Brexit is, to put it mildly, unhelpful. Being less generous, it is entirely possible that the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from marketplace and social union with the rest of Europe could lead to an outpouring of disasters.
That’s not “doomer talk”, that’s the esteemed analysis of a range of professional bodies, banks, manufacturers, charities and almost anybody who has drawn up some reasonable figures on the matter.
That the government of a country would carry on regardless, and choose to walk away from a package of working, yes you read that right, working, carefully-crafted socioeconomic treaties and a special relationship with their closest trading partner bloc, on the basis of a poorly-conducted advisory referendum, subject to allegedly illegal foreign campaign funding, where votes were apparently garnered through the deployment of fake narratives, and voters were reported as unaware of what they were voting for, and populism and xenophobia have been rife, is tantamount to a mistake of historical proportions.
The bonfire of citizen rights, in itself, is a monumental and destructive mis-step; and could well lead to incredible social instability.
And so the UK Government renders itself inconsequential on the global stage, and all its players in the (let’s mix up these animal metaphors) braying, snorting Parliamentary majority mere silly, strutting peacocks (and hens).
Added to which, this meaningless spasm of some-might-say deliberate chaos could lead to the break-up of the 300 year old British union. Top marks to the “one nation” Conservatives, heading up this nightmare carnival of ridicule.
Brexit is not a thing. It is non-governance. It is a distraction from real politics. The proper function of government is to home the homeless, feed the hungry and to lift the humble high. Parliamentary time shouldn’t be wasted on ideological vanity projects.
Brexit isn’t a policy, it’s a shakedown. And we all get to suffer. It’s not going to lead to the cutting of red tape, that holy grail of small state neoliberal conservatism. It’s not going to shrink any budgets. It’s not going to lead to increased sovereignty, or taking back of any kind of control, just take us all back to the highly convoluted public sector administration and private sector corruption of the 1970s, or worse. Brexit has already eaten up 95% of all political bandwidth of the last 3 years, with no tangible benefits, either now, or in the future.
Brexit is backwards.
Something that doesn’t feature much in the scandal-and-outrage media is that of discussion about what could happen to energy supply as a result of this (let’s be very plain) self-destructive constitutional manoeuvre. There is scope for a plethora of knock-on impacts from Brexit that dwarf worries about the survival of financial services in London, and car manufacturing everywhere else in the UK.
The European Union is on the threshold of a major step in Energy Change, and barring an incredibly co-operative and significant level of negotiation, the exiting United Kingdom is going to lose out : lose out on technology investment, lose out on energy market access, and lose out on economic stimulus.
The renewable electricity phenomemon has clambered far higher than expectations, and now the Energy Union of the EU is going to experience a second and third wave of renewable energies : these being in gas and liquid transport fuels.
If the so-called “leadership” of the UK Government has any sense, or in fact, capacity to lead, left in its lightweight core, it would have access to the EU energy markets as one of its top, top negotiating points.
Because, whatever else happens, for the business of energy, the UK must remain physically attached to the EU, and hence be obliged to play in the Energy Union game. Our exports and imports of energy will need to continue to conform to the standards and climate change regulations of the European Union, even if exports and imports of cheeses, wines and sausages suffer from divergence.
The UK is highly dependent on the energy interconnections and port trades with the EU. We simply cannot afford to sever cables, cap pipelines, turn away cargo. This means we have to meet in the middle on energy standards, or rather, meet at the EU end on regulation and legislation as to what comes next.
There will be Renewable Gas, and Renewable Fuels, and the climate change demands on transition in energy will be inescapable. The UK will have to play ball on climate change and Energy Change, as an indelible part of the Energy Union fabric. There’s no point-scoring possible on claiming otherwise. By rescinding influence at the level of membership of the EU, the UK will need to take the instructions it is given on energy.
And so Brexit subjugates the UK, to become slave, vassal to the EU’s Energy Package. No sovereignty gained, there. No representation in the European Parliament, European Commission and European Council equates to no influence, no power of intervention in the debates on legislation, no participation in the drafting of policy. The UK becomes irrelevant. Is that what the people really willed ?
We are already being wiped from the energy maps in EU energy consultancy reports, but the UK must continue to join in if it is to trade in energy.
Water, gas and power are considered essentials in developed society, and the responsibility for providing a constant supply rests with a range of public utilities and private concerns. What might not be visible at a first glance is the necessity for there to be overarching distribution organisations. Most consumers of water, gas and power only see the bills from their supply companies, they don’t see the grids and pipeline networks that act as infrastructure to communicate their supplies to their doors; nor envisage how coordinated and managed these need to be in order to keep the whole system functioning.
And thus it is that there are giant companies and government agencies that are forever working behind the market scenes, installing, repairing, connecting, transforming, regulating, pumping, pressurising, smoothing and balancing the supplies of water, gas and power.
It is these powerful and very well connected groups that may be a powerful voice for the introduction of Renewable Gas, as they have several good reasons to call for it.
First of all, because of potential vagaries and vaguenesses, and perhaps even international vandalism, the supply of Natural Gas, for example to the European region, which is heavily dependent on imports, might be at risk under some possible future conditions – temporal or temporary. This naturally mandates healthy grid-connected gas storage facilities. It is important to note that the storage of energy fuel gases is of an importance a magnitude higher than the storage of waste non-fuel carbon dioxide to these actors in the energy sector. We all know that climate change is a scourge that needs addressing, but if Vladimir Putin’s generals or buddies turn the taps off, the resulting energy emergency in Europe can only be answered by planning ahead of time to have stores of energy-dense gas on hand. Yes, we need to deal with climate change, but first, we need underground gas storage. Then we can decarbonise the gas.
Second, but no less important, is making sure that gas fuels can adequately and at all times compensate for the natural variability in renewable electricity supply – because, you know, the sun sets, and the wind dies down from time to time. Natural Gas is turning into a very good friend for filling in the gaps in generation, and so builds the case for gas storage. The electricity grid people want the smoothing done by gas, partly because it produces so much less in carbon dioxide emissions that coal, so there has to be a strong cooperation between the gas and power authorities and management. Yes, this is not Renewable Gas going into these stores, but see what happens in point three.
Thirdly, as the growth in renewable electricity “rockets”, and other shock terms to indicate exponential change, there will be times when the combination of the sun and wind power is just too copious – hours of excess energy just streaming into the wires. There is no way that every country in Europe can export all their excess electricity – the wires are full of whizzing wind (or solar) electrons from County Kerry to Pchery in the Czech Republic. What to do with all this excess electricity ? Why, make Renewable Gas of course, to store for future hungry gaps. All the more reason to build gas storage.
And so now you see where this is heading : the administration of the gas infrastructure deeply need gas storage, and the power companies can provide lots of perhaps close to zero cost electrons to make gas from water.
The call for “power-to-gas” or P2G is getting louder – making Renewable Hydrogen – but for a range of reasons, the best gas to store is probably Renewable Methane, so it will pay to watch closely for the details of progress.
So what would the implementation of Renewable Gas look like for a company like BP ?
It would be a transition happening on a number of fronts, as a result of a range of stressors.
Three trends are likely to continue in the chemistry of crude petroleum oil : where oils and their associated Natural Gas Liquids are being sourced from unconventional tight or shale formations, or from good quality newly-discovered conventional petroleum systems, the chemistry will be light, with valuable shorter-carbon-chain hydrocarbons – although there may be a high level of gaseous sulfur compounds incorporated in what’s extracted at the pumps in the field. The second trend will be where unconventional heavy oils, and older, depleting conventional heavy oils will continue to be produced, despite overly-heavy longer-carbon-chain hydrocarbons being the majority of the crude material, and there being a great burden from sulfur compounds – some very complex – and therefore in a liquid, rather than a gas, state. The third trend will be the increasing amount of sulfur compounds in some of the lighter oil stream and most of the heavy oil flow.
The two general streams of oils will need to be treated in different ways in refinery, and their eventual target products will also be different : lighter oils and gases will be used for blending into petrol-gasoline and for supplying the gas industry – where lighter hydrocarbons are either incorporated into Natural Gas supplies, such as the LNG supply chain; or bottled into cannisters for various applications, such as LPG fuel, propane fuel and so on. The heavy stream will be used for making diesel, air fuel and other distillates, gas oils and bunker fuels.
As the light oils get lighter, there will be more light hydrocarbons to deal with. This group includes methane and ethane. Most of the methane can easily be transposed into applications that would use Natural Gas, and some of the ethane, too; but what to do with the rest. There is a global industry developing around new supplies of ethane, for example, the fabrication of polymers – all the plastics we use.
What’s wrong with this picture ? Well, to start with, methane and ethane are gases. That means they are not liquids, which means they cannot easily be used to produce liquid vehicle fuels, without re-forming or reforming the gases to make synthetic molecules with higher boiling points, so liquid. To synthesise liquid hydrocarbon fuels from hydrocarbon gases requires the additional use of energy, water and oxygen, which can be extracted from the air. Because an increasing fraction of the lighter oils is going to be gas, there will be a gas glut. The price of a range of hydrocarbon gases will stay low, and may even decrease. There will arise the question of how to increase the value of this surfeit of gases, and the answer will be twofold : make synthetic liquid fuels, and make hydrogen.
Ah, hydrogen. Why will hydrogen have so much value ? Because it can be used in a range of petrorefinery processing of the heavier oils.
As heavier oils get heavier, they will require increasing amounts of processing to make market-ready liquid fuels. One of the issues is the rising levels of sulfur compounds in the crude oil. As environmental standards in refinery have improved, increasingly, hydrogen has become the cure to a number of problems in purifying and reforming heavy hydrocarbon molecules. But hydrogen can be sourced from Natural Gas and the range of lighter, gaseous hydrocarbons coming from oil production.
Again, it looks like it all adds up, but there are a fistful of catches. You may have noticed that there is now a competition : those that process lighter oils will want to use the gaseous byproducts for synthesising liquid fuels, in order to maximise their value. Whilst those wanting to process heavier oils will want that same “refinery gas” to make hydrogen for all their hydrotreating, hydroprocessing, hydrodesulfurisation and so on.
Added to which, the supply of lighter oils might suddenly cease from a particular field or region, owing to economic imbalance, or rapid depletion after a wind-down in new drilling.
With the international regulations on sulfur adding a vice-like grip on the quality of heavier oil products, the petrorefiners could find themselves in a tight corner. They need hydrogen, but they don’t have any. Where can they get some ? Using wind, sun and water.
The sulfur in all the oils of the next several decades is going to become a slag heap of embarrassment. The yellow mountains of crystallised sulfur will just sit there, gradually oxidising and continuing to poison the atmosphere. Or burning, perhaps through military action, and creating toxic clouds and fallout everywhere remotely within range of the weather systems.
So I think the first signs that BP are taking Renewable Gas baby steps will be twofold : first of all, they will start buying or deploying renewable electricity assets. Why ? To have their own source of power for electrolysis of water, to make hydrogen for their refineries. The second step I think you’ll find will be that BP, like Shell, start to synthesise fuels.
One day, no liquid hydrocarbons will be mined from the ground : they will all be synthesised from renewable electricity, water, air and biomass.
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.
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 ( 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)
Iso-propyl alcohol (IPA, isoPropanol)
Tert-butyl alcohol (tert-Butanol)
Iso-butyl alcohol (isoButanol)
Ethers containing five or more carbon atoms per molecule (for example Oxymethylene Dimethyl Ether 3, OME-3, PODE-3, OMDME-3)
Other oxygenates (See note)
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)
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 B7blended 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.
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.
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 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
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.
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 ?
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.
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.
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 :-
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 ?
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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
ClimateCare “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.
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
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.
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 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.
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 :-
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.
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.
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 :-
Natural Hydrogen from hydrogen wells. Non-renewable.
Hydrogen produced by solar energy, for example by electrolysis of water. Renewable.
Hydrogen produced by using the heat from nuclear power. Non-renewable.
Hydrogen produced during chemical engineering. Non-renewable if the original chemical feedstocks are non-renewable.
Hydrogen produced from biomass, for example steam gasification of grass or wood. Renewable if the biomass correctly sourced.
Hydrogen produced from water by the use of renewable electricity, for example by wind-powered electrolysis. Renewable.
Hydrogen produced from the steam reforming of Natural Gas. Non-renewable.
Hydrogen produced from the gasification or steam reforming of petroleum oil fractions. Non-renewable.
Hydrogen produced from the gasification of coals and peats. Non-renewable.
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.
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”.
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,
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.
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 ?
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 ?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
National Government and International Agencies
International Energy Agency
working with :-
Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development
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 :-
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.
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 :-
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.
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.