilation and insignificance.

The production of liquid Renewable Fuels requires the making of low carbon Renewable Gas, which once again points the solutions compass arrow in that direction.

The production of Renewable Gas will also help cushion the potential carbon emissions impact from the rise of electric vehicles – which will all need charging and will sap the grids of power : where demand has been stable for many years, it will suddenly rise. To provide a much firmer supply base in renewable power will require a much stronger acceleration in the deployment of wind turbines and solar panels. This growth might be stymied by a number of factors. Not only that, but demand patterns may have noticeably different daily profiles, leading to problems arising from incorrect power provision planning. Having recourse to Renewable Gas will buffer supply and demand in low carbon electricity. When there is a plentiful supply of renewable power, Renewable Gas will be made; when there are scarcities arising from the contrary patterns of renewable power supply and demand, Renewable Gas can step in for electricity generation.

Just as we will balance renewable electricity with Renewable Gas for ordinary domestic, commercial and industrial power demand, we will also balance vehicular power demand with Renewable Gas, during the new charging times profile.

Contributing To Better Urban Air Quality

In order to reduce urban air pollution from transport, it is necessary to use lighter, less complex fuels, and also to make them as hydrogen-rich as possible – as unburned carbon atoms and carbon-based molecules have the potential to be the site of nucleation of pollution particles – particulate matter, which is often small enough to compromise lungs.

Methane in this regard makes an almost perfect fuel : a lot of hydrogen which will burn cleanly, and one carbon atom to keep energy density high. Methane also has superior operational parameters for a range of applications, such as a much more reasonable liquefaction temperature than hydrogen – useful for long distance transportation.

Even though Renewable Gas, whether Renewable Methane or Renewable Hydrogen, will contribute to a lowering of air pollution, any kind of combustion in a vehicle engine that uses ordinary air will still produce nitrogen oxides air pollution. The only way to avoid this would be to have gas drive vehicles of the future designed around using pure oxygen as the combustion oxidant – which would entail parallel tanks, and much higher safety features; or designing fuel cells that do not permit nitrogen combustion.

Displacing Fossil Fuels For Heating And Cooling

It takes some time to rip out gas networks. Much of the gas distributed is used for heating. To make giant strides in the near term, substituting Natural Gas for Renewable Gas in existing gas grids is a logical development.

Replacing Industrial Chemical Feedstocks

To start the low carbon transition of chemical engineering requires the insertion of key renewable feedstocks, as well as the use of renewable electricity. Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methanol and Renewable Methane will all be useful target molecules.

Natural Gas Is Not A Destination

The fact that gas is a good choice for a range of energy applications should not become an excuse for the oil and gas companies to keep pushing Natural Gas. Natural Gas cannot be the endpoint of change, so oil and gas companies should not pin themselves into this niche : instead, they should be following a strategy of diversification into electricity and energy services, and in the production of Renewable Gas, which will become increasingly mandated by global warming limitation legislation and shareholder climate change action.


Renewable Gas : The Energy Calculus Caucus

The major oil and gas companies, along with a range of other organisations and agencies, have ongoing energy modelling projects, building scenarios to paint projections in energy, technology and the wider economy.

Table : A Selection of Organisations Working On Energy Models, Data, Statistics and Projections

Inputs to the world’s energy systems are usually considered immutable – wood is the principal biomass; crude petroleum oil is going to remain the primary feedstock for liquid hydrocarbon fuels; Natural Gas is the majority source of energy gases; and solid fuels are considered to be fossil coal-derived.

The projections into the future are mostly done on a “lasts until” basis, that is there are underlying assumptions that all the fossil fuels that can be economically mined will be, right up to steep depletion, and that nothing can substitute for them as primary energy resources.

Alternative energy resources are considered entirely separately from fossil fuels, and are only projected to form thin slivers of contribution on energy projection graphs. There is an unwritten code that alternative primary energy resources must be forced to compete economically, and that deployments of alternative primary energy will only be commissioned if scarcity is experienced elsewhere. Fossil fuels are thought to prop up the energy system, and be dependable; to remain cost-efficient and cost-competitive under any conditions. We will only build renewable energy production when we need it, being the major thread.

Where admissions are made, for example, where modelling suggests that depletion, economic pressure and policy could affect the levels of fossil fuels mined and brought into the economy, there is a default view generally that this might stimulate alternatives, but from a very low starting point, and with marginal growth.

Emerging technologies and biomass-based feeds into the fossil fuel refining and distribution systems are considered opportunistic, blighted by cost and reliability issues, and are expected to suffer negative economic stimulus, to such an extent that they are not expected to make much more than a sliver of contribution; although in some cases they are trusted to “take up the slack” where fossil fuels fail.

In such projections, where fossil fuels can and will speak for most of the world’s energy demand, without significant economic and political change, the necessary rate of new technology deployment is fractional.

This paradigm is expressed in a number of different ways by different actors, and creates an impression that fossil fuels are failsafe, and naturally dominant. Fossil fuels and alternative energy resources are considered to be chalk and cheese – not of a kind. This belies the opportunities for substitution of fossil fuel feedstocks by biomass-, water- and green electricity-sourced streams.

The major failing in many energy models is that no consideration is given to active transition – that is, how to turn around the downward trendlines of fossil fuel production and sales into upwards shares of alternative fuels production and sales, through molecular and electron substitution from renewable sources.

If alternative technologies and fuels were actively encouraged to displace fossil fuels, according to core strategy within the energy system, this would cause greater levels of deployment, and so accelerate transition. Alternative resources would constitute a larger slice of the overall total, and show what higher decarbonisation potentials exist.

For example, every extra modelling for hydrogen use, for example, the hydrogen increasingly used for in liquid fuels refining and synthesis, written as renewable hydrogen production and use, which will necessitate higher levels of renewable elecricity production/generation and use.

The production of liquid hydrocarbon fuels and chemical feedstocks will be needed for decades to come, but these don’t need to come from crude petroleum oil, Natural Gas and coal. With synthesis, the source of the hydrogen and carbon (and oxygen) landing in the liquid fuel products is not relevant, except it should conform to the requirements of protecting a liveable climate.

With liquid fuel synthesis, we can rest from thinking about complex hydrocarbon primary resources, stop looking at the molecular level of organisation, and start to look at the individual streams of elements : where does the hydrogen flow from ? Where, the carbon ?

With synthesis, the source of the hydrogen and carbon (and oxygen) coming into the energy system is not relevant. What matters is how many of the H, C (and O) are coming from renewable resources. We “3D print” the molecules we need, and we don’t need to dispose of the carbon, oxygen (and sulfur) we don’t use.

The biggest problem is where we get the Young Carbon from : Renewable Carbon needed for liquid fuels needs to come from recently-living biological organisms in order not to tamper with the global long-term carbon cycle.

In systems for Renewable Gas-to-Power-to-Gas, renewable electricity is used to make gas for long-term storage, offsetting electricity generation to times when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining, and it’s cold. These systems can be centralised, and contained, so the carbon used in the system to lock hydrogen into methane for long-term energy storage, never needs to leave the plant. However, for producing liquid transport fuels, carbon will flow through the supply chain, and so needs to be sourced from renewable, young resources.

With time, it is likely that transport options will mostly become electric, and quite often public, in urban settlements. Freight transportation, and industrial and agricultural machinery fuelling will mostly likely be a combination of light gaseous fuels and electric power. But that time is more than a few decades away, as it will take that long to replace all the vehicles and fuel supply systems. In the meantime, we need renewable liquid fuels.

Energy modelling does not presently include much in the way of molecular and electronic substitution for fossil fuel primary energy resources; is not conscious of the multiplier effect of going beyond the small percentages of substitution by first/second generation biofuels and biomethane.

Since we need to produce liquid fuels for several decades to come – fuels that automatically need to have higher boiling points, and so need to have carbon in them – in order to see the possible speed of the low carbon transition, we need to model every way that fossil carbon and fossil hydrogen can be swapped out for Renewable Carbon and Renewable Hydrogen.


Renewable Gas : Big Problems in Energy Transition

There are a number of difficult problems in the transition to low carbon energy. One of the early barriers to change was denial of the science and evidence of dangerous global warming. And when that stance crumpled, the next hurdle was a denial of the responsibility to act in a short timeframe. Energy enterprises appeared to think that low carbon energy transition would consist of familiar low pace investment and operations lifecycles, simply substituting high carbon investments for low carbon investments at the normal end of plant or equipment life.

And then there was the postulated problem with the economics of new technologies, where companies wanted to attract tax breaks, subsidies and grants in order to underwrite their low carbon transition, rather than spending their own capital. All the while, companies were lobbying for their preferred solutions, such as Carbon Capture and Storage, that would entail less of their own expenditure, change less of their normal business practices, and supply chains, and justify government support.

Thankfully, pragmatism seems to have trumped dogmatism, and there is a lot of movement in the energy sector, witnessed by massive additions in wind power and solar power.

However, there are two really weighty and thorny problems with energy transition that have very long lead times for resolution, and need a strong focus. The first of these is inefficiency in energy conversion, particularly centralised electrical power generation through combustion. The second is the inertia in the transition to low carbon transport and transportation.

1.   Combustion is Inefficient

Combustion, or oxidation of fuels, particularly at lower temperatures, where heat is not captured for further use, is very inefficient.

Much electricity production is still through the burning of fuels in centralised power plants, where much of the input energy is lost to unusable heat. Losses are very significant, and form a substantial wedge of energy flows.

For example data, taking the IEA Global Energy flow Sankey Diagram :-

 Energy input to Power stations

   Hydro input to power stations   14697 PJ
   Nuclear input to power stations   28783 PJ
   Solar/tide/wind   5830 PJ
   Geothermal   3027 PJ
   Biofuels and waste   8391 PJ
   Natural gas   52907 PJ
   Oil   1703 PJ
   Oil products   7733 PJ
   Coal to power stations =   145441 – 46051 = 99390 PJ

   Calculated Total =    222461 PJ
   Reported Total =    222461 PJ

 Energy output from Power stations

   Electricity   92182 PJ
   Heat   14287 PJ
   Losses (such as heat that cannot be used)   116060 PJ

   Calculated Total =    222529 PJ
   Difference between output and input energy =    68 PJ

The losses from electricity generation mean that efficiency is :-

Useful energy output divided by total input energy = 106479 / 222461 = 47.86 %

Although power station fuels such as coal and Natural Gas are dirt cheap at present, this situation might not continue, and within a couple of decades the inefficiencies of present day electricity production could place significant cost burden on the economy.

A major goal would therefore usefully be to ramp up the amount of renewable electricity provided to the system, to drastically reduce energy losses. In addition to the efficiencies drawn from not burning anything, wind power and solar power can offset centralised generation by being used close to where they are produced.

The variability of wind power and solar power needs addressing, but thankfully, Renewable Gas technologies can step into the breach here : using spare renewable power to produce Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methane, which can be stored, and later on, substitute for Natural Gas in backup power generation when the wind calms and the sun sets.

2.   Transport Slow To Transition

Transport requires a large segment of the energy in the global economy : according to the IEA World Balance 2017 figures, the energy wasted in power generation is of a similar order of magnitude to the energy value of refined petroleum oil products entering the economy as fuels for transport = 108376 PJ.

Most energy projections suggest that the Global South (or East) countries will continue to increase their use of refined petroleum liquid transport fuels for the next few decades. Even though the Global North (or West) will reduce demand growth, the total liquid fuels required is expected to stay roughly level out to 2040 or even 2050.

Barring a genuine revolution in the systems for vehicle manufacture, sales and recycling, there will continue to be high levels of ICE internal combustion energy drive vehicles on the roads compared to electric vehicles and hybrids, and other alternative drive models. Despite the fact that a significant proportion of car advertisements are now for electric and hybrid vehicles, these form only a few percent of current sales.

Patterns of vehicle turnover – replacement unlikely to be done simply to “go electric” – may change. If the average lifespan of vehicles increases, transition will take even longer.

Transport is proving slow in transition, and there are few genuine disruptions that can be envisaged to speed this up.

This means that liquid transport fuels will continue to be needed for many decades to come. The global economy is locked in to vehicles using liquid fuels, and crude petroleum oil production and refining companies feel secure enough about future demand to cast long term business plans.

But there remains the need to decarbonise this significant sector. And apart from planting trees, there is no practical way to implement Carbon Capture and Storage for transport emissions.

And this means that there is really only one sensible proposal for decarbonising transport, and that is to decarbonise the fuels.

Renewable Fuels development therefore becomes a major goal.

Here again, Renewable Gas comes to the rescue, as many chemical engineering routes to Renewable Fuels can use Renewable Hydrogen and Renewable Methane.


Renewable Gas : A Network of Modellers

The development of Renewable Gas requires more and better cooperation and coordination between state and corporate actors than previously seen.

With Renewable Gas, we are not only dealing with operations in an often vertically-integrated energy sector, we are also networking with chemical engineers and the agricultural sector.

The range of potential material inputs for Renewable Gas include electrical power, water, biomass, waste gases and recycled solid waste.

Precise modelling of the contribution that Renewable Gas can and could play in the global economy will be near-nigh impossible, and yet modelling and projections must be done, to scope out scenarios and thereby build strategies.

Some of the organisations listed in this table (see below) have already started to add Renewable Gas in their outlooks, calculations, models and reviews.

We can expect to see more in this field in the very near future.

Table : A Selection of Energy and Chemical Process Modelling Organisations
Organisation Project Model Links

National Government and International Agencies
International Energy Agency

working with :-

Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development
World Energy Outlook
World Energy Model

World Energy Balances

a. Energy Balances of OECD Countries

b. Energy Balances of Non-OECD Countries

World Energy Statistics

a. Energy Statistics of OECD Countries

b. Energy Statistics of Non-OECD Countries
Energy Technology Perspectives
Mobility Model
World Energy Investment
International Energy Agency
Energy Technology Systems Analysis Programme
MARKet ALlocation

The Integrated MARKAL-EFOM System
International Council on Clean Transportation
United States Energy Information Administration
International Energy Outlook

Annual Energy Outlook (US only)

Short-Term Energy Outlook (US only)
National Energy Modelling System
United Nations
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change
Fifth Assessment Report

Working Group 1
Chapter 12
Long-term Climate Change Projections, Commitments and Irreversibility

Working Group 3
Chapter 7
Energy Systems

Special Report on Emissions Scenarios
Representative Concentration Pathways

Integrated Assessment Models

Shared Socioeconomic Pathways
Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries
World Oil Outlook

Monthly Oil Market Report

Annual Statistical Bulletin
Gas Exporting Countries Forum
Global Gas Outlook 2040

Annual Statistical Bulletin

Global Gas Model
International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis
Global Energy Assessment
Model for Greenhouse Gas Induced Climate Change

Model for Energy Supply Systems and General Environmental impact

Greenhouse Gas Air Pollution Interaction and Synergies

Energy Demand Model
World Energy Council
World Energy Scenarios

“World Energy Scenarios : 2019 : Exploring Innovation Pathways to 2040”
World Energy Issues Model
World Economic Forum
The Global Future Council on Energy
International Renewable Energy Agency
“Advanced Biofuels : What Holds Them Back ?”

“Hydrogen : A renewable energy perspective”

“Future of Wind”

“Future of solar photovoltaic”
Global Energy Transformation Roadmap

REmap Renewable Energy Roadmaps

“Global energy transformation : A roapmap to 2050”

“Global energy transformation : The REmap transition pathway”
Joint Organisations Data Initiative

JODI Oil World Database

JODI Gas World Database
European Commission
The Energy Roadmap 2050
European Union
EU Reference Scenario 2016 : Energy, transport and GHG Emissions : trends to 2050
Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency
Integrated Model to Assess the Global Environment


The Targets IMage Energy Regional Model
UK Government

Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy

formerly :-
Department for Energy and Climate Change
2050 Pathways

The UK 2050 Calculator

The Global Calculator
World Bank Energy & Extractives Open Data Platform

Global Energy Statistical Yearbook
(with Enerdata)

Global Solar Atlas

Global Wind Atlas

Energy & Mining

Non-Governmental Organisations
INRIC / Balaton Group
International Network of Resource Information Centers
The Limits to Growth

Limits to Growth : the 30 year update
World 3

World Resources Institute
The World Resource Report

“Creating a Sustainable Food Future : A Menu of Solutions to Feed Nearly 10 Billion People by 2050”
Centre for
Zero Carbon Britain :
Rising to the Climate Emergency
November 2019
Global Carbon Project Global Carbon Budget
Resources for the Future
Global Energy Outlook
the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions
Practical Action PPEO
Poor Peoples’ Energy Outlook
Total Energy Access

Oil & Gas (& Coal) and Electricity Corporations
BP plc
Energy Outlook (annual)

Statistical Review of World Energy (annual)
Royal Dutch Shell
Scenarios to 2050 World Energy Model

Global Supply Model

Global Energy Resources Database
Shell Energy Transition Report
World Oil, Gas and Renewables Review (annual)
World Energy Outlook
ExxonMobil Outlook for Energy

“Outlook for Energy : A Perspective to 2040”
(formerly Statoil)
Energy Perspectives
Total “Total and the climate”

“Integrating Climate Into Our Strategy”

Engie “A World of Energy”

ally of :
Hydrogen Council
Vattenfall “Hydrogen, an important step towards independence from fossil fuels”–press-releases/newsroom/2019/hydrogen-an-important-step-towards-independence-from-fossil-fuels
Orsted “Ørsted and partners secure government funding for hydrogen project”

Engineering Corporations
DNV GL Energy Transition Outlook
“A Global and Regional Forecast of the Energy Transition to 2050”
Navigant Gas for Climate 2050
“A path to 2050”
Poyry Fully decarbonising Europe’s energy system by 2050 (May 2018)

Management Consultancies
McKinsey & Company

McKinsey Energy Insights
Global Energy Perspective

Global Oil Supply and Demand Outlook to 2030
Global Oil Supply and Demand Outlook to 2035
Boston Group Consulting
Global Energy Scenario Model
Bain & Company “Bain’s Global Energy Outlook : Energy Management in the Age of Disruptions”
Deloitte Vision 2040 : Global scenarios for the oil and gas industry
Global Institute
Global Energy Perspective (annual)

Global Trends in Renewable Energy
Ernst & Young
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UGA Université Grenoble Alpes
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The United States of Energy Dependence

So, I’ve started reading again. I have spent much of my life reading. Sometimes, it feels like it’s almost like I will never, ever do anything else besides read; because I need to spend so much time reading. Even though I apply strong “meh” (try saying it) filters to the constant outpouring of human knowledge in printed form, batting away vast waterfalls of information that I just don’t have time to process, and that have little significance to my personal set of Important Developments, there is still so much to take in. I try to comprehend what is happening and changing, weigh the essence of new knowledge and data, and try to work from fundamentals out to the broad picture, so that I can keep my General Overview of Things updated.

Sadly, information does not come to me unadulterated by myth, or hopeless and inadequate ambition; in some cases, people absorb and utter things which are quite untrue sewn into the midst of the tapestry of their perfectly rational analysis. Trying to fillet these choking bones out of the good fish of their work can be hard. When I started to read “The Natural Gas Revolution : At the Pivot of the World’s Energy Future”, by Robert L. Kolb, published in 2014 by Pearson, I despaired. At first glance, he appears to have been sucked in, hook, line and sinker, into a narrative that has no basis in geological fact. However, as I continued to read, I realised that his first euphoric presentational premises may have been coloured by the political geography of his intended audience – that he was reflecting back to them what he thought they believed; but that slowly, after quite a few pages, he appeared to begin to sneak truth into his recount.

The dust cover starts with this magical thinking :-

“Thanks to stunning technological advances in natural gas exploration, the United States is about to become a reliable, consistent net exporter of energy. This is an extraordinary, completely unexpected transformation. What’s more, natural gas is about to transform the rest of the world as well – upending economic and political relationships that have lasted for generations.”

1.      Energy Independence

Let’s look first at “net exporter of energy”, with the help of a little data :-

(a)      USA Natural Gas Monthly Supply and Disposition Balance
Data 1973 to August 2017 (billion cubic feet)
Net Imports (billion cubic feet)

This certainly looks healthy enough. The USA both imports and exports Natural Gas and processed Natural Gas, and manufactured gases equivalent to Natural Gas, or chemical components of Natural Gas. It appears from this data, if considered in isolation, that the USA is moving rapidly towards its long-term political and economic goal of energy independence – at least as far as Natural Gas is concerned. However, the situation is not as rosy, or straightforward, as this data, in isolation, could imply.

(b)      USA Natural Gas Imports
Data 1973 to August 2017 (million cubic feet)

This data shows that the great engine of the North American economy relies heavily on a Natural Gas trading relationship between the USA and Canada, and that the USA is in no way independent of this, and in fact, is highly dependent on Canada, and has lately become even more so :-

This is shown graphically by the following chart :-

(c)      USA Import and Export of Natural Gas
Data to March 2017

Whilst Kolb may be warranted in some ways to be positive about Natural Gas energy independence – at least in terms of the whole of North America, and not just the USA – when it comes to other energy, the situation is not nearly so progressive :-

Yes ! Dependence on imports from OPEC has decreased ! But, hang on, now we’ve got dependence on imports from Canada – and a lot of that is nasty, icky tar sands oil. Not really a win.

(d)      USA Imports of Petroleum (and Other Liquids)

FAQs : “How much petroleum does the United States import and export ?” :-
Imports from the World : Data to September 2017
Imports from OPEC : Data to September 2017
Imports from Canada : Data to September 2017

The United States of America cannot claim to be making significant progress towards energy independence in my view, judging on the basis of this data.

2.      No Surprise

Kolb seems to think that the rise in Natural Gas production in the USA is “extraordinary, completely unexpected”. This is really not true, as Presidents of the United States have been urging energy independence for many decades; and the technology of hydraulic fracturing, which is behind the massive increase in onshore Natural Gas production, has been in development for around the same length of time, and there have been top-level policies to support it.

There should also be no surprise that this Golden Age of Unconventional Gas – the “Shale Gale” – might end almost as soon as it started, so Kolb’s projection that recent upticks in Natural Gas production in the United States can cause the “upending economic and political relationships that have lasted for generations” is jumping the gun a little bit hastily. Whilst in the short term, the “Dash for Gas” (Mark II) may offer a little bit of political leverage on the world energy stage, it’s not going to be a permanent or lasting shift. The geology simply can’t support it – the shale gas plays will not last forever.


Energy from Waste : Power and Gas

In my continuing study into the relationship between gas and electricity, I very nicely asked if I could join a tour of the most local waste-to-energy plant to my home, North London Waste Authority’s London Waste EcoPark in Edmonton. The site visit was arranged by the Green Ventures Trade Mission from Germany to the UK. There was room on the tour bus for a “lift home” from the networking event in the morning, at which I represented Herbert Eppel and his enterprise for German-English and English-German translators HE Translations, and after getting over a few initial communication misunderstandings, I was able to join the site visit. I was so glad I went. It was a wonderful afternoon.

Had I known I was destined to be climbing gantry staircases with an orange hard hat and hi-viz yellow jacket on, I would have definitely decided not to wear a fancy blouse and pearls. It was a pretty confused look. Fortunately, I was too old to be able to wear high heels, as that would have been impossible. Or nearly impossible. One of the other women on the site visit was wearing quite elegant and vertical footwear, and she managed just fine.

We saw the plant repair shop – the principle of re-use, reclaim, repair and recycle just right there in action.

As we got outside, the air took on a distinctive farmyard aroma, and most people put on their 3M face masks. I did too, and that really complemented my outfit to a tee. I now looked like some strange mix between a Samurai warrior, a sumo wrestler and a fencing expert.

We saw the post-combustion conveyor belt, and the piles of ash accumulating, and the metal – separated by magnets. The metal, our guide explained, would all be recycled, sold by the tonne. As we were there, a lorry from the neighbouring private company that uses ash to produce aggregate products for projects such as roadways and construction, came for a load of ash and went round to the weighbridge. He had to wipe the ash from his registration licence plate for the recording of his payload. Then he had to drive virtually the same way he had come to reach his plant next door.

We had an overview of some of the other facilities out at the back of the yard, although we didn’t see the anaerobic digestion sheds, where garden trimmings and household food waste gets made into soil that we get back at our local gardening centre.

Then we went to take a look inside the Energy Centre. I had a Toy Story 3 moment when I saw The Claw lifting great mountains of London’s rubbish from 20 metre deep bunkers into the hoppers feeding the 5 furnace/boilers. Everything was so big in there. I could see VHS tape streamers floating like gossamer spider silk in the wind.

Several claws like giant spiders were lying deactivated at the tops of the concrete bunkers in this massive waste hangar.

Our tour guide explained that the EcoPark can no longer accept commercial wastes, but that when it did, security guards would watch while illegal drugs, money, cigarettes and other crime-related materials would be fed into the furnace hoppers to make sure it all got burned. There were bedsheets in the hoppers, but we were told that mattresses were not allowed as they could ruin equipment.

On one of the platforms there was some electrical equipment that looked straight out of a horror movie, with dials and levers and switches and spider webs that had probably been there since 1975. “Don’t touch that”, said one of the tour party, when I pointed it out, “it’s structural”.

We passed into the bunker room, and there was so much scaffolding around the boilers that you couldn’t really see their shape. The hall was full of gentle radiant heat. It properly glowed.

As we walked down to see the turbine hall, I steadied myself on a handrail that was covered in really sticky carbon dust, that ended up sticking to me. We were, as I thought, waste deep.

The turbine hall was electric. No, really. The whole place was vibrating, and the air was pulsating with static and traces of carbon dust. Five huge red engines, and one man with a clipboard. The real business of management was in the Control Room, so that’s where we went next.

Another door alarm went off as we went through to there. Machines and computers and displays mixed with wooden desks and potted plants. And air conditioning. A sign above the instantaneous emissions monitoring screen with the current limits for gas emissions printed in bold letters. Videocams of the fires in the furnaces. And readouts of the various problem gases that needed to be kept within limits : sulfur dioxide (SO2), hydrochloric acid vapour (HCl), carbon monoxide (CO) and so on.

One of the engineers gave us a technical overview of the energy plant. He explained that the temperatures inside the boilers get up to around 850 degrees C. He explained that there is a ramp, and that material coming out by the time you get to the fifth furnace, is just ash. He explained that during the first heat exchange to make steam, the temperatures get up to around 450 degrees C, and that then this steam goes on to be superheated for the electricity generation turbines. For Flue Gas Treatment (FGT), he explained how the “wrapper” takes out particulates, and about the various reactors and additives that clean the output gases. Steam is emitted, as well, but this is clean.

He said that they can get up to 12 megawatts (MW) of generation, and that some is used for the EcoPark, but they also feed the National Grid. He explained that they need to be producing power constantly. “So you’re on 24/7 ?” asked somebody. “Not me personally”, said one of the engineers. They both used to work in coal-fired power stations.

I asked about carbon monoxide, because I know that at the high temperatures of the boilers, a lot of syngas will be produced – a mixture of hydrogen and carbon monoxide – during the combustion. The carbon monoxide emissions reading for the fifth boiler was quite high. I asked what their emergency strategy was if carbon monoxide levels went too high and they had too many excedences of the regulatory limits. He explained that in that case, they moved all the solid material out of the furnace, as it was much easier to deal with the gases on their own.

On our way out I explained that I had seen some of the air filtration equipment that was in a looped tube arrangement, and I asked if the plant recycled flue gas. I was told it did not.

London Waste’s Chairman and Non-Executive Director David Sargent shook my hand several times during the afternoon, even though I explained I didn’t have anything to do with the trade mission management. I told him I lived 5 kilometres away in Waltham Forest, and pointed in the general direction. He told me I probably get some of his electricity. And I told him he probably gets some of mine, as I am a generator too. He asked if he could have a site visit to see my solar panels. I said I could show him my composter, too.

As the tour bus got onto the A406 North Circular road, I saw that the old gasholders in the Lee Valley are being dismantled. From the road you can still see the lift canopy of one of them, in the centre, deflated on the ground. Later, I noticed that the old gasholder frame at Brent Cross is badly rusting, and because it’s so close to the road, it too will probably be removed. It will be such a shame to lose these distinctive pieces of London’s gas history.

In the sky above I saw a sort of rainbow between clouds.

Then I saw a rubbish clearance van marked with “”.

Waste not, want not.

Related links :-

North London Waste Authority
London, Stansted, Cambridge Consortium (Growth for an airport ? Included in a clean tech plan ? I’m not sure that’s quite right, but anyway…)


Science will not be denied

Nuclear Nuisance Nuclear Shambles Uncategorized

Hot Waste : Nuclear Unknowables

Could Hinkley Point C Creep Past Safety Limits And Overload Its Waste Storage ?
by Jo Abbess
24 November 2013

The use of high burn-up nuclear fuel in the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant, if it goes ahead, could lead to higher levels of waste than claimed in the design, owing to the increased chances of operating failures. It could also make power generation more prone to unreliability, due to unplanned outages. Added to this, safety measures do not rule out the kind of large scale and costly accident-by-design seen at Fukushima; nor the risk of a major disaster from mismanagement of the insecure spent fuel facilities, which would be wide open to a terrorist attack.

The Hinkley Uncertainty Principle

In the UK Government’s 2011 consultation on the management of plutonium, separated from spent nuclear fuel, their stated policy would be to “pursue reuse of plutonium as mixed oxide fuel [MOx]”, although they couldn’t yet determine whether MOX fuel would be produced in the UK [1]. Reprocessing abroad would involve highly secretive and dangerous transportation, so how and why did they come to this expert judgement ?

Some claim that using plutonium oxide to make fresh nuclear fuel would “eat up” highly toxic and militarily dangerous plutonium waste, however this is not true. Using MOX fuel in a nuclear reactor creates almost as much in plutonium as it consumes – so why have the UK Government decided to take the MOX route ? Possibly because it feeds into plans by EDF Energy to build a new nuclear power plant that would use some “high burn-up” nuclear fuel in its two reactors, burning up to 50% higher than at other working plants, and MOX is probably the cheapest fuel option.

Counter-intuitively, high burn-up fuel doesn’t get used up faster than other nuclear fuel. It produces more heat energy under neutron irradiation than the usual mildly-enriched uranium oxide, because it can split the atoms of a higher percentage of the fuel. It can “burn up” for longer, and be left in the reactor core for longer, before it needs to be changed out for fresh fuel. Or that is the theory, anyway.

Some of the products of nuclear fission are noble gases, one of which is radioactive xenon, and although this is gas produced inside solid nuclear fuel pellets, packed into a long sealed metal casing, “fission gas” shouldn’t cause the fuel rod to burst – although it might make it swell a bit, or become deformed. There is a tiny risk this could mean fuel rods burn up dangerously higher, or get stuck when being taken out of the reactor, or that control rods might be unable to go in, all of which would be problematic.

But back to the gas. Some radioactive xenon will make it out of fuel rods into the reactor coolant, because the integrity of fuel rods is not 100% guaranteed. If a fuel rod starts leaking badly, it ought to be swapped out for fresh fuel, because it could “dry out” and get precariously hot, and that could mean shutting down the reactor, which would affect its “always on” reliability.

In the Hinkley Point C Generic Design Assessment final report on “Gaseous radioactive waste disposal and limits”, it admits, “Reactors are designed to run until their next refuelling shutdown with a small number of fuel leaks and we do not wish to constrain operations when noble gas discharges have so little impact.” What they’re saying is, in effect, we know some of these fuel rods are going to be broken in a live, working reactor. What they can’t know is, which ones ?

It’s a little bit like Schrödinger’s Cat – you can’t know if a fuel rod is dead until you take it out of the box to inspect it. If xenon levels in the reactor coolant rise above the permitted levels, as a direct result of fuel damages from high burn-up, the plant operators would need to intervene, because it’s not just fission gas they should be concerned about. Leaking fuel rods could spit particles of uranium, or plutonium, into the reactor coolant, which could end up in the general environment, and that would have a significant impact [2].

It will be possible to do some inspection checks without removing fuel rods entirely from the core. But in all likelihood, with high xenon emissions levels, they would need to shut the reactor down, by inserting control rods into the core to moderate the neutron flow. With normal nuclear fuel rods, this is a low-impact operation, but laboratory experiments suggest that for high burn-up, stopping and restarting the reactor, cooling and then re-heating the rods, will cause significant damage to the nuclear fuel [3].

Cracked and crumbling high burn-up fuel could release more fission gas, so the very process of checking the integrity of fuel rods could damage the integrity of the fuel rods, and make xenon emissions worse, and mean more swaps for fresh fuel rods, meaning more radioactive waste to deal with. Because spent nuclear fuel will eventually need to be officially classified as radioactive waste, although currently it isn’t.

The design for this nuclear power plant claims to produce less waste than current models, but that all depends on how the plant operators can manage high burn-up nuclear fuel rods, and it’s too early to say, since there isn’t a working version of this reactor anywhere in the world yet.

So it’s a little like the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle in Quantum Physics – you can’t know exactly how damaged your fuel rods are, and exactly how much spent fuel waste you’re going to produce, at the same time. The tempation, of course, will be to leave the fuel in and the reactor on for as long as possible, even though the statistical probability for loss of fuel integrity will just increase with time.

Hot rods could be good future business

I am still waiting for the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority to tell me where I’ve gone wrong on the maths, but from my preliminary calculations, I estimate that the radioactive waste and radioactive spent nuclear fuel from this one new plant will nearly double the amount of radioactivity in nuclear materials the UK has to dispose of. In terms of the physical size of the rad waste, it won’t add much to the total, but some of the spent fuel coming from Hinkley Point C will be very hot rods from high burn-up – and I don’t just mean radioactive, I mean literally hot, potentially far hotter than steam.

The design for the plant includes an essential “cooling off” pool of water, which would be like a “shadow” reactor core, but without the safety containment vessel. Because of the temperature of the fuel rods, a lot of water will be needed. The hot rods will have to stay in there being actively cooled for up to 10 years after they come out of the reactor, as they will be producing around 10% of the heat energy they produced when inside the active reactor.

And after they’re cool enough to come out of there, the fuel will have to sit under water in a storage pond, also actively cooled, for around about 80 to 90 years, until enough radioactive decay has taken place that the fuel then becomes reasonably safe for geological disposal. Although we haven’t got a Geological Disposal Facility (GDF) yet. And some calculations suggest we might need two. If we don’t have the right volume of GDF, perhaps the Hinkley Point C hot rods could just have to sit in the on-site “interim” storage facility forever.

If the plant operators have to swap out more high burn-up fuel rods than they anticipate, perhaps the spent fuel storage facilities at Hinkley Point C will be too small for the full 60 years of waste designed for the plant. If it were only large enough for 35 years of operation, that would conveniently match the length of the very generous subsidies for the power the plant will produce. Thereafter, the plant operators could declare they cannot afford to keep the power plant running, and the state could be obliged to subsidise them simply to store the hot waste.

The transition business model for the operators of Hinkley Point C could be the service of the storage of hot radioactive spent fuel, perhaps, when it becomes obvious that nuclear power is simply too expensive compared to solar and wind power. Will Hinkley Point C end up like San Onofre, a high burn-up spent fuel waste facility, formerly a nuclear power plant, corroding its way towards being a serious liability ?

Going LOCA, down in Taunton

When asked, “Should we have nuclear power ?”, many gaze at the mid-distance, and, according to recent polls, muse vacantly, “I suppose so. I mean, the wind doesn’t always blow, and the sun doesn’t always shine.” They probably don’t realise that filling in the generation gaps of renewable electricity with power from Hinkley Point C would demand load-following power cycling which would cause temperature changes in the reactor core which could damage high burn-up fuel [4].

Plus, they choose to ignore the fact that it is always possible, when operating a nuclear reactor, for a major accident, such as a Loss Of Coolant Accident (LOCA), that could destroy, poison and injure people, livestock, forests, waterways and land, and not just in the local vicinity. They consign it to a remote theoretical possibility that something could go horribly wrong, but it probably won’t, so that’s all right then, somehow. Well, we’ve had decades of nuclear power, and not many serious accidents.

Ah, there was Chernobyl, of course, which the whole of the European Union is still paying to clean up and put under a massive steel dome shelter, and the costs of the meltdown and fallout arguably destroyed the economy of socialist Russia. And the ongoing, unfolding, rolling disaster shambles that is the Fukushima Dai-ichi make-safe operation, set to go on for at least a decade ? Well, the clean-up is eating into Japan’s GDP, and they will have to give up investment in cleantech and meeting their carbon budget targets, and burn coal, because, frankly, the country’s broke; but nobody really suffered, did they ?

We lost Pripyat, we almost lost Detroit, and we could still lose Tokyo, but who really cares about Taunton – the town near Hinkley Point ? No humane person would wish the citizens of Taunton to die a painful, lingering death, or suffer a lifetime of various cancers and degraded health, or be forced to relocate to Yarmouth or York, permanently. Somehow, the awfulness of this possible eventuality just cannot be captured.

Rudimentary statistics of human health and the social consequences of evacuation don’t really describe effectively what is happening in Fukushima Prefecture – there are some impacts of an nuclear power plant disaster you really cannot put a number on. OK, so there will only be a certain number of deaths and cancers, but what about the destruction of a community and the impaling of an economy ?

Remember 9/11 ? Aeroplanes were flown into the World Trade Center, not just the tallest buildings in New York, but symbols of the USA-led economy, which was then drained by the American obsession with warfare, since an entirely predictable kneejerk response to the attack was military counter strike, which nobody can really afford any more. The pilots of those planes were targeting economic dominance, not high rise office workers, and they succeeded.

Nuclear power plants can have costly accidents and are expensive to build and safely close down; but although nobody seems to have a handle on safe and effective spent fuel disposal, in some ways, these risks are calculable. In contrast, spent nuclear fuel ponds would be ideal targets for suicidal dirty bombers, and the threat of this is unknowable, because it doesn’t need the use of anything so obvious, large and noisy as an aeroplane to spring a leak.

Meltdowns are designed in – threatening economic security

Officials may deny that Fukushima Dai-ichi Reactor Unit 3 went LOCA when it melted down. Technically it was a LUHS – Loss of Ultimate Heat Sink, or an SBO – a Station Blackout – but it had pretty much the same outcome, as the water covering the fuel in the reactor probably vapourised, or got chemically converted into hydrogen gas, which then exploded and blew the roof off. It was part-loaded with “hot rod” MOX fuel, which makes it the one to watch during clean-up operations – that is, when it’s not so radioactive that only robots can get near it [5].

Can the multiple nuclear reactor unit meltdowns, explosions, radioactive plumes and leaks at Fukushima properly be counted as an “accident” ? Meltdown of a nuclear reactor core is always an anticipated possible outcome, that’s why they put it in a containment vessel, cast out of a single piece of steel [6]. So, it could be argued, these disasters are technically planned for, rather than coincidental, tragic failures. It was in the documentation : after an emergency shutdown, if all forms of reactor cooling became unavailable at a Fukushima unit, within a couple of hours there would be inevitable major core damage, and the risk of meltdown. It was part of the design. It’s part of the design documentation for Hinkley Point C, too.

If the Fukushima units had done their job, and contained the meltdowns, and the cooling systems had remained operational, then one could be reasonably confident that Hinkley Point C (HPC) could too; but they didn’t. The design of HPC has an extra thick concrete base under the reactor vessel, just in case nuclear fuel melts through, with channels grooved into it to steer any meltdown mess from accumulating in one place, thereby trusting it won’t become “critical” again.

But meltdown and melt-through is not the only kind of serious event HPC could suffer. Use of high burn-up fuel could contribute to warped fuel rods or control rods, higher build-up or leaks of fission gas. And its higher temperatures, together with the high pressure of the reactor coolant, could cause a range of high energy damage, or even prevent a safe shutdown; and until they permitted the plans to go ahead, the UK Government’s Assessment Findings had much to question as regards control systems.

In conclusion, there will always be the risk of a major, uninsurable accident with the UK EPR (TM) design for Hinkley Point C, and even without considering health and safety, the long-term costs of cleanup could wipe out everybody’s pensions. My opinion is that we cannot afford this risk, just as we can no longer afford warfare. Why do the UK Government persist in proposing that the people should bear the cost burden and risks of new nuclear power, when there is already an alternative suite of energy and energy management technologies that can be built in roughly half the time and three quarters of the cost ?


By Subject

[1] What do to with UK plutonium ?

DECC (2011). “Management of the UK’s Plutonium Stocks : A consultation response on the long-term management of UK-owned separated civil plutonium”, UK Government, Department of Energy and Climate Change, 1 December 2011.

Leventhal (1995). “Bury It, Don’t Burn It : A Non-Proliferation Perspective on Warhead Plutonium Disposal”, Paul Leventhal, President, Nuclear Control Institute, Presented to the U.S. Department of Energy Plutonium Stabilization and Immobilization Workshop, Washington, D.C., December 12, 1995.

Royal Society (2011). “Fuel cycle stewardship in a nuclear renaissance”, Royal Society, October 2011

USA (2000). “Agreement Between The Government of the United States of America and The Government of the Russian Federation Concerning the Management and Disposition of Plutonium Designated as No Longer Required for Defense Purposes and Related Cooperation”, 2000.

von Hippel et al. (2012). “Time to bury plutonium”, Nature, Volume 485, 10 May 2012.

[2] Fuel fragmentation and dispersal

Papin et al. (2003). “Synthesis of CABRI-RIA Tests Interpretation”, Papin et al., Proceedings of the Eurosafe Conference, Paris, November 25 – 26, 2003.

ONR (2011). “Generic Design Assessment – New Civil Reactor Build : Step 4 Fuel and Core Design Assessment of the EDF and AREVA UK EPR (TM) Reactor.”, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Assessment Report : ONR-GDA-AR-11-021, Revision 0, Section 4.9.2 Paragraphs 200 – 202, 10 November 2011.

NEA (2010). “Safety Significance of the Halden IFA-650 LOCA Test Results”, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, Committee on the Safety of Nuclear Installations (CSNI), Document : NEA/CSNI/R(2010)5, 15 November 2010.

UB (2013). “Hinkley Point C : Expert Statement to the EIA”, Oda Becker, UmweltBundesamt (Environment Agency Austria), Wien 2013, Document Number : REP-0413.

[3] High burn-up fuel

Baron et al. (2008). “Discussion about HBS Transformation in High Burn-Up Fuels”, Baron et al., in Nuclear Engineering and Technology, Volume 41, Issue Number 2, March 2009, Special Issue on the Water Reactor Fuel Performance Meeting 2008.

Blair (2008). “Modelling of Fission Gas Behaviour in High Burnup Nuclear Fuel”, Paul Blair, PhD Thesis Number 4084, École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), 2008.

CEN (2011). “Review and Assessment of the Key HBU Physical Phenomena and Models : Assessment of International Return of Experience on High Burnup Fuel Performance in Support of Licensing for Burnup Increases in Belgian NPPs”, Lemehov et al., SCK-CEN, Document SCK-CEN-R-4824, Project 10.2 – Report #1, November 2011.

IAEA (1992). “Fission gas release and fuel rod chemistry related to extended burnup”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Proceedings of a Technical Committee Meeting held in Pembroke, Ontario, Canada, 28 April – 1 May 1992, Document Number : IAEA-TECDOC-697, 1993.

IAEA (2001a). “Nuclear fuel behaviour modelling at high burnup and its experimental support”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Proceedings of a Technical Committee meeting held in Windermere, United Kingdom, 19 – 23 June 2000, Document Number : IAEA-TECDOC-1233, 2001

IAEA (2013). “Technical Meeting on High Burnup Economics and Operational Experience”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), to be held at Buenos Aires, Argentina, 26 – 29 November 2013, Information Sheet, 2013.

ONR (2012). “Summary of the GDA Issue close-out assessment of the Electricité de France SA and AREVA NP SAS UK EPR (TM) nuclear reactor”, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Generic Design Assessment, 13 December 2012.

ONR (2013). “Nuclear Research Needs 2013 – Part 1: Summary of Nuclear Research Needs”, Office for Nuclear Regulation (ONR), Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Section 15, “Nuclear fuel Research”, 2013.

Rondinella and Wiss (2010). “The high burn-up structure in nuclear fuel”, Rondinella and Wiss, European Commission, Joint Research Centre, in Materials Today, Volume 13, Issue Number 12, December 2010.

[4] Nuclear Power Plant load-following

EDF (2013). “Load Following : EDF Experience Feedback”, EDF Energy, at IAEA Technical Meeting – Load Following, 4 – 6 September 2013, Paris.

IAEA (2001b). “Fuel behaviour under transient and LOCA conditions”, International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Document Number : IAEA-TECDOC-1320, Proceedings of a Technical Committee meeting held in Halden, Norway, 10 – 14 September 2001.

Lokhov (2011). “Load-following with nuclear power plants”, Lokhov A., Nuclear Energy Agency, NEA Updates, NEA News 2011, Issue Number 29.2

NEA (2006). “Very High Burn-ups in Light Water Reactors”, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, Document Number : NEA No. 6224, 2006.

NEA (2011). “Technical and Economic Aspects of Load Following with Nuclear Power Plants”, Nuclear Energy Agency, OECD, 2011.

Pouret and Nuttall (2007). “Can nuclear power be flexible ?”, Pouret, L. and Nuttall, W.J., Electricity Policy Research Group Working Papers, Number 07/10, 2007. Cambridge: University of Cambridge.

[5] Mixed oxide fuel (MOX)

ANS (2011). “The Impact of Mixed Oxide Fuel Use on Accident Consequences at Fukushima Daiichi”, American Nuclear Society, 25 March 2011.

Kim et al. (2010). “Ceramography Analysis of MOX Fuel Rods After Irradiation Test”, Han Soo Kim et al., Korea Atomic Energy Research Institute, 27 July 2010.

Lyman E. S. (2001). “The importance of MOX Fuel Quality Control in Boiling-Water Reactors”, by Edwin S. Lyman, Nuclear Control Institute.

Nakae et al. (2012). “Fission Gas Release of MOX Irradiated to High Burnup”, Nakae et al., in TopFuel 2012, Reactor Fuel Performance, Manchester, England, 2 – 6 September 2012.

Popov et al. (2000). “Thermophysical Properties of MOX and UO2 Fuels Including the Effects of Irradiation”, Popov et al., Oak Ridge National Laboratory, 2000.

[6] Nuclear reactor containment

Large (2007). “Assessments of the Radiological Consequences of Releases from Existing and Proposed EPR/PWR Nuclear Power Plants in France”, John Large, Large and Associates, Document : R3150-3, 17 March 2007.

TEPCO (2011). “The Evaluation Status of Reactor Core Damage at Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station Units 1 to 3”, Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO), 30 November 2011.

TVO (2010). “Nuclear Power Plant Unit Olkiluoto 3”, TVO, December 2010.

Email exchange

There are several documents in the first bunch of references that suggest UK Government want to take the MOX route for “getting rid of” plutonium stocks [or rather “losing” it in the matrix of the final spent fuel]. For example, advice from the Royal Society, and the consultation from UK GOV. I checked with […] regarding high level direction, and it appears UK GOV are fixed on this course of action. They might open a new MOX production facility in the UK (although they just closed one down), and they might get MOX made abroad using UK plutonium, to use in UK reactors. The point to note is that EdF uses MOX elsewhere. Although EdF are currently denying they will use it, Hinkley Point C could :-

[ MOX fuel has been reported as being intended for the new PRISM reactor :- ]

I have tried to steer the conversation to the use of high burn up fuel generally (MOX is only one option for high burn up fuel). High burn up fuel could be made from different kinds of enriched uranium. There [seems to be] a clear move [drawn from the design documents] from EdF to use high burn up fuel at Hinkley Point C – in fact, the claims in the design that the plant will produce low volumes of spent fuel relies on them using high burn up fuel. For example :-

Of course, if EdF do not use high burn up fuel or MOX fuel, they will [in all likelihood] produce far larger amounts of spent fuel waste than they are claiming, so it adds to the argument that their rad waste claims could be unverifiable.

A recent statement in the House of Commons claims that spent fuel from Hinkley Point C will be :-

“The new build contribution to the Upper Inventory is estimated at an additional 25,000 m(3) [cubic metres] intermediate level radioactive waste (ILW), and 20,000 m(3) [cubic metres] Spent Fuel”

from all the new build reactors (16 GW) anticipated. But this could be an underestimate if they use standard enrichment levels in the nuclear fuel.


The design and safety documents for Hinkley Point C have a limit of burn-up set at 65 GWD/tU – and there are many other statements about the layout of the reactor – roughly 30% could be high burn-up.


Example from Pre Construction Safety Report (PCSR) :-

Sub-Chapter 4.2 Fuel System Design

“1.1. FUEL RODS : Fuel rods are composed of slightly enriched uranium dioxide pellets with or without burnable poison (gadolinium), or MOX (uranium and plutonium) dioxide pellets. The fuel is contained in a closed tube made of M5 [Ref-1] [Ref-2] hermetically sealed at its ends.”

There have been queries about the performance of the M5 (TM) Zircaloy (zirconium alloy) under high burn-up, and power/thermal transients, which have been largely quashed, for example :-

although the nuclear industry claim it’s all good :-


Section 7.2.3 “The key factors in demonstrating the minimisation of the production of radioactive waste are…”



3.2.1. Definition of Interim Spent Fuel Store (ISFS) Requirements Spent Fuel Quantity and Characteristics

The reactor core of a UK EPR would typically consist of 241 fuel assemblies providing a controlled fission reaction and a heat source for electrical power production. Each fuel assembly is formed by a 17×17 array of zirconium alloy (such as M5) tubes, made up of 265 fuel rods and 24 guide thimbles. The fuel rods consist of uranium dioxide pellets stacked in the zirconium alloy cladding tubes which are then plugged and seal welded. It is currently assumed that a maximum of 90 spent fuel assemblies (SFA) would be removed every 18 months of operation from each UK EPR. Taking into account the time allowed for planned maintenance outages over the anticipated 60 years operating life, a total of approximately 3,400 assemblies are expected to be generated by each UK EPR. The lifetime operation of HPC, comprising two UK EPRs, would therefore result in a total of around 6,800 spent fuel assemblies. Fuel cladding failures cannot be ruled out over this period and so the interim storage does need to be capable of receiving “failed fuel” within adequate packaging.

Fuel composition and burn-up is a very important parameter for spent fuel management since it determines the heat load and the rate at which this reduces after the fuel is discharged from the reactor. The ISFS needs to be able to store enriched uranium fuel at the maximum design burn-up of 65 GWd/tU in accordance with the fuel envisaged in EDF Energy’s Development Consent application. However, the EPR is capable of accepting mixed oxide fuel (i.e. fuel where plutonium instead of uranium oxide is used to provide some or all of the initial fissile material) and, whilst EDF Energy has no current plans to use MOX fuel, it is considered prudent to ensure that the ISFS design could enable fuel with higher thermal power or different composition to be stored (noting, of course, that this eventuality would be subject to the receipt of all relevant Government and regulatory approvals).”


SNEAKING SUSPICION :- I think that the UK Government […] might push for MOX to be used in the first nuclear power plant that becomes available that can do so.