I gave a guest lecture at Birkbeck College, of the University of London on the evening of 22nd February 2017 in the evening, as part of the Energy and Climate Change module. I titled it, “Renewable Gas for Energy Storage : Scaling up the ‘Gas Battery’ to balance Wind and Solar Power and provide Low Carbon Heat and Transport”.
The basic concept is that since wind and solar power are variable in output, there has to be some support from other energy technologies. Some talk of batteries to store electrical energy as a chemical potential, and when they talk of batteries they think of large Lithium ion piles, or flow batteries, or other forms of liquid electrolyte with cathodes and anodes. When I talk about batteries, I think of electrical energy stored in the form of a gas. This gas battery doesn’t need expensive metal cathodes or anodes, and it doesn’t need an acid liquid electrolyte to operate. Gas that is synthesised from excess solar or wind power can be a fuel that can be used in chemical reactions, such as combustion, or burning, to generate electricity and heat when desired at some point in the future. It could be burned in a gas turbine, a gas boiler or a fuel cell, or in a vehicle engine. Or instead, a chemically inert gas can be stored under pressure, and this compressed gas can also be used to generate power on demand at a later date by harnessing energy from decompression. Another option would be holding a chemically reactive gas under pressure, allowing two stages of energy recovery.
As expected, the Birkbeck audience was very diverse, and had different social and educational backgrounds, and so there was little that could be assumed as common knowledge, especially since the topic was energy, which is normally only an interest for engineers, or at a stretch, economists.
I decided when preparing that I would attempt to use symbolism as a tool to build a narrative in the presentation. A bold move, perhaps, but I found it created an emblematic thread that ran through the slides quite nicely, and helped me tell the story. I used Mathematical and Physical notation, but I didn’t do any Mathematics or Physics.
I introduced the first concept : the Delta, or change. I explained this delta was not the same as a river delta, which gave me the excuse to show a fabulous night sky image of the Nile Delta taken from the International Space Station. I demonstrated the triangle shape that emerges from charting data that changes over time, and calculating its gradient, such as the temperature of the Earth’s surface.
I explained that the change in temperature of the Earth’s surface over the recent decades is an important metric to consider, not just in terms of scale, but in terms of speed. I showed that this rate of change appears in all the independent data sets.
I then went on to explain that the overall trend in the change in the temperature of the Earth’s surface is not the only phenomenon. Within regions, and within years and seasons, even between months and days, there are smaller scale changes that may not look like the overall delta. A lot of these changes give the appearance of cyclic phenomena, and they can have a periodicity of up to several decades, for example, “oscillations” in the oceans.
These discrete deltas and cycles could, to a casual observer, mask underlying trends, especially as the deltas can be larger than the trends; so climatologists look at a large set of measurements of all kinds, and have shown that some deltas are one way only, and are not cycling.
Teasing out the trends in all of the observations is a major enterprise that has been accomplished by thousands of scientists who have reported to the IPCC, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, part of the UNFCCC, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. The Fifth Assessment Report is the most comprehensive yet, and shows that global warming is almost certainly ramping up – in other words, global warming is getting faster, or accelerating.
Many projections for the future of temperature changes at the Earth’s surface have been done, with the overall view that temperatures are likely to carry on rising for hundreds of years without an aggressive approach to curtail net greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere – principally carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O).
From observations, it is clear that global warming causes climate change, and that the rate of temperature change is linked to the rate of climate change. In symbols, this reads : delta T for temperature over t for time leads to, or implies, a delta C for climate over t for time. The fact that global warming and its consequential climate change are able to continue worsening under the current emissions profile means that climate change is going to affect humanity for a long stretch. It also means that efforts to rein in emissions will also need to extend over time.
I finished this first section of my presentation by showing a list of what I call “Solution Principles” :-
1. Delays embed and extend the problem, making it harder to solve. So don’t delay.
2. Solve the problem at least as fast as creating it.
3. For maximum efficiency, minimum cost, and maximum speed, re-deploy agents of the problem in its solution.
In other words, make use of the existing energy, transport, agriculture, construction and chemical industries in approaching answers to the imperative to address global warming and climate change.
In my seemingly futile and interminable quest to reconcile the differences between the data provided by the JODI Oil organisation and BP as revealed in part by the annual BP Statistical Review of World Energy, I have moved on to looking at production (primary supply), found a problem as regards Africa, and had some confirmation that a major adjustment in how the data is collected happened in 2009.
First – the problem with Africa. The basket “Other Africa” for oil production is far less in the BP data than it is in the JODI Oil data – shown by negative figures in the comparison. For 2015, this is approximately 65% in scale (-3800 KBD) of the summed positive difference between the BP and JODI figures for the named countries (5884 KBD). This reminds me that there was a problem with the refined oil product consumption figures for “Other Africa” as well. Without a detailed breakdown of individual country accounts from BP it is almost impossible to know where these differences arise, it seems to me, or begin to understand why these differences are so large. Maybe I should just ask BP for a full country breakdown – if they’d ever deign to communicate this kind of information with me. Standing by my email Inbox right now… Could be here some time…
It is fairly clear from the comparison for North America that a major shift in understanding by either BP or JODI Oil took place in 2009, as the oil production data converge significantly for that year onwards. There was similar evidence of this in the refined oil products consumption data.
As with the consumption data, the production data for the Middle East region is strongly divergent between BP and JODI. I did read something potentially useful in the JODI Oil Manual, which I would recommend everyone interested in energy data to read. In the notes for Crude Oil, I read : “One critical issue is whether the volumes of NGL, lease or field condensates and oils extracted from bituminous minerals are included. All organisations exclude NGL from crude oil. If condensates are able to be excluded, it should be noted to the JODI organisation(s) of which the country/economy is a member. Most OPEC member countries exclude condensates.” Now, I guess, the struggle will be to find some data on condensates. Of which there are a variety of sources and nomenclature, be they light liquid hydrocarbons from oil and gas production or oil and gas refining/processing/cryoprocessing. There may be faultlines of comprehension and categorisation, such as about who considers NGPL or Natural Gas Plant Liquids from Natural Gas processing plants to be in the category of NGLs – Natural Gas Liquids, and therefore effectively in the bucket of Crude Oil.
I’m no closer to any answers on why BP oil data doesn’t align with JODI Oil data. And it looks like I’ve just opened a whole can of condensate wormy questions.
Peak conventional crude petroleum oil production is apparently here already – the only thing that’s been growing global total liquids is North American unconventional oils : tight oil – which includes shale oil in the United States of America – and tar sands oil from bitumen in Canada – either refined into synthetic crude, or blended with other oils – both heavy and light.
But there’s a problem with unconventional oils – or rather several – but the key one is the commodity price of oil, which has been low for many months, and has caused unconventional oil producers to rein in their operations. It’s hitting conventional producers too. A quick check of Section 3 “Oil data : upstream” in OPEC’s 2016 Annual Statistical Bulletin shows a worrying number of negative 2014 to 2015 change values – for example “Active rigs by country”, “Wells completed in OPEC Members”, and “Producing wells in OPEC Members”.
But in the short term, it’s the loss of uneconomic unconventional oil production that will hit hardest. Besides problems with operational margins for all forms of unconventionals, exceptional air temperatures (should we mention global warming yet ?) in the northern part of North America have contributed to a seizure in Canadian tar sands oil production – because of extensive wildfires.
Here’s two charted summaries of the most recent data from the EIA on tight oil (which includes shale oil) and dry shale gas production in the United States – which is also suffering.
Once the drop in North American unconventionals begins to register in statistics for global total liquids production, some concern will probably be expressed. Peak Oil just might be sharper and harder and sooner than some people think.
Our assiduous government in the United Kingdom has conducted a national security review, as they should, but it appears the collective intelligence on energy of the Prime Minister’s office, the Cabinet Office and the Foreign Commonwealth Office is on a scale of poor to dangerously out of date.
No, LNG doesn’t stand for “liquid natural gas”. LNG stands for Liquefied Natural Gas. I think this report has confused LNG with NGLs.
Natural Gas Liquids, or NGLs, are condensable constituents of gas-prone hydrocarbon wells. In other words, the well in question produces a lot of gas, but at the temperatures and pressures in the well underground, hydrocarbons that would normally be liquid on the surface are in the gas phase, underground. But when they are pumped/drilled out, they are condensed to liquids. So, what are these chemicals ? Well, here are the approximate Boiling Points of various typical fossil hydrocarbons, approximate because some of these molecules have different shapes and arrangements which influences their physical properties :-
Boiling Points of Short-Chain Hydrocarbons
Methane : approximately -161.5 degrees Celsius
Ethane : approximately -89.0 degrees Celsius
Propane : approximattely -42.0 degrees Celsius
Butane : approximately -1.0 degrees Celsius
Pentane : approximately 36.1 degrees Celsius
Heptane : approximately 98.42 degrees Celsius
You would expect NGLs, liquids condensed out of Natural Gas, to be mostly butane and heavier molecules, but depending on the techniques used – which are often cryogenic – some propane and ethane can turn up in NGLs, especially if they are kept cold. The remaining methane together with small amounts of ethane and propane and a trace of higher hydrocarbons is considered “dry” Natural Gas.
By contrast, LNG is produced by a process that chills Natural Gas without separating the methane, until it is liquid, and takes up a much smaller volume, making it practical for transportation. OK, you can see why mistakes are possible. Both processes operate at sub-zero temperatures and result in liquid hydrocarbons. But it is really important to keep these concepts separate – especially as methane-free liquid forms of short-chain hydrocarbons are often used for non-energy purposes.
Amongst other criticisms I have of this report, it is important to note that the UK’s production of crude oil and Natural Gas is not “gradually” declining. It is declining at quite a pace, and so imports are “certain” to grow, not merely “likely”. I note that Natural Gas production decline is not mentioned, only oil.
Out of the blue, I got an invitation to a meeting in Whitehall.
I was to join industrial developers and academic researchers at the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) in a meeting of the “Green Hydrogen Standard Working Group”.
The date was 12th June 2015. The weather was sunny and hot and merited a fine Italian lemonade, fizzing with carbon dioxide. The venue was an air-conditioned grey bunker, but it wasn’t an unfriendly dungeon, particularly as I already knew about half the people in the room.
The subject of the get-together was Green Hydrogen, and the work of the group is to formulate a policy for a Green Hydrogen standard, navigating a number of issues, including the intersection with other policy, and drawing in a very wide range of chemical engineers in the private sector.
My reputation for not putting up with any piffle clearly preceded me, as somebody at the meeting said he expected I would be quite critical. I said that I would not be saying anything, but that I would be listening carefully. Having said I wouldn’t speak, I must admit I laughed at all the right places in the discussion, and wrote copious notes, and participated frequently in the way of non-verbal communication, so as usual, I was very present. At the end I was asked for my opinion about the group’s work and I was politely congratulational on progress.
So, good. I behaved myself. And I got invited back for the next meeting. But what was it all about ?
Most of what it is necessary to communicate is that at the current time, most hydrogen production is either accidental output from the chemical industry, or made from fossil fuels – the main two being coal and Natural Gas.
Hydrogen is used extensively in the petroleum refinery industry, but there are bold plans to bring hydrogen to transport mobility through a variety of applications, for example, hydrogen for fuel cell vehicles.
Clearly, the Green Hydrogen standard has to be such that it lowers the bar on carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions – and it could turn out that the consensus converges on any technologies that have a net CO2 emissions profile lower than steam methane reforming (SMR), or the steam reforming of methane (SRM), of Natural Gas.
[ It’s at this very moment that I need to point out the “acronym conflict” in the use of “SMR” – which is confusingly being also used for “Small Modular Reactors” of the nuclear fission kind. In the context of what I am writing here, though, it is used in the context of turning methane into syngas – a product high in hydrogen content. ]
Some numbers about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) used in the manufacture of hydrogen were presented in the meeting, including the impact this would have on CO2 emissions, and these were very intriguing.
I had some good and useful conversations with people before and after the meeting, and left thinking that this process is going to be very useful to engage with – a kind of dragnet pulling key players into low carbon gas production.
Here follow my notes from the meeting. They are, of course, not to be taken verbatim. I have permission to recount aspects of the discussion, in gist, as it was an industrial liaison group, not an internal DECC meeting. However, I should not say who said what, or which companies or organisations they are working with or for.
An underlying issue not much aired is that increased gas infrastructure is necessary not just to improve competition in the energy markets – it is also to compensate for Peak Natural Gas in the North Sea – something many commentators regularly strive to deny. The new Conservative Government policy on energy is not fit to meet this challenge. The new Secretary of State has gone public about the UK Government’s continued commitment to the exploitation of shale gas – a resource that even her own experts can tell her is unlikely to produce more than a footnote to annual gas supplies for several decades. In addition, should David Cameron be forced to usher in a Referendum on Europe, and the voters petulantly pull out of the Europe project, Britain’s control over Natural Gas imports is likely to suffer, either because of the failure of the “Energy Union” in markets and infrastructure, or because of cost perturbations.
Amber Rudd MP is sitting on a mountain of trouble, undergirded by energy policy vapourware : the promotion of shale gas is not going to solve Britain’s gas import surge; the devotion to new nuclear power is not going to bring new atomic electrons to the grid for decades, and the UK Continental Shelf is going to be expensive for the Treasury to incentivise to mine. What Amber needs is a proper energy policy, based on focused support for low carbon technologies, such as wind power, solar power and Renewable Gas to back up renewable electricity when the sun is not shining and wind is not blowing.
Volatile crude petroleum oil commodity prices over the last decade have played some undoubted havoc with oil and gas company strategy. High crude prices have pushed the choice of refinery feedstocks towards cheap heavy and immature gunk; influenced decisions about the choices for new petrorefineries and caused ripples of panic amongst trade and transport chiefs : you can’t keep the engine of globalisation ticking over if the key fuel is getting considerably more expensive, and you can’t meet your carbon budgets without restricting supplies.
Low crude commodity prices have surely caused oil and gas corporation leaders to break out into the proverbial sweat. Heavy oil, deep oil, and complicated oil suddenly become unprofitable to mine, drill and pump. Because the economic balance of refinery shifts. Because low commodity prices must translate into low end user refined product prices.
There maybe isn’t an ideal commodity price for crude oil. All the while, as crude oil commodity prices jump around like a medieval flea, the price of Natural Gas, and the gassy “light ends” of slightly unconventional and deep crude oil, stay quite cheap to produce and cheap to use. It’s a shame that there are so many vehicles on the road/sea/rails that use liquid fuels…all this is very likely to change.
Shell appear to be consolidating their future gas business by buying out the competition. Hurrah for common sense ! The next stage of their evolution, after the transition of all oil applications to gas, will be to ramp up Renewable Gas production : low carbon gas supplies will decarbonise every part of the economy, from power generation, to transport, to heating, to industrial chemistry.
This is a viable low carbon solution – to accelerate the use of renewable electricity – wind power and solar principally – and at the same time, transition the oil and gas companies to become gas companies, and thence to Renewable Gas companies.
In the last couple of years I have researched and written a book about the technologies and systems of Renewable Gas – gas energy fuels that are low in net carbon dioxide emissions. From what I have learned so far, it seems that another energy world is possible, and that the transition is already happening. The forces that are shaping this change are not just climate or environmental policy, or concerns about energy security. Renewable Gas is inevitable because of a range of geological, economic and industrial reasons.
I didn’t train as a chemist or chemical process engineer, and I haven’t had a background in the fossil fuel energy industry, so I’ve had to look at a number of very basic areas of engineering, for example, the distillation and fractionation of crude petroleum oil, petroleum refinery, gas processing, and the thermodynamics of gas chemistry in industrial-scale reactors. Why did I need to look at the fossil fuel industry and the petrochemical industry when I was researching Renewable Gas ? Because that’s where a lot of the change can come from. Renewable Gas is partly about biogas, but it’s also about industrial gas processes, and a lot of them are used in the petrorefinery and chemicals sectors.
In addition, I researched energy system technologies. Whilst assessing the potential for efficiency gains in energy systems through the use of Renewable Electricity and Renewable Gas, I rekindled an interest in fuel cells. For the first time in a long time, I began to want to build something – a solid oxide fuel cell which switches mode to an electrolysis unit that produces hydrogen from water. Whether I ever get to do that is still a question, but it shows how involved I’m feeling that I want to roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty.
Even though I have covered a lot of ground, I feel I’m only just getting started, as there is a lot more that I need to research and document. At the same time, I feel that I don’t have enough data, and that it will be hard to get the data I need, partly because of proprietary issues, where energy and engineering companies are protective of developments, particularly as regards actual numbers. Merely being a university researcher is probably not going to be sufficient. I would probably need to be an official within a government agency, or an industry institute, in order to be permitted to reach in to more detail about the potential for Renewable Gas. But there are problems with these possible avenues.
You see, having done the research I have conducted so far, I am even more scornful of government energy policy than I was previously, especially because of industrial tampering. In addition, I am even more scathing about the energy industry “playing both sides” on climate change. Even though there are some smart and competent people in them, the governments do not appear to be intelligent enough to see through expensive diversions in technology or unworkable proposals for economic tweaking. These non-solutions are embraced and promoted by the energy industry, and make progress difficult. No, carbon dioxide emissions taxation or pricing, or a market in carbon, are not going to make the kind of changes we need on climate change; and in addition they are going to be extremely difficult and slow to implement. No, Carbon Capture and Storage, or CCS, is never going to become relatively affordable in any economic scenario. No, nuclear power is too cumbersome, slow and dodgy – a technical term – to ever make a genuine impact on the total of carbon emissons. No, it’s not energy users who need to reduce their consumption of energy, it’s the energy companies who need to reduce the levels of fossil fuels they utilise in the energy they sell. No, unconventional fossil fuels, such as shale gas, are not the answer to high emissions from coal. No, biofuels added to petrofuels for vehicles won’t stem total vehicle emissions without reducing fuel consumption and limiting the number of vehicles in use.
I think that the fossil fuel companies know these proposals cannot bring about significant change, which is precisely why they lobby for them. They used to deny climate change outright, because it spelled the end of their industry. Now they promote scepticism about the risks of climate change, whilst at the same time putting their name to things that can’t work to suppress major amounts of emissions. This is a delayer’s game.
Because I find the UK Government energy and climate policy ridiculous on many counts, I doubt they will ever want me to lead with Renewable Gas on one of their projects. And because I think the energy industry needs to accept and admit that they need to undergo a major change, and yet they spend most of their public relations euros telling the world they don’t need to, and that other people need to make change instead, I doubt the energy industry will ever invite me to consult with them on how to make the Energy Transition.
I suppose there is an outside chance that the major engineering firms might work with me, after all, I have been an engineer, and many of these companies are already working in the Renewable Gas field, although they’re normally “third party” players for the most part – providing engineering solutions to energy companies.
Because I’ve had to drag myself through the equivalent of a “petro degree”, learning about the geology and chemistry of oil and gas, I can see more clearly than before that the fossil fuel industry contains within it the seeds of positive change, with its use of technologies appropriate for manufacturing low carbon “surface gas”. I have learned that Renewable Gas would be a logical progression for the oil and gas industry, and also essential to rein in their own carbon emissions from processing cheaper crude oils. If they weren’t so busy telling governments how to tamper with energy markets, pushing the blame for emissions on others, and begging for subsidies for CCS projects, they could instead be planning for a future where they get to stay in business.
The oil and gas companies, especially the vertically integrated tranche, could become producers and retailers of low carbon gas, and take part in a programme for decentralised and efficient energy provision, and maintain their valued contribution to society. At the moment, however, they’re still stuck in the 20th Century.
I’m a positive person, so I’m not going to dwell too much on how stuck-in-the-fossilised-mud the governments and petroindustry are. What I’m aiming to do is start the conversation on how the development of Renewable Gas could displace dirty fossil fuels, and eventually replace the cleaner-but-still-fossil Natural Gas as well.
I was in a meeting today held at the Centre for European Reform in which Shell’s Chief Financial Officer, Simon Henry, made two arguments to absolve the oil and gas industry of responsibility for climate change. He painted coal as the real enemy, and reiterated the longest hand-washing argument in politics – that Shell believes that a Cap and Trade system is the best way to suppress carbon dioxide emissions. In other words, it’s not up to Shell to do anything about carbon. He argued that for transportation and trade the world is going to continue to need highly energy-dense liquid fuels for some time, essentially arguing for the continuation of his company’s current product slate. He did mention proudly in comments after the meeting that Shell are the world’s largest bioethanol producers, in Brazil, but didn’t open up the book on the transition of his whole company to providing the world with low carbon fuels. He said that Shell wants to be a part of the global climate change treaty process, but he gave no indication of what Shell could bring to the table to the negotiations, apart from pushing for carbon trading. Mark Campanale of the Carbon Tracker Initiative was sufficiently convinced by the “we’re not coal” argument to attempt to seek common cause with Simon Henry after the main meeting. It would be useful to have allies in the oil and gas companies on climate change, but it always seems to be that the rest of the world has to adopt Shell’s and BP’s view on everything from policy to energy resources before they’ll play ball.
During the meeting, Mark Campanale pointed out in questions that Deutsche Bank and Goldman Sachs are going to bring Indian coal to trade on the London Stock Exchange and that billions of dollars of coal stocks are to be traded in London, and that this undermines all climate change action. He said he wanted to understand Shell’s position, as the same shareholders that hold coal (shares), hold Shell. I think he was trying to get Simon Henry to call for a separation in investment focus – to show that investment in oil and gas is not the same as investing in Big Bad Coal. But Simon Henry did not bite. According to the Carbon Tracker Initiative’s report of 2013, Unburnable Carbon, coal listed on the London Stock Exchange is equivalent to 49 gigatonnes of Carbon Dioxide (gtCO2), but oil and gas combined trade shares for stocks equivalent to 64 gtCO2, so there’s currently more emissions represented by oil and gas on the LSX than there is for coal. In the future, the emissions held in the coal traded in London have the potential to amount to 165 gtCO2, and oil and gas combined at 125 gtCO2. Despite the fact that the United Kingdom is only responsible for about 1.6% of direct country carbon dioxide emissions (excluding emissions embedded in traded goods and services), the London Stock Exchange is set to be perhaps the world’s third largest exchange for emissions-causing fuels.
Here’s a rough transcript of what Simon Henry said. There are no guarantees that this is verbatim, as my handwriting is worse than a GP’s.
[Simon Henry] I’m going to break the habit of a lifetime and use notes. Building a long-term sustainable energy system – certain forces shaping that. 7 billion people will become 9 billion people – [many] moving from off-grid to on-grid. That will be driven by economic growth. Urbanisation [could offer the possibility of] reducing demand for energy. Most economic growth will be in developing economies. New ways fo consuming energy. Our scenarios – in none do we see energy not growing materially – even with efficiencies. The current ~200 billion barrels of oil equivalent per day today of energy demand will rise to ~400 boe/d by 2050 – 50% higher than today. This will be demand-driven – nothing to do with supply…
[At least one positive-sounding grunt from the meeting – so there are some Peak Oil deniers in the room, then.]
[Simon Henry] …What is paramount for governments – if a threat, then it gets to the top of the agenda. I don’t think anybody seriously disputes climate change…
[A few raised eyebrows and quizzical looks around the table, including mine]
[Simon Henry] …in the absence of ways we change the use of energy […] Any approach to climate change has got to embrace science, policy and technology. All three levers must be pulled. Need a long-term stable policy that enables technology development. We think this is best in a market mechanism. […] Energy must be affordable at the point of use. What we call Triple A – available, acceptable and affordable. No silver bullet. Develop in a responsible way. Too much of it is soundbite – that simplifies what’s not a simple problem. It’s not gas versus coal. [Although, that appeared to be one of his chief arguments – that it is gas versus coal – and this is why we should play nice with Shell.]
1. Economy : About $1.5 to $2 trillion of new money must be invested in the energy industry each year, and this must be sustained until 2035 and beyond. A [few percent] of the world economy. It’s going to take time to make [massive changes]. […] “Better Growth : Better Climate” a report on “The New Climate Economy” by the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate, the Calderon Report. [The world invested] $700 billion last year on oil and gas [or rather, $1 trillion] and $220 – $230 billion on wind power and solar power. The Calderon Report showed that 70% of energy is urban. $6 trillion is being spent on urban infrastructure [each year]. $90 trillion is available. [Urban settings are] more compact, more connected, there’s public transport, [can build in efficiencies] as well as reducing final energy need. Land Use is the other important area – huge impact on carbon emissions. Urbanisation enables efficiency in distributed generation [Combined Heat and Power (CHP)], [local grids]. Eye-popping costs, but the money will be spent anyway. If it’s done right it will [significantly] reduce [carbon emissions and energy demand]…
2. Technology Development : Governments are very bad at picking winners. Better to get the right incentives in and let the market players decide [optimisation]. They can intervene, for example by [supporting] Research and Development. But don’t specify the means to an end…The best solution is a strong predictable carbon price, at $40 a tonne or more or it won’t make any difference. We prefer Cap and Trade. Taxes don’t actually decrease carbon [emissions] but fundamentally add cost to the consumer. As oil prices rose [in 2008 – 2009] North Americans went to smaller cars…Drivers [set] their behaviour from [fuel] prices…
[An important point to note here : one of the reasons why Americans used less motor oil during the “Derivatives Bubble” recession between 2006 and 2010 was because the economy was shot, so people lost their employment, and/or their homes and there was mass migration, so of course there was less commuter driving, less salesman driving, less business driving. This wasn’t just a response to higher oil prices, because the peak in driving miles happened before the main spike in oil prices. In addition, not much of the American fleet of cars overturned in this period, so Americans didn’t go to smaller cars as an adaptation response to high oil prices. They probably turned to smaller cars when buying new cars because they were cheaper. I think Simon Henry is rather mistaken on this. ]
[Simon Henry] …As regards the Carbon Bubble : 65% of the Unburnable fossil fuels to meet the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is coal. People would stuggle to name the top five coal companies [although they find it easy to name the top five oil and gas companies]. Bearing in mind that you have to [continue to] transport stuff [you are going to need oil for some time to come.] Dealing with coal is the best way of moving forward. Coal is used for electricity – but there are better ways to make electricity – petcoke [petroleum coke – a residue from processing heavy and unconventional crude oil] for example…
[Simon Henry] …It will take us 30 years to get away entirely from coal. Even if we used all the oil and gas, the 2 degrees [Celsius] target is still possible…
3. Policy : We tested this with the Dutch Government recently – need to create an honest dialogue for a long-term perspective. Demand for energy needs to change. It’s not about supply…
[Again, some “hear hears” from the room from the Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas deniers]
[Simon Henry] …it’s about demand. Our personal wish for [private] transport. [Not good to be] pushing the cost onto the big bad energy companies and their shareholders. It’s taxes or prices. [Politicians] must start to think of their children and not the next election…
…On targets and subsidies : India, Indonesia, Brazil […] to move on fossil fuel subsidies – can’t break the Laws of Economics forever. If our American friends drove the same cars we do, they’d reduce their oil consumption equivalent to all of the shale [Shale Gas ? Or Shale Oil ?]… Targets are an emotive issue when trying to get agreement from 190 countries. Only a few players that really matter : USA, China, EU, India – close to 70% of current emissions and maybe more in future. The EPA [Environmental Protection Agency in the United States of America] [announcement] on power emissions. China respondedin 24 hours. The EU target on 27% renewables is not [country-specific, uniform across-the-board]. Last week APEC US deal with China on emissions. They switched everything off [and banned traffic] and people saw blue sky. Coal with CCS [Carbon Capture and Storage] we see as a good idea. We would hope for a multi-party commitment [from the United Nations climate talks], but [shows doubt]… To close : a couple of words on Shell – have to do that. We have only 2% [of the energy market], but we [hope we] can punch above our weight [in policy discussions]. We’re now beginning to establish gas as a transport fuel. Brazil – low carbon [bio]fuels. Three large CCS projects in Canada, EU… We need to look at our own energy use – pretty trivial, but [also] look at helping our customers look at theirs. Working with the DRC [China]. Only by including companies such as ourselves in [climate and energy policy] debate can we get the [global deal] we aspire to…
[Question from the table, Ed Wells (?), HSBC] : Green Bonds : how can they provide some of the finance [for climate change mitigation and adaptation] ? The first Renminbi denominated Green Bond from [?]. China has committed to non-fossil fuels. The G20 has just agreed the structure on infrastructure – important – not just for jobs and growth – parallel needs on climate change. [Us at HSBC…] Are people as excited about Green Bonds as we are ?
[Stephen Tindale] Yes.
[Question from the table, Anthony Cary, Commonwealth Scholarship Commission] …The key seems to be pricing carbon into the economy. You said you preferred Cap and Trade. I used to but despite reform the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) – [failures and] gaming the system. Tax seems to be a much more solid basis.
[Simon Henry] [The problem with the ETS] too many credits and too many exemptions. Get rid of the exemptions. Bank reserve of credits to push the price up. Degress the number of credits [traded]. Tax : if people can afford it, they pay the tax, doesn’t stop emissions. In the US, no consumption tax, they are very sensitive to the oil price going up and down – 2 to 3 million barrels a day [swing] on 16 million barrels a day. All the political impact on the US from shale could be done in the same way on efficiency [fuel standards and smaller cars]. Green Bonds are not something on top of – investment should be financed by Green Bonds, but investment is already being done today – better to get policy right and then all investment directed.
[Question from the table, Kirsten Gogan, Energy for Humanity] The role of nuclear power. By 2050, China will have 500 gigawatts (GW) of nuclear power. Electricity is key. Particularly coal. Germany is building new coal as removing nuclear…
[My internal response] It’s at this point that my ability to swallow myths was lost. I felt like shouting, politely, across the table : ACTUALLY KIRSTEN, YOU, AND A LOT OF OTHER PEOPLE IN THE ROOM ARE JUST PLAIN WRONG ON GERMANY AND COAL.
[Kirsten Gogan]…German minister saying in public that you can’t phase out nuclear and coal at the same time. Nuclear is not included in that conversation. Need to work on policy to scale up nuclear to replace coal. Would it be useful to have a clear sectoral target on decarbonising – 100% on electricity ?
[Stephen Tindale] Electricity is the least difficult of the energy sectors to decarbonise. Therefore the focus should be on electricity. If a target would help (I’m not a fan) nuclear certainly needs to be a part of the discussions. Angela Merkel post-Fukushima has been crazy, in my opinion. If want to boost renewable energy, nuclear power will take subsidies away from that. But targets for renewable energy is the wrong objective.. If the target is keeping the climate stable then it’s worth subsidising nuclear. Subsidising is the wrong word – “risk reduction”.
[Simon Henry] If carbon was properly priced, nuclear would become economic by definition…
[My internal response] NO IT WOULDN’T. A LOT OF NUCLEAR CONSTRUCTION AND DECOMMISSIONING AND SPENT FUEL PROCESSING REQUIRES CARBON-BASED ENERGY.
[Simon Henry] …Basically, all German coal is exempted (from the EU ETS). If you have a proper market-based system then the right things will happen. The EU – hypocrisy at country level. Only [a couple of percent] of global emissions. The EU would matter if it was less hypocritical. China are more rational – long-term thinking. We worked with the DRC. Six differing carbon Cap and Trade schemes in operation to find the one that works best. They are effectively supporting renewable energy – add 15 GW each of wind and solar last year. They don’t listen to NIMBYs [they also build in the desert]. NIMBYism [reserved for] coal – because coal was built close to cities. [Relationship to Russia] – gas replacing coal. Not an accident. Five year plan. They believe in all solutions. Preferably Made in China so we can export to the rest of the world. [Their plans are for a range of aims] not just climate.
[Simon Henry] [in answer to a question about the City of London] We don’t rely on them to support our activities [my job security depends on a good relationship with them]]. We have to be successful first and develop [technological opportunities] [versus being weakened by taxes]. They can support change in technology. Financing coal may well be new money. Why should the City fund new coal investments ?
[Question from the table, asking about the “coal is 70% of the problem” message from Simon Henry] When you talk to the City investors, do you take the same message to the City ?
[Simon Henry] How much of 2.7 trillion tonnes of “Unburnable Carbon” is coal, oil and gas ? Two thirds of carbon reserves is coal. [For economic growth and] transport you need high density liquid fuels. Could make from coal [but the emissions impact would be high]. We need civil society to have a more serious [understanding] of the challenges.
After the discussion, I asked Simon Henry to clarify his words about the City of London.
[Simon Henry] We don’t use the City as a source of capital. 90% is equity finance. We don’t go to the market to raise equity. For every dollar of profit, we invest 75 cents, and pay out 25 cents as dividend to our shareholders. Reduces [problems] if we can show we can reinvest. [ $12 billion a year is dividend. ]
I asked if E&P [Exploration and Production] is working – if there are good returns on investment securing new reserves of fossil fuels – I know that the company aims for a 10 or 11 year Reserves to Production ratio (R/P) to ensure shareholder confidence.
Simon Henry mentioned the price of oil. I asked if the oil price was the only determinant on the return on investment in new E&P ?
[Simon Henry] If the oil price is $90 a barrel, that’s good. At $100 a barrel or $120 a barrel [there’s a much larger profit]. Our aim is to ensure we can survive at $70 a barrel. [On exploration] we still have a lot of things in play – not known if they are working yet… Going into the Arctic [At which point I said I hope we are not going into the Arctic]… [We are getting returns] Upstream is fine [supply of gas and oil]. Deepwater is fine. Big LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas] is fine. Shale is a challenge. Heavy Oil returns could be better – profitable, but… [On new E&P] Iraq, X-stan, [work in progress]. Downstream [refinery] has challenges on return. Future focus – gas and deepwater. [On profitability of investment – ] “Gas is fine. Deepwater is fine.”
[My summary] So, in summary, I think all of this means that Shell believes that Cap and Trade is the way to control carbon, and that the Cap and Trade cost would be borne by their customers (in the form of higher bills for energy because of the costs of buying carbon credits), so their business will not be affected. Although a Cap and Trade market could possibly cap their own market and growth as the sales envelope for carbon would be fixed, since Shell are moving into lower carbon fuels – principally Natural Gas, their own business still has room for growth. They therefore support Cap and Trade because they believe it will not affect them. WHAT THEY DON’T APPEAR TO WANT PEOPLE TO ASK IS IF A CAP AND TRADE SYSTEM WILL ACTUALLY BE EFFECTIVE IN CURBING CARBON DIOXIDE EMISSIONS. They want to be at the negotiating table. They believe that they’re not the problem – coal is. They believe that the world will continue to need high energy-dense oil for transport for some time to come. It doesn’t matter if the oil market gets constrained by natural limits to expansion because they have gas to expand with. They don’t see a problem with E&P so they believe they can keep up their R/P and stay profitable and share prices can continue to rise. As long as the oil price stays above $70 a barrel, they’re OK.
However, there was a hint in what Simon Henry talked about that all is not completely well in Petro-land.
a. Downstream profit warning
Almost in passing, Simon Henry admitted that downstream is potentially a challenge for maintaining returns on investment and profits. Downstream is petrorefinery and sales of the products. He didn’t say which end of the downstream was the issue, but oil consumption has recovered from the recent Big Dip recession, so that can’t be his problem – it must be in petrorefinery. There are a number of new regulations about fuel standards that are going to be more expensive to meet in terms of petroleum refinery – and the chemistry profiles of crude oils are changing over time – so that could also impact refinery costs.
b. Carbon disposal problem
The changing profile of crude oils being used for petrorefinery is bound to cause an excess of carbon to appear in material flows – and Simon Henry’s brief mention of petcoke is more significant than it may first appear. In future there may be way too much carbon to dispose of (petcoke is mostly carbon rejected by thermal processes to make fuels), and if Shell’s plan is to burn petcoke to make power as a solution to dispose of this carbon, then the carbon dioxide emissions profile of refineries is going to rise significantly… where’s the carbon responsiblity in that ?
This week, I had the opportunity to join the launch of the UKERC’s latest research into the future of gas. The esteemed delegates included members of a Russian Trade Delegation and several people from the US Embassy. Clearly, the future of gas is an international thing.
[MB] I’m somewhat daunted by this audience – the report is aimed perhaps for informed public audience. The media [ambushed us on the question of shale gas, shale gas attracted more attention] but things we didn’t cover much about there we can cover here. It’s been a real rollercoaster ride in the gas industry. Any flights of fancy (in the report) are our faults and not theirs [reference to work of colleagues, such as Jonathan Stern at Oxford Institute for Energy Studies]. A set of shortcomings dealing with the issue of Energy Security. There is a tendency to think that oil and gas are the same. They’re not. The framework, the actors and the networks, trade statistics, policies [much different for gas than for oil]. [In the UK for example we are seeing] a rapid increase in import dependence [and in other countries]. Need to [pay] particular understanding on what will happen in far-flung places. Today, the US-China agreement could influence gas demand. [In the literature on gas, some anomalies, perhaps]. Academics may not understand markets. [What we are seeing here is] the globalisation of UK gas security – primarily Europeanisation. There is growing uncertainty [about] the material flow of gas. [Threshold] balance in three sectors – strong seasonality, impact of climate and temperature [on gas demand]. The Russian agreement with Ukraine [and Europe] – the one thing everybody was hoping for was a warm winter. While the gas market is important [industrial use and energy use], domestic/residential demand is still very significant [proportion of total demand], so we need to look at energy efficiency [building insulation rates] and ask will people rip out their gas boilers ? For the UK, we are some way across the gas bridge – gas has enabled us to meet [most of] our Kyoto Protocol commitments. Not long until we’ve crossed it. Our coal – gone. With coal gone, what fills the gaps ? Renewable electricity – but there is much intermittency already. We’re not saying that import dependency is necessarily a problem. Physical security is not really the problem – but the [dependence on] the interconnectors, the LNG (Liquefied Natural Gas) imports – these create uncertainties. The UK also plays a role as a gas exporter – and in landing Norwegian gas [bringing it into the European market]. I’m a geographer – have to have at least one map – of gas flows [in and out of the country]. The NTS (National Transmission System – the high pressure Natural Gas-carrying pipeline network – the “backbone” of the gas transmission and distribution system of National Grid] has responded to change – for example in the increasing sources of LNG [and “backflow” and “crossflow” requirements]. There are 9 points of entry for gas into the UK at the moment. If the Bowland Shale is exploited, there could be 100s of new points of entry [the injection of biogas as biomethane into the gas grid would also create new entry points]. A new challenge to the system. [The gas network has had some time to react in the past, for example] LNG imports – the decision to ramp up the capacity was taken a long time ago. [Evolution of] prices in Asia have tracked the gas away [from the European markets] after the Fukushima Dai-ichi disaster. And recently, we have decided to “fill up the tanks” again [LNG imports have risen in the last 24 or so months]. Very little LNG is “firm” – it needs to follow the market. It’s not good to simply say that “the LNG will come” [without modelling this market]. The literature over-emphasises the physical security of the upstream supplies of gas. [The projections have] unconventional gas growing [and growing amounts of biogas]. But it’s far too early to know about shale gas – far too early to make promises about money when we don’t even have a market [yet]. Policy cannot influence the upstream especially in a privatised market. The interconnectors into the European Union means we have to pay much more attention to the Third EU Energy Package. Colleagues in Oxford are tracking that. The thorny question of storage. We have less than 5 bcm (billion cubic metres). We’d like 10% perhaps [of the winter period demand ?] Who should pay for it ? [A very large proportion of our storage is in one place] the Rough. We know what happens – we had a fire at the Rough in 2006… Everyone worries about geopolitics, but there are other potential sources of problems – our ageing infrastructure […] if there is a technical problem and high demand [at the same time]. Resilience [of our gas system is demonstrated by the fact that we have] gas-on-gas competition [in the markets] – “liquid” gas hub trading – setting the NBP (National Balancing Point). [There are actually 3 kinds of gas security to consider] (a) Security of Supply – not really a problem; (b) Security of Transport (Transit) – this depends on markets and (c) Security of Demand – [which strongly depends on whether there is a] different role for gas in the future. But we need to design enough capacity even though we may not use all of it [or not all of the time]. We have mothballed gas-fired power plants already, for reasons you all know about. We already see the failure of the ETS (European Union Emissions Trading Scheme) [but if this can be reformed, as as the Industrial Emissions Directive bites] there will be a return to gas as coal closes. The role of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) becomes critical in retaining gas. CCS however doesn’t answer issues of [physical energy security, since CCS requires higher levels of fuel use].
[Question from the floor] Gas has a role to play in transition. But how do we need to manage that role ? Too much focus on building Renewable Energy system. What is the impact on the current infrastructure ? For managing that decline in the incumbent system – gas is there to help – gas by design rather than gas by default.
[Question from the floor, Jonathan Stern] [In your graphs/diagrams] the Middle East is a major contributor to gas trade. We see it differently. The Qataris [could/may/will] hold back [with expanding production] until 2030. Iran – our study [sees it as] a substitute contributor. Oil-indexed gas under threat and under challenge. If you could focus more on the global gas price… [New resources of gas could be very dispersed.]Very difficult to get UK people to understand [these] impacts on the gas prices [will] come from different places than they can think of.
[Question from the floor] Availability of CCS capacity ? When ? How much ? Assumptions of cost ?
[Question from the floor : Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth] Gas as a bridge – how much gas do we need for [this process] ? What about unburnable carbon ? Do we need more gas to meet demands ?
[Answer – to Jonathan Stern – from Christophe McGlade ?] The model doesn’t represent particularly well political probabilities. Iran has a lot of gas – some can come online. It will bring it online if it wants to export it. Some simplifications… might be over optimistic. Your work is helpful to clarify.
On gas prices – indexation versus global gas price – all the later scenarios assumed a globalised gas price. More reasonable assumptions.
On CCS : first [coming onstream] 2025 – initially quite a low level, then increasing by 10% a year. The capital costs are approximately 60% greater than other options and causes a drop in around 10% on efficiency [because making CCS work costs you in extra fuel consumed]. If the prices of energy [including gas] increase, then CCS will have a lesser relative value [?].
On availability of gas : under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario, we could consume 5 tcm (trillion cubic metres) of gas – and this can come from reserves and resources. There are a lot of resources of Natural Gas, but some of it will be at a higher price. In the model we assume development of some new resources, with a growth in shale gas, and other unconventional gas. Because of the climate deal, we need to leave some gas underground.
[Answer from the panel] Indexation of gas prices to oil… Further gas demand is in Asia – it’s a question of whose gas gets burnt. [Something like] 70% of all Natural Gas gets burned indigenously [within the country in which it is produced]. When we talk about “unburnable gas”, we get the response “you’re dreaming” from some oil companies, “it won’t be our fossil fuels that get stranded”. LNG models envisage a different demand profile [in the future, compared to now]. When China [really gets] concerned about air quality [for example]. Different implications.
[Question from the floor, from Centrica ?] What’s in the model for the globalised gas price – Henry Hub plus a bit ? There is not a standard one price.
[Question from the floor] On the question of bridging – the long-term bridge. What issues do you see when you get to 2030 for investment ? [We can see] only for the next few years. What will investors think about that ?
[Question from the floor] [With reference to the Sankey diagram of gas use in the UK] How would that change in a scenario of [electrification – heat and transport being converted to run on electrical power] ?
[Question from the floor] Stranded assets. How the markets might react ? Can you put any numbers on it – especially in the non-CCS scenario ? When do we need to decide [major strategy] for example, [whether we could or should be] shutting off the gas grid ? How would we fund that ? Where are the pinch points ?
[Answer from the panel] On the global gas price – the model does not assume a single price – [it will differ over each] region. [The price is allowed to change regionally [but is assumed to arise from global gas trading without reference to oil prices.] Asian basin will always be more expensive. There will be a temperature differential between different hubs [since consumption is strongly correlated with seasonal change]. On stranded assets – I think you mean gas power plants ? The model is socially-optimal – all regions working towards the 2 degrees Celsius global warming target. The model doesn’t limit stranded assets – and do get in the non-CCS scenario. Build gas plants to 2025 – then used at very low load factors. Coal plants need to reduce [to zero] given that the 2 degrees Celsius targets are demanding. Will need gas for grid balancing – [new gas-fired power generation assets will be] built and not used at high load factors.
[Answer from the panel] Our report – we have assume a whole system question for transition. How successful will the Capacity Mechanism be ? UKERC looking at electrification of heating – but they have not considered the impact on gas (gas-to-power). Will the incentives in place be effective ? The Carbon Budget – what are the implications ? Need to use whole system analysis to understand the impact on gas. Issue of stranded assets : increasingly important now [not at some point in the future]. On pinch point : do we need to wait another three years [for more research] ? Researchers have looked more at what to spend – what to build – and less on how to manage the transition. UKERC have started to explore heat options. It’s a live issue. Referenced in the report.
[Question from the floor, from Richard Sverrisson, News Editor of Montel] Will reform to the EU ETS – the Market Stability Reserve (MSR) – will that be enough to bring gas plant into service ?
[Question from the floor] On oil indexation and the recent crash in the crude price – what if it keeps continuing [downwards] ? It takes gas prices down to be competitive with hub prices. [What about the impact on the economic profitability of] shale oil – where gas driving related prices ? Are there some pricing [functions/variables] in the modelling – or is it merely a physical construct ?
[Question from the floor, from Rob Gross of UCL] On intermittency and the flexibility of low carbon capacity. The geographical units in the modelling are large – the role of gas depends on how the model is constrained vis-a-vis intermittency.
[Answer from the panel, from Christophe McGlade] On carbon dioxide pricing : in the 2 degrees Celsius scenario, the price is assumed to be $200 per tonne. In the non-CCS scenario, the price is in the region of $400 – $500 per tonne [?] From 2020 : carbon price rises steeply – higher than the Carbon Floor Price. How is the the 2 degrees Celsius target introduced ? If you place a temperature constraint on the energy system, the model converts that into carbon emissions. The latest IPCC report shows that there remains an almost linear trend between carbon budget and temperature rise – or should I say a greenhouse gas budget instead : carbon dioxide (CO2), methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O). The emissions pledges of the [European Union ?] have been adopted by this model – also the development of renewable energy and fuel standards. No exogenous assumptions on carbon pricing. On intermittency – the seasonality is represented by summer, winter and intermediate; and time day generalised as morning, night, evening and peak (morning peak). [Tighter modelling would provide more] certainty which would remove ~40% of effective demand [?] Each technology has a contribution to make to peak load. Although, we assume nothing from wind power – cannot capture hour to hour market. The model does build capacity that then it doesn’t use.
[Answer from the panel] On carbon pricing and the EU ETS reform : I wouldn’t hold my breath [that this will happen, or that it will have a major impact]. We have a new commission and their priority is Poland – nothing serious will happen on carbon pricing until 2020. Their emphasis is much more on Central European issues. I don’t expect [us] to have a strong carbon price since policy [will probably be] more focussed on social democracy issues. Moving to a relatively lower price on oil : Asia will hedge. Other explorters currently sticking to indexation with oil. The low price of wet gas (condensate) in the USA is a result of the over-supply, which followed an over-supply in NGLs (Natural Gas Liquids) – a bumpy road. Implications from USA experience ? Again, comes back to watching what is happening in Asia.
It’s clear to me that the near-term and mid-term future for energy in the United Kingdom and the European Union will best be centred on Natural Gas and Renewable Electricity, and now the UK Energy Research Centre has modelled essentially the same scenario. This can become a common narrative amongst all parties – the policy people, the economists, the technologists, the non-governmental groups, as long as some key long-term de-carbonisation and energy security objectives are built into the plan.
The researchers wanted to emphasise from their report that the use of Natural Gas should not be a default option in the case that other strategies fail – they want to see a planned transition to a de-carbonised energy system using Natural Gas by design, as a bridge in that transition. Most of the people in the room found they could largely agree with this. Me, too. My only caveat was that when the researchers spoke about Gas-CCS – Natural Gas-fired power generation with Carbon Capture and Storage attached, my choice would be Gas-CCU – Natural Gas-fired power generation with Carbon Capture and Re-utilisation – carbon recycling – which will eventually lead to much lower emissions gas supply at source.
What follows is a transcription of my poorly-written notes at the meeting, so you cannot accept them as verbatim.
Jim Watson, UKERC = [JW]
Christophe McGlade, University College London (UCL) = [CM]
Mike Bradshaw, Warwick Business School = [MB]
[JW] Thanks to Matt Aylott. Live Tweeting #FutureOfGas. Clearly gas is very very important. It’s never out of the news. The media all want to talk about fracking… If we want to meet the 2 degrees Celsius target of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, how much can gas be a part of this ? Is Natural Gas a bridge – how long a ride will that gas bridge be ?
[CM] Gas as a bridge ? There is healthy debate about the Natural Gas contribution to climate change [via the carbon dioxide emissions from burning Natural Gas, and also about how much less in emissions there is from burning Natural Gas compared to burning coal]. The IPCC said that “fuel switching” from coal to gas would offer emissions benefits, but some research, notably McJeon et al. (2014) made statements that switching to Natural Gas cannot confer emissions benefits. Until recently, there have not been many disaggregated assessments on gas as a bridge. We have used TIAM-UCL. The world is divided into 16 regions. The “climate module” seeks to constrain the global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius. One of the outcomes from our model was that export volumes [from all countries] would be severaly impacted by maintaining the price indexation between oil and gas. [Reading from chart on the screen : exports would peak in 2040s]. Another outcome was that gas consumption is not radically affected by different gas market structures. However, the over indexation to the oil price may destroy gas export markets. Total exports of natural gas are higher under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario compared to the 4 degrees Celsius scenario – particularly LNG [Liquefied Natural Gas]. A global climate deal will support gas exports. There will be a higher gas consumption under a 2 degrees Celsius deal compared to unconstrained scenario [leading to a 4 degrees Celsius global temperature rise]. The results of our modelling indicate that gas acts as a bridge fuel out to 2035 [?] in both absolute and relative terms. There is 15% greater gas consumption in the 2 degrees Celsius global warming scenario than in the 4 degrees Celsius global warming scenario. Part of the reason is that under the 4 degrees Celsius scenario, Compressed Natural Gas vehicles are popular, but a lot less useful under the 2 degrees Celsius scenario [where hydrogen and other fuels are brought into play].
There are multiple caveats on these outcomes. The bridging period is strictly time-limited. Some sectors need to sharply reduce consumption [such as building heating by Natural Gas boilers, which can be achieved by mass insulation projects]. Coal must be curtailed, but coal-for-gas substitution alone is not sufficient. Need a convincing narrative about how coal can be curtailed. In an absence of a global binding climate deal we will get consumption increases in both coal and gas. In the model, gas is offsetting 15% of coal by 2020, and 85% by 2030. With Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), gas’s role is drastically reduced – after 2025 dropping by 2% a year [of permitted gas use]. Not all regions of the world can use gas as a bridge. [Reading from the chart : with CCS, gas is a strong bridging fuel in the China, EU, India, Japan and South Korea regions, but without CCS, gas is only strong in China. With CCS, gas’s bridging role is good in Australasia, ODA presumably “Offical Development Assistance” countries and USA. Without CCS, gas is good for Africa, Australasia, EU, India, Japan, South Korea, ODA and USA.]
In the UK, despite the current reliance on coal, there is little scope to use it as a transition fuel. Gas is unlikely to be removed from UK energy system by 2050.
[Question from the floor] The logic of gas price indexation with the oil price ?
[CM] If maintain oil indexation, exports will reduce as countries turn more towards indigenous at-home production of gas for their domestic demand. This would not be completely counter-balanced by higher oil and therefore gas prices, which should stimulate more exports.
[Point from the floor] This assumes logical behaviour…
[Question from the floor] [Question about Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)]
[CM] The model does anticipate more CCS – which permits some extra coal consumption [at the end of the modelling period]. Gas-CCS [gas-fired power generation with CCS attached] is always going to generate less emissions than coal-CCS [coal-fired power generation with CCS attached] – so the model prefers gas-CCS.
Amongst the chink-clink of wine glasses at yesterday evening’s Open Cities Green Sky Thinking Max Fordham event, I find myself supping a high ball orange juice with an engineer who does energy retrofits – more precisely – heat retrofits. “Yeah. Drilling holes in Grade I Listed walls for the District Heating pipework is quite nervewracking, as you can imagine. When they said they wanted to put an energy centre deep underneath the building, I asked them, “Where are you going to put the flue ?””
Our attention turns to heat metering. We discuss cases we know of where people have installed metering underground on new developments and fitted them with Internet gateways and then found that as the rest of the buildings get completed, the meter can no longer speak to the world. The problems of radio-meets-thick-concrete and radio-in-a-steel-cage. We agree that anybody installing a remote wifi type communications system on metering should be obliged in the contract to re-commission it every year.
And then we move on to shale gas. “The United States of America could become fuel-independent within ten years”, says my correspondent. I fake yawn. It really is tragic how some people believe lies that big. “There’s no way that’s going to happen !”, I assert.
“Look,” I say, (jumping over the thorny question of Albertan syncrude, which is technically Canadian, not American), “The only reason there’s been strong growth in shale gas production is because there was a huge burst in shale gas drilling, and now it’s been shown to be uneconomic, the boom has busted. Even the Energy Information Administration is not predicting strong growth in shale gas. They’re looking at growth in coalbed methane, after some years. And the Arctic.” “The Arctic ?”, chimes in Party Number 3. “Yes,” I clarify, “Brought to you in association with Canada. Shale gas is a non-starter in Europe. I always think back to the USGS. They estimate that the total resource in the whole of Europe is a whole order of magnitude, that is, ten times smaller than it is in Northern America.” “And I should have thought you couldn’t have the same kind of drilling in Europe because of the population density ?”, chips in Party Number 3. “They’re going to be drilling a lot of empty holes,” I add, “the “sweet spot” problem means they’re only likely to have good production in a few areas. And I’m not a geologist, but there’s the stratigraphy and the kind of shale we have here – it’s just not the same as in the USA.” Parties Number 2 and 3 look vaguely amenable to this line of argument. “And the problems that we think we know about are not the real problems,” I out-on-a-limbed. “The shale gas drillers will probably give up on hydraulic fracturing of low density shale formations, which will appease the environmentalists, but then they will go for drilling coal lenses and seams inside and alongside the shales, where there’s potential for high volumes of free gas just waiting to pop out. And that could cause serious problems if the pressures are high – subsidence, and so on. Even then, I cannot see how production could be very high, and it’s going to take some time for it to come on-stream…” “…about 10 years,” says Party Number 2.
“Just think about who is going for shale gas in the UK,” I ventured, “Not the big boys. They’ve stood back and let the little guys come in to drill for shale gas. I mean, BP did a bunch of onshore seismic surveys in the 1950s, after which they went drilling offshore in the North Sea, so I think that says it all, really. They know there’s not much gas on land.” There were some raised eyebrows, as if to say, well, perhaps seismic surveys are better these days, but there was agreement that shale gas will come on slowly.
“I don’t think shale gas can contribute to energy security for at least a decade,” I claimed, “even if there’s anything really there. Shale gas is not going to answer the problems of the loss of nuclear generation, or the problems of gas-fired generation becoming uneconomic because of the strong growth in renewables.” There was a nodding of heads.
“I think,” I said, “We should forget subsidies. UK plc ought to purchase a couple of CCGTS [Combined Cycle Gas Turbine electricity generation units]. That will guarantee they stay running to load balance the power grid when we need them to. Although the UK’s Capacity Mechanism plan is in line with the European Union’s plans for supporting gas-fired generation, it’s not achieving anything yet.” I added that we needed to continue building as much wind power as possible, as it’s quick to put in place. I quite liked my radical little proposal for energy security, and the people I was talking with did not object.
There was some discussion about Green Party policy on the ownership of energy utilities, and how energy and transport networks are basically in the hands of the State, but then Party Number 2 said, “What we really need is consistency of policy. We need an Energy Bill that doesn’t get gutted by a change of administration. I might need to vote Conservative, because Labour would mess around with policy.” “I don’t know,” I said, “it’s going to get messed with whoever is in power. All those people at DECC working on the Electricity Market Reform – they all disappeared. Says something, doesn’t it ?”
I spoke to Parties Number 2 and 3 about my research into the potential for low carbon gas. “Basically, making gas as a kind of energy storage ?”, queried Party Number 2. I agreed, but omitted to tell him about Germany’s Power-to-Gas Strategy. We agreed that it would be at least a decade before much could come of these technologies, so it wouldn’t contribute immediately to energy security. “But then,” I said, “We have to look at the other end of this transition, and how the big gas producers are going to move towards Renewable Gas. They could be making decisions now that make more of the gas they get out of the ground. They have all the know-how to build kit to make use of the carbon dioxide that is often present in sour conventional reserves, and turn it into fuel, by reacting it with Renewable Hydrogen. If they did that, they could be building sustainability into their business models, as they could transition to making Renewable Gas as the Natural Gas runs down.”
I asked Parties Number 2 and 3 who they thought would be the first movers on Renewable Gas. We agreed that companies such as GE, Siemens, Alstom, the big engineering groups, who are building gas turbines that are tolerant to a mix of gases, are in prime position to develop closed-loop Renewable Gas systems for power generation – recycling the carbon dioxide. But it will probably take the influence of the shareholders of companies like BP, who will be arguing for evidence that BP are not going to go out of business owing to fossil fuel depletion, to roll out Renewable Gas widely. “We’ve all got our pensions invested in them”, admitted Party Number 2, arguing for BP to gain the ability to sustain itself as well as the planet.
Sigh. I think I’m going to need to start sending out Freedom of Information requests… Several cups of tea later…
To: Information Rights Unit, Department for Business, Innovation & Skills, 5th Floor, Victoria 3, 1 Victoria Street, London SW1H OET
28th April 2014
Request to the Department of Energy and Climate Change
Re: Policy and Strategy for North Sea Natural Gas Fields Depletion
Dear Madam / Sir,
I researching the history of the development of the gas industry in the United Kingdom, and some of the parallel evolution of the industry in the United States of America and mainland Europe.
In looking at the period of the mid- to late- 1960s, and the British decision to transition from manufactured gas to Natural Gas supplies, I have been able to answer some of my questions, but not all of them, so far.
From a variety of sources, I have been able to determine that there were contingency plans to provide substitutes for Natural Gas, either to solve technical problems in the grid conversion away from town gas, or to compensate should North Sea Natural Gas production growth be sluggish, or demand growth higher than anticipated.
Technologies included the enriching of “lean” hydrogen-rich synthesis gas (reformed from a range of light hydrocarbons, by-products of the petroleum refining industry); Synthetic Natural Gas (SNG) and methane-“rich” gas making processes; and simple mixtures of light hydrocarbons with air.
In the National Archives Cmd/Cmnd/Command document 3438 “Fuel Policy. Presented to Parliament by the Minister of Power Nov 1967”, I found discussion on how North Sea gas fields could best be exploited, and about expected depletion rates, and that this could promote further exploration and discovery.
In a range of books and papers of the time, I have found some discussion about options to increase imports of Natural Gas, either by the shipping of Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) or by pipeline from The Netherlands.
Current British policy in respect of Natural Gas supplies appears to rest on “pipeline diplomacy”, ensuring imports through continued co-operation with partner supplier countries and international organisations.
I remain unclear about what official technological or structural strategy may exist to bridge the gap between depleting North Sea Natural Gas supplies and continued strong demand, in the event of failure of this policy.
It is clear from my research into early gas field development that depletion is inevitable, and that although some production can be restored with various techniques, that eventually wells become uneconomic, no matter what the size of the original gas field.
To my mind, it seems unthinkable that the depletion of the North Sea gas fields was unanticipated, and yet I have yet to find comprehensive policy statements that cover this eventuality and answer its needs.
Under the Freedom of Information Act (2000), I am requesting information to answer the following questions :-
1. At the time of European exploration for Natural Gas in the period 1948 to 1965, and the British conversion from manufactured gas to Natural Gas, in the period 1966 to 1977, what was HM Government’s policy to compensate for the eventual depletion of the North Sea gas fields ?
2. What negotiations and agreements were made between HM Government and the nationalised gas industry between 1948 and 1986; and between HM Government and the privatised gas industry between 1986 and today regarding the projections of decline in gas production from the UK Continental Shelf, and any compensating strategy, such as the development of unconventional gas resources, such as shale gas ?
3. Is there any policy or strategy to restore the SNG (Synthetic Natural Gas) production capacity of the UK in the event of a longstanding crisis emerging, for example from a sharp rise in imported Natural Gas costs or geopolitical upheaval ?
4. Has HM Government any plan to acquire the Intellectual Property rights to SNG production technology, whether from British Gas/Centrica or any other private enterprise, especially for the slagging version of the Lurgi gasifier technology ?
5. Has HM Government any stated policy intention to launch new research and development into, or pilot demonstrations of, SNG ?
6. Does HM Government have any clearly-defined policy on the production and use of manufactured gas of any type ? If so, please can I know references for the documents ?
7. Does HM Government anticipate that manufactured gas production could need to increase in order to support the production of synthetic liquid vehicle fuels; and if so, which technologies are to be considered ?
Thank you for your attention to my request for information.
Dr Paul Elsner of Birkbeck College at the University of London gave up some of his valuable time for me today at his little bijou garret-style office in Bloomsbury in Central London, with an excellent, redeeming view of the British Telecom Tower. Leader of the Energy and Climate Change module on Birkbeck’s Climate Change Management programme, he offered me tea and topical information on Renewable Energy, and some advice on discipline in authorship.
He unpacked the recent whirlwind of optimism surrounding the exploitation of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, and how Climate Change policy is perhaps taking a step back. He said that we have to accept that this is the way the world is at the moment.
I indicated that I don’t have much confidence in the “Shale Bubble”. I consider it mostly as a public relations exercise – and that there are special conditions in the United States of America where all this propaganda comes from. I said that there are several factors that mean the progress with low carbon fuels continues to be essential, and that Renewable Gas is likely to be key.
1. First of all, the major energy companies, the oil and gas companies, are not in a healthy financial state to make huge investment. For example, BP has just had the legal ruling that there will be no limit to the amount of compensation claims they will have to face over the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Royal Dutch Shell meanwhile has just had a serious quarterly profit warning – and if that is mostly due to constrained sales (“Peak Oil Demand”) because of economic collapse, that doesn’t help them with the kind of aggressive “discovery” they need to continue with to keep up their Reserves to Production ratio (the amount of proven resources they have on their books). These are not the only problems being faced in the industry. This problem with future anticipated capitalisation means that Big Oil and Gas cannot possibly look at major transitions into Renewable Electricity, so it would be pointless to ask, or try to construct a Carbon Market to force it to happen.
2. Secondly, despite claims of large reserves of Shale Gas and Shale Oil, ripe for the exploitation of, even major bodies are not anticipating that Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas will be delayed by many years by the “Shale Gale”. The reservoir characteristics of unconventional fossil fuel fields do not mature in the same way as conventional ones. This means that depletion scenarios for fossil fuels are still as relevant to consider as the decades prior to horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”).
3. Thirdly, the reservoir characteristics of conventional fossil fuel fields yet to exploit, especially in terms of chemical composition, are drifting towards increasingly “sour” conditions – with sigificant levels of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide in them. The sulphur must be removed for a variety of reasons, but the carbon dioxide remains an issue. The answer until recently from policy people would have been Carbon Capture and Storage or CCS. Carbon dioxide should be washed from acid Natural Gas and sequestered under the ocean in salt caverns that previously held fossil hydrocarbons. It was hoped that Carbon Markets and other forms of carbon pricing would have assisted with the payment for CCS. However, recently there has been reduced confidence that this will be significant.
Renewable Gas is an answer to all three of these issues. It can easily be pursued by the big players in the current energy provision system, with far less investment than wholesale change would demand. It can address concerns of gas resource depletion at a global scale, the onset of which could occur within 20 to 25 years. And it can be deployed to bring poor conventional fossil fuels into consideration for exploitation in the current time – answering regional gas resource depletion.
Outside, daffodils were blooming in Tavistock Square. In January, yes. The “freaky” weather continues…
A normal, everyday Monday morning at Energy Geek Central. Yes, this is a normal conversation for me to take part in on a Monday morning. Energy geekery at breakfast. Perfect.
Nuclear Flower Power
This whole UK Government nuclear power programme plan is ridiculous ! 75 gigawatts (GW) of Generation III nuclear fission reactors ? What are they thinking ? Britain would need to rapidly ramp up its construction capabilities, and that’s not going to happen, even with the help of the Chinese. (And the Americans are not going to take too kindly to the idea of China getting strongly involved with British energy). And then, we’d need to secure almost a quarter of the world’s remaining reserves of uranium, which hasn’t actually been dug up yet. And to cap it all, we’d need to have 10 more geological disposal repositories for the resulting radioactive spent fuel, and we haven’t even managed to negotiate one yet. That is, unless we can burn a good part of that spent fuel in Generation IV nuclear fission reactors – which haven’t even been properly demonstrated yet ! Talk about unconscionable risk !
Baseload Should Be History By Now, But…
Whatever the technological capability for nuclear power plants to “load follow” and reduce their output in response to a chance in electricity demand, Generation III reactors would not be run as anything except “baseload” – constantly on, and constantly producing a constant amount of power – although they might turn them off in summer for maintenance. You see, the cost of a Generation III reactor and generation kit is in the initial build – so their investors are not going to permit them to run them at low load factors – even if they could.
There are risks to running a nuclear power plant at partial load – mostly to do with potential damage to the actual electricity generation equipment. But what are the technology risks that Hinkley Point C gets built, and all that capital is committed, and then it only runs for a couple of years until all that high burn up fuel crumbles and the reactors start leaking plutonium and they have to shut it down permanently ? Who can guarantee it’s a sound bet ?
If they actually work, running Generation III reactors at constant output as “baseload” will also completely mess with the power market. In all of the scenarios, high nuclear, high non-nuclear, or high fossil fuels with Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), there will always need to be some renewables in the mix. In all probability this will be rapidly deployed, highly technologically advanced solar power photovoltaics (PV). The amount of solar power that will be generated will be high in summer, but since you have a significant change in energy demand between summer and winter, you’re going to have a massive excess of electricity generation in summer if you add nuclear baseload to solar. Relative to the demand for energy, you’re going to get more Renewable Energy excess in summer and under-supply in winter (even though you get more offshore wind in winter), so it’s critical how you mix those two into your scenario.
The UK Government’s maximum 75 GW nuclear scenario comprises 55 GW Generation III and 20 GW Generation IV. They could have said 40 GW Gen III to feed Gen IV – the spent fuel from Gen III is needed to kick off Gen IV. Although, if LFTR took off, if they had enough fluoride materials there could be a Thorium way into Gen IV… but this is all so technical, no MP [ Member of Parliament ] is going to get their head round this before 2050.
The UK Government are saying that 16 GW of nuclear by 2030 should be seen as a first tranche, and that it could double or triple by 2040 – that’s one heck of a deployment rate ! If they think they can get 16 GW by 2030 – then triple that by 10 years later ? It’s not going to happen. And even 30 GW would be horrific. But it’s probably more plausible – if they can get 16 GW by 2030, they can arguably get double that by 2040.
As a rule of thumb, you would need around 10 tonnes of fissionable fuel to kickstart a Gen IV reactor. They’ve got 106 tonnes of Plutonium, plus 3 or 4 tonnes they recently acquired – from France or Germany (I forget which). So they could start 11 GW of Gen IV – possibly the PRISM – the Hitachi thing – sodium-cooled. They’ve been trying them since the Year Dot – these Fast Reactors – the Breeders – Dounreay. People are expressing more confidence in them now – “Pandora’s Promise” hangs around the narrative that the Clinton administration stopped research into Fast Reactors – Oak Ridge couldn’t be commercial. Throwing sodium around a core 80 times hotter than current core heats – you can’t throw water at it easily. You need something that can carry more heat out. It’s a high technological risk. But then get some French notable nuclear person saying Gen IV technologies – “they’re on the way and they can be done”.
Radioactive Waste Disposal Woes
The point being is – if you’re commissioning 30 GW of Gen III in the belief that Gen IV will be developed – then you are setting yourself up to be a hostage to technological fortune. That is a real ethical consideration. Because if you can’t burn the waste fuel from Gen III, you’re left with up to 10 radioactive waste repositories required when you can’t even get one at the moment. The default position is that radioactive spent nuclear fuel will be left at the power stations where they’re created. Typically, nuclear power plants are built on the coast as they need a lot of cooling water. If you are going for 30 GW you will need a load of new sites – possibly somewhere round the South East of England. This is where climate change comes in – rising sea levels, increased storm surge, dissolving, sinking, washed-away beaches, more extreme storms […] The default spent fuel scenario with numerous coastal decommissioned sites with radioactive interim stores which contain nearly half the current legacy radioactive waste […]
Based on the figures from the new Greenpeace report, I calculate that the added radioactive waste and radioactive spent fuel arisings from a programme of 16 GW of nuclear new build would be 244 million Terabequerel (TBq), compared to the legacy level of 87 million TBq.
The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) are due to publish their Radioactive Waste Inventory and their Report on Radioactive Materials not in the Waste Inventory at the end of January 2014. We need to keep a watch out for that, because they may have adapted their anticipated Minimum and Maxmium Derived Inventory.
Politics Is Living In The Past
What you hear from politicians is they’re still talking about “baseload”, as if they’ve just found the Holy Grail of Energy Policy. And failed nuclear power. Then tidal. And barrages. This is all in the past. Stuff they’ve either read – in an article in a magazine at the dentist’s surgery waiting room, and they think, alright I’ll use that in a TV programme I’ve been invited to speak on, like Question Time. I think that perhaps, to change the direction of the argument, we might need to rubbish their contribution. A technological society needs to be talking about gasification, catalysis. If you regard yourselves as educated, and have a technological society – your way of living in the future is not only in manufacturing but also ideas – you need to be talking about this not that : low carbon gas fuels, not nuclear power. Ministers and senior civil servants probably suffer from poor briefing – or no briefing. They are relying on what is literally hearsay – informal discussions, or journalists effectively representing industrial interests. Newspapers are full of rubbish and it circulates, like gyres in the oceans. Just circulates around and around – full of rubbish.
I think part of the problem is that the politicians and chief civil servants and ministers are briefed by the “Old Guard” – very often the ex-nuclear power industry guard. They still believe in big construction projects, with long lead times and massive capital investment, whereas Renewable Electricity is racing ahead, piecemeal, and private investors are desperate to get their money into wind power and solar power because the returns are almost immediate and risk-free.
Together in Electric Dreams
Question : Why are the UK Government ploughing on with plans for so much nuclear power ?
1. They believe that a lot of transport and heat can be made to go electric.
2. They think they can use spent nuclear fuel in new reactors.
3. They think it will be cheaper than everything else.
4. They say it’s vital for UK Energy Security – for emissions reductions, for cost, and for baseload. The big three – always the stated aim of energy policy, and they think nuclear ticks all those three boxes. But it doesn’t.
What they’ll say is, yes, you have to import uranium, but you’ve got a 4 year stock. Any war you’re going to get yourselves involved in you can probably resolve in 4 days, or 4 weeks. If you go for a very high nuclear scenario, you would be taking quite a big share of the global resource of uranium. There’s 2,600 TWh of nuclear being produced globally. And global final energy demand is around 100,000 TWh – so nuclear power currently produces around 2.6% of global energy supply. At current rates of nuclear generation, according to the World Nuclear Association, you’ve got around 80 years of proven reserves and probably a bit more. Let’s say you double nuclear output by 2050 or 2040 – but in the same time you might just have enough uranium – and then find a bit more. But global energy demand rises significantly as well – so nuclear will still only provide around 3% of global energy demand. That’s not a climate solution – it’s just an energy distraction. All this guff about fusion. Well.
Cornering The Market In Undug Uranium
A 75 GW programme would produce at baseload 590 TWh a year – divide by 2,600 – is about 23% of proven global uranium reserves. You’re having to import, regardless of what other countries are doing, you’re trying to corner the market – roughly a quarter. Not even a quarter of the market – a quarter of all known reserves – it’s not all been produced yet. It’s still in the ground. So could you be sure that you could actually run these power stations if you build them ? Without global domination of the New British Empire […]. The security issues alone – defending coastal targets from a tweeb with a desire to blow them up. 50 years down the line they’re full of radioactive spent fuel that won’t have a repository to go to – we don’t want one here – and how much is it going to cost ?
My view is that offshore wind will be a major contributor in a high or 100% Renewable Electricity scenario by 2050 or 2060. Maybe 180 GW, that will also be around 600 TWh a year – comparable to that maximum nuclear programme. DECC’s final energy demand 2050 – several scenarios – final energy demand from 6 scenarios came out as between roughly 1,500 TWh a year and the maximum 2,500 TWh. Broadly speaking, if you’re trying to do that just with Renewable Electricity, you begin to struggle quite honestly, unless you’re doing over 600 TWh of offshore wind, and even then you need a fair amount of heat pump stuff which I’m not sure will come through. The good news is that solar might – because of the cost and technology breakthroughs. That brings with it a problem – because you’re delivering a lot of that energy in summer. The other point – David MacKay would say – in his book his estimate was 150 TWh from solar by 2050, on the grounds that that’s where you south-facing roofs are – you need to use higher efficiency triple junction cells with more than 40% efficiency and this would be too expensive for a rollout which would double or triple that 150 TWh – that would be too costly – because those cells are too costly. But with this new stuff, you might get that. Not only the cost goes down, but the coverage goes down. Not doing solar across swathes of countryside. There have always been two issues with solar power – cost and where it’s being deployed.
Uh-Oh, Summer Days. Uh-Oh, Summer Nights
With the solar-wind headline, summer days and summer nights are an issue.
With the nuclear headline, 2040 – they would have up to 50 GW, and that would need to run at somewhere between 75% and 95% capacity – to protect the investment and electric generation turbines.
It will be interesting to provide some figures – this is how much over-capacity you’re likely to get with this amount of offshore wind. But if you have this amount of nuclear power, you’ll get this amount […]
Energy demand is strongly variable with season. We have to consider not just power, but heat – you need to get that energy out in winter – up to 4 times as much during peak in winter evenings. How are you going to do that ? You need gas – or you need extensive Combined Heat and Power (CHP) (which needs gas). Or you need an unimaginable deployment of domestic heat pumps. Air source heat pumps won’t work at the time you need them most. Ground source heat pumps would require the digging up of Britain – and you can’t do that in most urban settings.
District Heat Fields
The other way to get heat out to everyone in a low carbon world – apart from low carbon gas – is having a field-based ground source heat pump scheme – just dig up a field next to a city – and just put in pipes and boreholes in a field. You’re not disturbing anybody. You could even grow crops on it next season. Low cost and large scale – but would need a District Heating (DH) network. There are one or two heat pump schemes around the world. Not sure if they are used for cooling in summer or heat extraction in the winter. The other thing is hot water underground. Put in an extra pipe in the normal channels to domestic dwellings. Any excess heat from power generation or electrolysis or whatever is put down this loop and heats the sub-ground. Because heat travels about 1 metre a month in soil, that heat should be retained for winter. A ground source heat sink. Geothermal energy could come through – they’re doing a scheme in Manchester. If there’s a nearby heat district network – it makes it easier. Just want to tee it into the nearest DH system. The urban heat demand is 150 TWh a year. You might be able to put DH out to suburban areas as well. There are 9 million gas-connected suburban homes – another about 150 TWh there as well – or a bit more maybe. Might get to dispose of 300 TWh in heat through DH. The Green Deal insulation gains might not be what is claimed – and condensing gas boiler efficiencies are not that great – which feeds into the argument that in terms of energy efficiency, you not only want to do insulation, but also DH – or low carbon gas. Which is the most cost-effective ? Could argue reasonable energy efficiency measures are cheapest – but DH might be a better bet. That involves a lot of digging.
Gas Is The Logical Answer
But everything’s already laid for gas. (…but from the greatest efficiency first perspective, if you’re not doing DH, you’re not using a lot of Renewable Heat you could otherwise use […] )
The best package would be the use of low carbon gases and sufficient DH to use Renewable Heat where it is available – such as desalination, electrolysis or other energy plant. It depends where the electrolysis is being done.
The Age of Your Carbon
It also depends on which carbon atoms you’re using. If you are recycling carbon from the combustion of fossil fuels into Renewable Gas, that’s OK. But you can’t easily recapture carbon emissions from the built environment (although you could effectively do that with heat storage). You can’t do carbon capture from transport either. So your low carbon gas has to come from biogenic molecules. Your Renewable Gas has to be synthesised using biogenic carbon molecules rather than fossil ones.
[…] I’m using the phrase “Young Carbon”. Young Carbon doesn’t have to be from plants – biological things that grow.
Well, there’s Direct Air Capture (DAC). It’s simple. David Sevier, London-based, is working on this. He’s using heat to capture carbon dioxide. You could do it from exhaust in a chimney or a gasification process – or force a load of air through a space. He would use heat and cooling to create an updraft. It would enable the “beyond capture” problem to be circumvented. Cost is non-competitive. Can be done technically. Using reject heat from power stations for the energy to do it. People don’t realise you can use a lot of heat to capture carbon, not electricity.
Young Carbon from Seawater
If you’re playing around with large amounts of seawater anyway – that is, for desalination for irrigation, why not also do Renewable Hydrogen, and pluck the Carbon Dioxide out of there too to react with the Renewable Hydrogen to make Renewable Methane ? I’m talking about very large amounts of seawater. Not “Seawater Greenhouses” – condensation designs mainly for growing exotic food. If you want large amounts of desalinated water – and you’re using Concentrated Solar Power – for irrigating deserts – you would want to grow things like cacti for biological carbon.
Say you had 40 GW of wind power on Dogger Bank, spinning at 40% load factor a year. You’ve also got electrolysers there. Any time you’re not powering the grid, you’re making gas – so capturing carbon dioxide from seawater, splitting water for hydrogen, making methane gas. Wouldn’t you want to use flash desalination first to get cleaner water for electrolysis ? Straight seawater electrolysis is also being done.
It depends on the relative quantities of gas concentrated in the seawater. If you’ve got oxygen, hydrogen and carbon dioxide, that would be nice. You might get loads of oxygen and hydrogen, and only poor quantities of carbon dioxide ?
But if you could get hydrogen production going from spare wind power. And even if you had to pipe the carbon dioxide from conventional thermal power plants, you’re starting to look at a sea-based solution for gas production. Using seawater, though, chlorine is the problem […]
Look at the relative density of molecules – that sort of calculation that will show if this is going to fly. Carbon dioxide is a very fixed, stable molecule – it’s at about the bottom of the energy potential well – you have to get that reaction energy from somewhere.
How Much Spare Power Will There Be ?
If you’ve got an offshore wind and solar system. At night, obviously, the solar’s not working (unless new cells are built that can run on infrared night-time Earthshine). But you could still have 100 GWh of wind power at night not used for the power grid. The anticipated new nuclear 40 GW nuclear by 2030 will produce about 140 GWh – this would just complicate problems – adding baseload nuclear to a renewables-inclusive scenario. 40 GW is arguably a reasonable deployment of wind power by 2030 – low if anything.
You get less wind in a nuclear-inclusive scenario, but the upshot is you’ve definitely got a lot of power to deal with on a summer night with nuclear power. You do have with Renewable Electricity as well, but it varies more. Whichever route we take we’re likely to end up with excess electricity generation on summer nights.
In a 70 GW wind power deployment (50 GW offshore, 20 GW onshore – 160 TWh a year), you might have something like 50 to 100 GWh per night of excess (might get up to 150 GWh to store on a windy night). But if you have a 16 GW nuclear deployment by 2030 (125 TWh a year), you are definitely going to have 140 GWh of excess per night (that’s 16 GW for 10 hours less a bit). Night time by the way is roughly between 9pm and 7am between peak demands.
We could be making a lot of Renewable Gas !
Can you build enough Renewable Gas or whatever to soak up this excess nuclear or wind power ?
The energy mix is likely to be in reality somewhere in between these two extremes of high nuclear or high wind.
But if you develop a lot of solar – so that it knocks out nuclear power – it will be the summer day excess that’s most significant. And that’s what Germany is experiencing now.
Choices, choices, choices
There is a big choice in fossil fuels which isn’t really talked about very often – whether the oil and gas industry should go for unconventional fossil fuels, or attempt to make use of the remaining conventional resources that have a lower quality. The unconventionals narrative – shale gas, coalbed methane, methane hydrates, deepwater gas, Arctic oil and gas, heavy oil, is running out of steam as it becomes clear that some of these choices are expensive, and environmentally damaging (besides their climate change impact). So the option will be making use of gas with high acid gas composition. And the technological solutions for this will be the same as needed to start major production of Renewable Gas.
But you still need to answer the balancing question. If you have a high nuclear power scenario, you need maybe 50 TWh a year of gas-fired power generation. If high Renewable Electricity, you will need something like 100 TWh of gas, so you need Carbon Capture and Storage – or low carbon gas.
Even then, the gas power plants could be running only 30% of the year, and so you will need capacity payments to make sure new flexible plants get built and stay available for use.
If you have a high nuclear scenario, coupled with gas, you can meet the carbon budget – but it will squeeze out Renewable Electricity. If high in renewables, you need Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture and Recycling into Renewable Gas, but this would rule out nuclear power. It depends which sector joins up with which.
Carbon Capture, Carbon Budget
Can the Drax power plant – with maybe one pipeline 24 inches in diameter, carrying away 20 megatonnes of carbon dioxide per year – can it meet the UK’s Carbon Budget target ?
In the long view, some things are inevitable, and I don’t just mean death and taxes. Within the lifetime of children born today, there must be a complete transformation in energy. The future is renewable, and carefully deployed renewable energy systems can be reliable, sustainable and low cost, besides being low in carbon dioxide emissions to air. This climate safety response is also the answer to a degradation and decline in high quality mineral hydrocarbons – the so-called “fossil” fuels. Over the course of 2014 I shall be writing about Renewable Gas – sustainable, low emissions gas fuels made on the surface of the earth without recourse to mining for energy. Renewable Gas can store the energy from currently underused Renewable Electricity from major producers such as wind and solar farms, and help to balance out power we capture from the variable wind and sun. Key chemical players in these fuels : hydrogen, methane, carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. Key chemistry : how to use hydrogen to recycle the carbon oxides to methane. How we get from here to there is incredibly important, and interestingly, methods and techniques for increasing the production volumes of Renewable Gas will be useful for the gradually fading fossil fuel industry. Much of the world’s remaining easily accessible Natural Gas is “sour” – laced with high concentrations of hydrogen sulfide and carbon dioxide. Hydrogen sulfide needs to be removed from the gas, but carbon dioxide can be recycled into methane, raising the quality of the gas. We can preserve the Arctic from fossil gas exploitation, and save ourselves from this economic burden and ecological risk, by employing relatively cheap ways to upgrade sour Natural Gas, from Iran, for example, while we are on the decades-long road of transitioning to Renewable Gas. The new burn is coming.
This week, both Caroline Flint MP and Ed Balls MP have publicly repeated the commitment by the UK’s Labour Party to a total decarbonisation of the power sector by 2030, should they become the governing political party. At PRASEG’s Annual Conference, Caroline Flint said “In around ten years time, a quarter of our power supply will be shut down. Decisions made in the next few years […] consequences will last for decades […] keeping the lights on, and [ensuring reasonably priced] energy bills, and preventing dangerous climate change. […] Labour will have as an election [promise] a legally binding target for 2030. […] This Government has no vision.”
And when I was in an informal conversation group with Ed Davey MP and Professor Mayer Hillman of the Policy Studies Institute at a drinks reception after the event hosted by PRASEG, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change seemed to me to also be clear on his personal position backing the 2030 “decarb” target.
Ed Davey showed concern about the work necessary to get a Europe-wide commitment on Energy and Climate Change. He took Professor Hillman’s point that carbon dioxide emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are already causing dangerous climate change, and that the risks are increasing. However, he doubted that immediate responses can be made. He gave the impression that he singled out Poland of all the countries in the European Union to be an annoyance, standing in the way of success. He suggested that if Professor Hillman wanted to do something helpful, he could fly to Poland…at this point Professor Hillman interjected to say he hasn’t taken a flight in 70 years and doesn’t intend to now…and Ed Davey continued that if the Professor wanted to make a valuable contribution, he could travel to Poland, taking a train, or…”I don’t care how you get there”, but go to Poland and persuade the Poles to sign up to the 2030 ambition.
Clearly, machinations are already afoot. At the PRASEG Annual Conference were a number of communications professionals, tightly linked to the debate on the progress of national energy policy. Plus, one rather exceedingly highly-networked individual, David Andrews, the key driver behind the Claverton Energy Research Group forum, of which I am an occasional participant. He had ditched the normal navy blue polyester necktie and sombre suit for a shiveringly sharp and open-necked striped shirt, and was doing his best to look dapper, yet zoned. I found him talking to a communications professional, which didn’t surprise me. He asked how I was.
JA : “I think I need to find a new job.”
DA : “MI6 ?”
JA : “Too boring !”
What I really should have said was :-
JA : “Absolutely and seriously not ! Who’d want to keep State Secrets ? Too much travel and being nice to people who are nasty. And making unbelievable compromises. The excitement of privilege and access would wear off after about six minutes. Plus there’s the risk of ending up decomposing in something like a locked sports holdall in some strange bathroom in the semblance of a hostelry in a godforsaken infested hellhole in a desolate backwater like Cheltenham or Gloucester. Plus, I’d never keep track of all the narratives. Or the sliding door parallel lives. Besides, I’m a bit of a Marmite personality – you either like me or you really don’t : I respond poorly to orders, I’m not an arch-persuader and I’m not very diplomatic or patient (except with the genuinely unfortunate), and I’m well-known for leaping into spats. Call me awkward (and some do), but I think national security and genuine Zero Carbon prosperity can be assured by other means than dark arts and high stakes threats. I like the responsibility of deciding for myself what information should be broadcast in the better interests of the common good, and which held back for some time (for the truth will invariably out). And over and above all that, I’m a technologist, which means I prefer details over giving vague impressions. And I like genuine democratic processes, and am averse to social engineering. I am entirely unsuited to the work of a secret propaganda and diplomatic unit.”
I would be prepared to work for a UK or EU Parliamentary delegation to Poland, I guess, if I could be useful in assisting with dialogue, perhaps in the technical area. I do after all have several academic degrees pertinent to the questions of Energy and Climate Change.
But in a room full of politicians and communications experts, I felt a little like a fished fish. Here, then, is a demonstration. I was talking with Rhys Williams, the Coordinator of PRASEG, and telling him I’d met the wonderful Professor Geoff Williams, of Durham Univeristy, who has put together a system of organic light emitting diode (LED) lighting and a 3-D printed control unit, and, and, and Rhys actually yawned. He couldn’t contain it, it just kind of spilled out. I told myself : “It’s not me. It’s the subject matter”, and I promptly forgave him. Proof, though, of the threshold for things technical amongst Westminster fixers and shakers.
Poland. I mean, I know James Delingpole has been to Poland, and I thought at the time he was possibly going to interfere with the political process on climate change, or drum up support for shale gas. But I’m a Zero Carbon kind of actor. I don’t need to go far to start a dialogue with Poland by going to Poland – I have Poles living in my street, and I’m invited to all their barbecues. Maybe I should invite Professor Mayer Hillman to cycle over to Waltham Forest and address my near neighbours and their extended friendship circle on the importance of renewable energy and energy efficiency targets, and ask them to communicate with the folks back home with any form of influence.
No, actually, not straight on to the numbers. It shouldn’t take a genius to work out the public relations strategy for promoting increasingly dirtier fossil fuels. First, they got us accustomed to the idea of shale gas, and claimed without much evidence, that it was as “clean” as Natural Gas, and far, far cleaner than coal. Data that challenges this myth continues to be collected. Meanwhile, now we are habituated to accepting without reason the risks of subsurface and ground water reservoir destruction by hydraulic fracturing, we should be pliable enough to accept the next step up – oil shale oil fracking. And then the sales team can move on to warm us up to cruddier unconventionals, like bitumen exhumed from tar sands, and mining unstable sub-sea clathrates.
Why do the oil and gas companies of the world and their trusted allies in the government energy departments so desperately want us to believe in the saving power of shale oil and gas ? Why is it necessary for them to pursue such an environmentally threatening course of product development ? Can it be that the leaders of the developed world and their industry experts recognise, but don’t want to admit to, Peak Oil, and its twin wraith, Peak Natural Gas, that will shadow it by about 10 to 15 years ?
A little local context – UK oil production is falling like a stone – over the whole North Sea area. Various efforts have been made to stimulate new investment in exploration and discovery. The overall plan for the UK Continental Shelf has included opening up prospects via licence to smaller players in the hope of getting them to bet the farm, and if they come up trumps, permitted the larger oil and gas companies to snaffle up the small fry.
But really, the flow of Brent crude oil is getting more expensive to guarantee. And it’s not just the North Sea – the inverse pyramid of the global oil futures market is teeteringly wobbly, even though Natural Gas Liquids (NGL) are now included in petroleum oil production figures. Cue panic stations at the Coalition (Oilition) Government offices – frantic rustling of review papers ahoy.
To help them believe it’s not all over, riding into view from the stables of Propaganda Central, come the Six Horsemen of Unconventional Fossil Fuels : Tar Sands, Shale Gas, Shale Oil (Oil Shale Oil), Underground Coal Gasification, Coalbed Methane and Methane Hydrates.
Shiny, happy projections of technically recoverable unconventional (night)mares are always lumped together, like we are able to suddenly open up the ground and it starts pouring out hydrocarbon goodies at industrial scale volumes. But no. All fossil fuel development is gradual – especially at the start of going after a particular resource. In the past, sometimes things started gushing or venting, but those days are gone. And any kind of natural pump out of the lithosphere is entirely absent for unconventional fossil fuels – it all takes energy and equipment to extract.
And so we can expect trickles, not floods. So, will this prevent field depletion in any region ? No. It’s not going to put off Peak Oil and Peak Natural Gas – it literally cannot be mined fast enough. Even if there are 10 years of current oil production volumes that can be exploited via mining oil shale, it will come in dribs and drabs, maybe over the course of 50 to 100 years. It might prolong the Peak Oil plateau by a year or so – that’s barely a ripple. Unconventional gas might be more useful, but even this cannot delay the inevitable. For example, despite the USA shale gas “miracle”, as the country continues to pour resources and effort into industrialising public lands, American Peak Natural Gas is still likely to be only 5 years, or possibly scraping 10 years, behind Global Peak Natural Gas which will bite at approximately 2030 or 2035-ish. I suspect this is why EIA charts of future gas production never go out beyond 2045 or so :-
Ask a mathematician to model growth in unconventional fossil fuels compared to the anticipated and actual decline in “traditional” fossil fuels, and ask if unconventionals will compensate. They will not.
The practice for oil and gas companies is to try to maintain shareholder confidence by making sure they have a minimum of 10 years of what is known as Reserves-to-Production ratio or R/P. By showing they have at least a decade of discovered resources, they can sell their business as a viable investment. Announcing that the world has 10 years of shale oil it can exploit sounds like a healthy R/P, but in actual fact, there is no way this can be recovered in that time window. The very way that this story has been packaged suggests that we are being encouraged to believe that the fossil fuel industry are a healthy economic sector. Yet it is so facile to debunk that perspective.
People, it’s time to divest your portfolios of oil and gas concerns. If they have to start selling us the wonders of bitumen and kerogen, the closing curtain cannot be far away from dropping.
They think it’s not all over, but it so clearly must be.
Yet again, the fossil fuel companies think they can get away with uncommented public relations in my London neighbourhood. Previously, it was BP, touting its green credentials in selling biofuels, at the train station, ahead of the Olympic Games. For some reason, after I made some scathing remarks about it, the advertisement disappeared, and there was a white blank board there for weeks.
This time, it’s Esso, and they probably think they have more spine, as they’ve taken multiple billboard spots. In fact, the place is saturated with this advertisement. And my answer is – yes, fuel economy is important to me – that’s why I don’t have a car.
And if this district is anything to go by, Esso must be pouring money into this advertising campaign, and so my question is : why ? Why aren’t they pouring this money into biofuels research ? Answer : because that’s not working. So, why aren’t they putting this public relations money into renewable gas fuels instead, sustainable above-surface gas fuels that can be used in compressed gas cars or fuel cell vehicles ?
Are Esso retreating into their “core business” like BP, and Shell, concentrating on petroleum oil and Natural Gas, and thereby exposing all their shareholders to the risk of an implosion of the Carbon Bubble ? Or another Deepwater Horizon, Macondo-style blowout ?
“So what do you do ?” is a question I quite frequently have to answer, as I meet a lot of new people, in a lot of new audiences and settings, on a regular basis, as an integral part of my personal process of discovery.
My internal autocue answer has modified, evolved, over the years, but currently sounds a lot like this, “I have a couple of part-time jobs, office administration, really. I do a spot of weblogging in my spare time. But I’m also doing some research into the potential for Renewable Gas.” I then pause for roughly two seconds. “Renewable Gas ?” comes back the question.
“Yes,” I affirm in the positive, “Industrial-scale chemistry to produce gas fuels not dug up out of the ground. It is useful to plug the gaps in Renewable Electricity when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.”
It’s not exactly an elevator pitch – I’m not really selling anything except a slight shift in the paradigm here. Renewable Energy. Renewable Electricity. Renewable Gas. Power and gas. Gas and power. It’s logical to want both to be as renewable and sustainable and as low carbon as possible.
Wait another two seconds. “…What, you mean, like Biogas ?” comes the question. “Well, yes, and also high volumes of non-biological gas that’s produced above the ground instead of from fossil fuels.”
The introductory chat normally fades after this exchange, as my respondent usually doesn’t have the necessary knowledge architecture to be able to make any sense of what my words represent. I think it’s fair to say I don’t win many chummy friends paradigm-bumping in this way, and some probably think I’m off the deep end psychologically, but hey, evolutionaries don’t ever have it easy.
And I also find that it’s not easy to find a place in the hierarchy of established learning for my particular “research problem”. Which school could I possibly join ? Which research council would adopt me ?
The first barrier to academic inclusion is that my research interest is clearly motivated by my concern about the risks of Climate Change – the degradation in the Earth’s life support systems from pumping unnaturally high volumes of carbon dioxide into the air – and Peak Fossil Fuels – the risks to humanity from a failure to grow subsurface energy production.
My research is therefore “applied” research, according to the OECD definition (OECD, 2002). It’s not motivated simply by the desire to know new things – it is not “pure” research – it has an end game in mind. My research is being done in order to answer a practical problem – how to decarbonise gaseous, gas phase, energy fuel production.
The second barrier to the ivory tower world that I have is that I do not have a technological contribution to make with this research. I am not inventing a chemical process that can “revolutionise” low carbon energy production. (I don’t believe in “revolutions” anyway. Nothing good ever happens by violent overthrow.) My research is not at the workbench end of engineering, so I am not going to work amongst a team of industrial technicians, so I am not going to produce a patent for clean energy that could save the world (or the economy).
My research is more about observing and reporting the advances of others, and how these pieces add up to a journey of significant change in the energy sector. I want to join the dots from studies at the leading edge of research, showing how this demonstrates widespread aspiration for clean energy, and document instances of new energy technology, systems and infrastructure. I want to witness to the internal motivation of thousands of people working with the goal of clean energy across a very wide range of disciplines.
This is positively positive; positivity, but it’s not positivism – it’s not pure, basic research. This piece of research could well influence people and events – it’s certainly already influencing me. It’s not hands-off neutral science. It interacts with its subjects. It intentionally intervenes.
Since I don’t have an actual physical contribution or product to offer, and since I fully expect it to “interfere” with current dogma and political realities, what I am doing will be hard to acknowledge.
This is not a PhD. But it is still a piece of philosophy, the love of wisdom that comes from the acquisition of knowledge.
I have been clear for some time about what I should be studying. Call it “internal drive” if you like. The aim is to support the development of universal renewable energy as a response to the risks of climate change and peak fossil fuel energy production. That makes me automatically biased. I view my research subject through the prism of hope. But I would contend that this is a perfectly valid belief, as I already know some of what is possible. I’m not starting from a foundational blank slate – many Renewable Gas processes are already in use throughout industry and the energy sector. The fascinating part is watching these functions coalesce into a coherent alternative to the mining of fossil fuels. For the internal industry energy production conversation is changing its track, its tune.
For a while now, “alternative” energy has been a minor vibration, a harmonic, accentuating the fossil fuel melody. As soon as the mid-noughties economic difficulties began to bite, greenwash activities were ditched, as oil and gas companies resorted to their core business. But the “green shoots” of green energy are still there, and every now and then, it is possible to see them poking up above the oilspill-desecrated soil. My role is to count blades and project bushes. Therefore my research is interpretivist or constructivist, although it is documenting positivist engineering progress. That’s quite hard for me to agree with, even though I reasoned it myself. I can still resist being labelled “post-positivist”, though, because I’m still interpreting reality not relativisms.
So now, on from research paradigm to research methodologies. I was trained to be an experimentalist scientist, so this is a departure for me. In this case, I am not going to seek to make a physical contribution to the field by being actively involved as an engineer in a research programme, partly because from what I’ve read so far, most of the potential is already documented and scoped.
I am going to use sociological methods, combining observation and rapportage, to and from various organisations through various media. Since I am involved in the narrative through my interactions with others, and I influence the outcomes of my research, this is partly auto-narrative, autoethnographic, ethnographic. An apt form for the research documentation is a weblog, as it is a longitudinal study, so discrete reports at time intervals are appropriate. Social media will be useful for joining the research to a potential audience, and Twitter has the kind of immediacy I prefer.
My observation will therefore be akin to journalism – engineering journalism, where the term “engineering” covers both technological and sociological aspects of change. A kind of energy futures “travelogue”, an observer of an emerging reality.
My research methods will include reading the science and interacting with engineers. I hope to do a study trip (or two) as a way of embedding myself into the new energy sector, with the explicit intention of ensuring I am not purely a commentator-observer. My research documentation will include a slow collation of my sources and references – a literature review that evolves over time.
My personal contribution will be slight, but hopefully set archaic and inefficient proposals for energy development based on “traditional” answers (such as nuclear power, “unconventional” fossil fuel production and Carbon Capture and Storage for coal) in high relief.
My research choices as they currently stand :-
1. I do not think I want to join an academic group.
2. I do not think I want to work for an energy engineering company.
3. I do not want to claim a discovery in an experimental sense. Indeed, I do not need to, as I am documenting discoveries and experiments.
4. I want to be clear about my bias towards promoting 100% renewable energy, as a desirable ambition, in response to the risks posed by climate change and peak fossil fuel production.
5. I need to admit that my research may influence outcomes, and so is applied rather than basic (Roll-Hansen, 2009).
I had a most refreshing evening at Portcullis House in Westminster this evening – apart from the fact that the Macmillan Room was overheated, so you couldn’t possibly deduce that energy conservation is intended to be part of the UK Government’s strategy, making an example with the public sector.
Professor Paul Ekins got up to speak and actually had the gall to declare the Government’s “Gas Strategy” to be a “dangerous gamble”. It was at this point that I took heart again – there are still some sane, rational people in the “national energy conversation”, even though Ekins did admit that he wasn’t sure that the “Gas Strategy” was an actual thing. Oh, but it is. All eighty pagesof it.
Today was not the first time Professor Paul Ekins called out the Government on this, apparently, although I didn’t have a recollection of seeing the the mention in New Scientist before today.
Other highlights of the evening were provided by Laura Sandys MP naming her political opposition Alan Whitehead MP as the leader of a “parliamentary roadshow” on Energy and Climate Change, and questioning the use of the term “energy efficiency”. “It’s energy waste, guys”, she corrected and said we should be using that term instead of the “effete word efficiency”, and encouraged the energy waste prevention industry to get the rest of us engaged with their products.
A chap from Scottish and Southern Energy (SSE) – I think it might have been Kevin MacLean – got up during questions from the floor, and almost begged for a long-term framework – a plan for renewable energy – a “binding framework” to encourage investment and “get costs down”.
It was pointed out during the evening, that, logically enough, that policy is important to energy futures, “if you have more certainty, you get more investment”. And there was encouragement to get Government Departments to think about this more. Yes, some subsidies and other forms of support are going to be needed to get the renewable energy revolution kickstarted, but “if [we] get benefits – isn’t that a price worth paying ?” The benefits outlined included potential for some small growth in the economy, around about 0.8% GDP, but good prospects for high value employment in depressed coastal towns where much of the offshore wind industry will host engineers, both for construction and ongoing operations and maintenance.
Laura Sandys MP was ashamed to say that she may no longer be able to claim she has the two largest offshore wind farms in her constituency – as progress is being made elsewhere.
Sarah Merrick from Vestas, the wind power engineering firm, emphasised that the economics of wind power stacks up and that it’s important to communicate this – despite the current dismissive media agenda – where she said it is important to defend the industry against certain media claims.
Lord Alan Haworth brought up the inevitable question of renewable energy intermittency – “days of dead calm and dark nights”. He raised the statistic that weather systems in Europe can cover 1,500 kilometres, so if wind power is down in the UK, it’s going to be down elsewhere in the EU electricity networks – the countries we have interconnectors with. What he didn’t elaborate on was this – just as the UK is beefing (and I don’t mean “up to 100% horsing about”) up its connections with the European electricity networks, so too, Europe as a whole is beginning to reach out with its networks to satellite countries. What that could mean is that even if wind-powered electrons in the UK take a dive, electrons could still appear in the power network from very far afield, and shunt power to the UK.
The speaker from the Crown Estate said that it was “sensible” to push for a good quantity of wind power – and that the report was a compelling argument. He regretted that it could not be guaranteed that the wind power-ed economy would necessarily have more of its supply chain in the UK – as various bodies have to comply with EU trade rules – but that there was a commitment in one part of the industry to 50% indigenous resourcing and employment (if I noted that down correctly).
Long-term policy clarity was espoused. Disappointment was expressed in the Coalition Government’s flip-flop about gas – emphasising the development of gas-powered electricity generation at the expense of projecting high levels of renewables (65%, says the report, is perfectly feasible) – and that it gave mixed messages – which weren’t helping investment decisions. Sarah Merrick repeated the E.On line that UK electricity should be “balanced by gas, not based on gas”, although she didn’t explain that they weren’t necessarily talking about wind power being the mainstay of new generation capacity.
It was generally agreed that David Cameron should lead and adopt the EU 2030 renewable energy targets – to enable billions of new confidence in the UK energy sector.
Not having a strong lead on renewable energy and energy waste reduction would be an “abdication of responsibility on the part of the policy-creating machine”. And, “even if shale gas does materialise”, it would not provide much stimulus.
Again, the evil and greedy oil, gas and mining companies have proved their wickedness by manipulating public opinion, by directly financing conspiracy theorists who deny climate change science. The irony is tangibly acidic. The paranoid have actually been duped by a genuine conspiracy. They have drunk the Kool Aid; they have believed the lies; they have continued to communicate doubt. They think they are challenging corruption in high places, but what they are really doing is reinforcing apathy in the face of genuine risk.
The questions posed so unrelentingly by the climate change deniers have sewn a patchwork tapestry of disinformation, which continues to poison genuine dialogue and is undermining political progress. We cannot take these people with us into constructive engagement, and ask them to help us forge a broad consensus. It is as if they exist in a parallel universe. Some of us will continue to attempt to conduct dialogue, but will end up wasting our time. The documentation by the media is faulty, and perpetuates the success of the denier strategy of divide and rule.
But hold on a minute. There are problems with the stance of climate change denial, but what about the positioning of climate change activists ? Let’s try that first paragraph one more time :-
[ Again, the “evil” and “greedy” oil, gas and mining companies have proved their “wickedness” by manipulating public opinion, by directly financing conspiracy theorists who deny climate change science. The irony is tangibly acidic. The paranoid have actually been duped by a genuine conspiracy. They have drunk the Kool Aid; they have believed the lies; they have continued to communicate doubt. They think they are challenging corruption in high places, but what they are really doing is reinforcing apathy in the face of genuine risk. ]
By casting the fossil fuel and mining corporations as wrongly motivated, by using negative emotive labels, the dominant narrative of political activists has failed, once again, to move us all forward. These kinds of revelations about underhand corporate public relations activities are by now unsurprising. The news cannot shock, although it may disgust. Yet, since nothing is offered to counter-balance or correct the inappropriate behaviour of the “fossil fuellers”, they win the game they invented, the game they wrote the rules for. Protesting at a petrol station achieves nothing of any note, not even when there’s a camera-friendly polar bear. We hear the message of pain, but there is no ointment. There is a disconnect between the gruesome discovery and any way out of this mess. The revelation of intent of the carbon dinosaurs, the recounting of the anti-democratic activities, does not result in change.
Environmental pollution is a “victimless” crime – no matter how much we sympathise or empathise with the plight of poisoned floating fish, dying bees, asthmatic kids, or cancer-laden people. Fines and taxes cannot rectify the scourge of environmental pollution, because there is no ultimate accountability. Regulation cannot be enforced. The misbehaviour just carries on, because there is systemic momentum. There is no legal redress (“due process” in Americanese) for those who are suffering the worsening effects of climate change, and there is no treaty that can be made to curb greenhouse gas emissions that anybody can be bound to by international sanctions.
And so when we hear the same old story – that the energy industry is propagandising – we cannot respond. We don’t know what we can do. We are paralysed. This narrative is so tired, it snores.
Truth may have been a victim, but the energy industry are also vulnerable – they are acting in self-defence mode. Let’s take the big vista in : there is stress in the global production of fossil fuel energy, and all routes to an easy fix, even if it’s only a short-term fix, are choked.
So let’s ask the question – why do the energy companies deceive ? Do they think they are being deceptive ? Why do fossil fuel miners seek to massage public opinion ? This is a question of resilience, of Darwinian survival – seeking advantage by altering policy by tampering with public assent. They believe in their product, they construct their mission – they are protecting their future profits, they’re making a living. They’re humans in human organisations. They’re not “evil”, “greedy” or “lying” – as a rule. There are no demons here, nor can we convincingly summon them.
Look at the activist game plan – we announce the deliberate actions of the fossil fuel companies to influence the political mandate. But these scandals are only ever voiced, never acted upon. They cannot be acted upon because those who care have no power, no agency, to correct or prevent the outcomes. And those who should care, do not care, because they themselves have rationalised the misdemeanours of the fossil fuellers. They too have drunk from the goblet of doubt. Amongst English-speaking politicians, I detect a good number who consider climate change to be a matter for wait-and-see rather than urgent measures. Besides those who continue to downplay the seriousness of climate change.
Look also at the difference between the covert nature of the support for climate change deniers, and the open public relations activities of the fossil fuel and mining companies. They speak in the right way for their audiences. That’s smart.
In time, the end of the fossil fuel age will become apparent, certain vague shapes on the horizon will come out of the blur and into sharp focus. But in the meantime, the carbon dinosaurs are taking action to secure market share, maintain the value of their stock, prop up the value of their shareholders’ assets. The action plan for survival of the oil, gas, coal and mining operations now includes the promotion of extreme energy – so-called unconventional fossil fuels, the once-dismissed lower quality resources such as tight gas, shale gas, shale oil and coalbed methane (coal seam methane). Why are the energy industry trying to gild the rotten lily ? Is the support for unconventional fossil fuels a move for certain countries, such as the United States of America, to develop more indigenous sources of energy – more homegrown energy to make them independent of foreign influence ? This could be the main factor – most of the public relations for shale gas, for example, seems to come from USA.
The answer could come by responding to another question. Could it be that the production of petroleum oil has in fact peaked – that decline has set in for good ? Could it be that the Saudis are not “turning off the taps” to force market prices, because in actual fact the taps are being turned off for them, by natural well depletion ? The Arab Spring is a marvellous distraction – the economic sanctions and military and democratic upheaval are excellent explanations for the plateau in global oil production.
It seems possible from what I have looked at that Peak Oil is a reality, that decline in the volumes of produced petroleum is inevitable. The fossil fuel producers, the international corporations who have their shareholders and stock prices to maintain, have been pushing the narrative that the exploitation of unconventional fossil fuels can replace lost conventional production. They have been painting a picture of the horn of plenty – a cornucopia of unconventional fossil fuels far exceeding conventional resources. To please their investors, the fossil fuel companies are lying about the future.
Sure, brute force and some new technology are opening up “unconventionals” but this will not herald the “golden age” of shale gas or oils from shale. Shale gas fields deplete rapidly, and tar sands production is hugely polluting and likely to be unsustainable in several ways because of that. There might be huge reserves – but who knows how quickly heavy oils can be produced ? And how much energy input is required to create output energy from other low grade fossil strata ? It is simply not possible to be certain that the volumes of unconventional fossil fuel production can match the decline in conventionals.
The facts of the matter need admitting – there is no expansion of sweet crude oil production possible. There’s no more crude – there’s only crud. And slow crud, at that.
Peak Oil is a geological fact, not a market artefact. The production levels of crude and condensate may not recover, even if military-backed diplomacy wins the day for the energy industry in the Middle East and North Africa.
Peak Oil has implications for resilience of the whole global economy – the conversion of social and trade systems to use new forms of energy will take some considerable time – and their integrity is at risk if Peak Oil cannot be navigated smoothly. Peak Oil is dangerous – it seems useful to deny it as long as possible.
It’s pretty clear that we’ve been handed lots of unreliable sops over the years. The energy industry promised us that biofuels could replace gasoline and diesel – but the realisation of this dream has been blocked at every turn by inconvenient failings. The energy industry has, to my mind, been deploying duds in order to build in a delay while they attempt to research and develop genuine alternatives to conventional fossil fuels – but they are failing. The dominant narrative of success is at risk – will all of this continue to hold together ? Can people continue to believe in the security of energy systems – the stability of trade and economic wealth creation ? Oh yes, people raise concerns – for example about disruption in the Middle East and North Africa, and then propose “solutions” – regime change, military support for opposition forces, non-invasive invasions. But overall, despite these all too evident skirmishes, the impression of resilience is left intact. The problem is being framed as one of “edge issues” – not systemic. It’s not clear how long they can keep up with this game.
The facade is cracking. The mask is slipping. BP and Centrica in a bout of hyper-realism have said that the development of shale gas in the UK will not be a “game changer”. It may be that their core reasoning is to drag down the market value of Cuadrilla, maybe in order to purchase it. But anyway, they have defied the American energy industry public relations – hurrah ! Shale gas is not the milk of a honey-worded mother goddess after all – but what’s their alternative story ? That previously under-developed gas in Iran and Iraq will be secured ? And what about petroleum ? Will the public relations bubble about that be punctured too ? Telling people about Peak Oil – how useful is that ? They won’t do it because it has to be kept unbelievable and unbelieved in order to save face and keep global order. Academics talk about Peak Oil, but it is not just a dry, technical question confined to ivory towers. Attention is diverted, but the issue remains. Looking at it doesn’t solve it, so we are encouraged not to look at it.
So, why do the energy industry purposely set out to manipulate public opinion ? Well, the reason for their open advertising strategy is clear – to convince investors, governments, customers, that all is well in oil and gas – that there is a “gas glut” – that the world is still awash in petroleum and Natural Gas – that the future will be even more providential than the past – that the only way is up. All the projections of the oil and gas industry and the national, regional and international agencies are that energy demand will continue to rise – the underlying impression you are intended to be left with is that, therefore, global energy supply will also continue to rise. Business has never been better, and it can only get more profitable. We will need to turn to unconventional resources, but hey, there’s so much of the stuff, we’ll be swimming in it.
But what is the purpose of the covert “public relations” of the energy industry ? Why do they seek to put out deception via secretly-funded groups ? When the truth emerges, as it always does in the end, the anger and indignation of the climate change activists is guaranteed. And angry and indignant activists can easily be ignored. So, the purpose in funding climate change deniers is to emotionally manipulate climate change activists – rattle their cages, shake their prison bars. Let them rail – it keeps the greens busy, too occupied with their emotional disturbance. By looking at these infractions in depth are we being distracted from the bigger picture ? Can we make any change in global governance by bringing energy industry deception to light ?
Even as commentators peddle conspiracy theories about the science and politics of a warming planet, the “leader of the free world” is inaugurated into a second term and announces action on climate change. Although progressives around the world applaud this, I’m not sure what concrete action the President and his elite colleague team of rich, mostly white, middle-aged men can take. I am listening to the heartbeat of the conversation, and my take away is this : by announcing action on climate change, Barack Obama is declaring war on the sovereignty of the oil and gas producing nations of the Middle East and North Africa.
You see, the Middle East and North Africa are awash in Natural Gas. Untapped Natural Gas. The seismic surveys are complete. The secret services have de-stabilised democracy in a number of countries now, and this “soft power” will assist in constructing a new narrative – that unruliness in the Middle East and North Africa is preventing progress – that the unstable countries are withholding Natural Gas from the world – the fossil fuel that can replace petroleum oil in vehicles when chemically processed, the fossil fuel that has half the carbon emissions of coal when generating electricity. Resources of Natural Gas need “protecting”, securing, “liberating”, to save the world’s economy from collapse.
Obama stands up and declares “war” on climate change. And all I hear is a klaxon alarm for military assault on Iran.
But even then, if the world turns to previously untapped Natural Gas, I believe this is only a short-term answer to Peak Oil. Because waiting in the wings, about ten years behind, is Peak Natural Gas. And there is no answer to Peak Natural Gas, unless it includes a genuine revolution in energy production away from what lies beneath. And that threatens the sustenance of the oil and gas industry.
No wonder, then, that those who fund climate change denial – who stand to profit from access to untapped fossil fuels, secured by military aggresssion in the Middle East and North Africa – also fund opposition to renewable energy. The full details of this are still emerging. Will we continue to express horror and distaste when the strategy becomes more transparent ? Will that achieve anything ? Or will we focus on ways to bring about the only possible future – a fossil-fuel-free energy economy ? This will always take more action than words, but messaging will remain key. The central message is one that will sound strange to most people, but it needs to be said : fossil fuels will not continue to sustain the global economy : all will change.
Funnily enough, that is exactly the summary of the statements from the World Economic Forum in Davos – only the world’s administration are still not admitting to Peak Fossil Fuels. Instead, they are using climate change as the rationale for purposeful decarbonisation.
Well, whichever way it comes, let’s welcome it – as long as it comes soon. It’s not just the survival of individual oil and gas companies that is at stake – the whole global economy is at risk from Peak Fossil Fuels – and climate change. I use the word “economy”, because that is the word used by MBAs. What I mean is, the whole of human civilisation and life on Earth is at risk from Peak Fossil Fuels and climate change. Unconventional fossil fuels are the most polluting answer to any question, and expansion of their use will undoubtedly set off “climate bombs“.
Don’t get me wrong – Natural Gas is a good bridge to the future, but it is only a transition fuel, not a destination. Please, can we not have war against Iran. Please let’s have some peaceful trade instead. And some public admissions of the seriousness of both Peak Fossil Fuels and climate change by all the key players in governance and energy.
I knew I knew her from somewhere, Ms Henrietta Lynch PhD, from the UCL Energy Institute. I had the feeling we’d sheltered together from the rain/police helicopters at a Climate Camp somewhere, but she was fairly convinced we’d crossed paths at the Frontline Club, where, if she was recalling correctly, I probably tried to pick an “difference of opinion” with somebody, which she would have remembered as more than a little awkward.
Why ? Because when I’m surrounded by smart people displaying self-confidence, I sometimes feel pushed to try to irritate them out of any complacency they may be harbouring. Niceness can give me itchy feet, or rather emotional hives, and I don’t see why others should feel settled when I feel all scratchy.
So here we were at a Parliamentary event, and I was on my best behaviour, neither challenging nor remonstrative, but all the same, I felt the urge to engage Henrietta in disagreement. It was nothing personal, really. It was all about cognition, perception – worldviews, even. After my usual gauche preamble, I snuck in with a barbed gambit, “The United Nations climate change process has completely failed.” A shadow of anxiety crossed her brow. “Oh, I wouldn’t say that”, said Henrietta Lynch. She went on to recount for me the validity of the UN climate talks, and how much further we are because of the Kyoto Protocol. “Ruined by Article 12”, I said, “…the flexible mechanisms”. She said I shouldn’t underestimate the effort that had gone into getting everybody into the room to talk about a response to climate change. I said, it would be useful if the delegates to the climate talks had power of some kind – executive decision-making status. Henrietta insisted that delegates to the climate talks do indeed have authority.
I said that the really significant players, the oil and gas production companies, were not at the climate talks, and that there would be no progress until they were. I said that the last time the UN really consulted the oil and gas companies was in the 1990s, and the outcome of that was proposals for carbon trading and Carbon Capture and Storage. Each year, I said, the adminstration of the climate talks did the diplomatic equivalent of passing round a busker’s hat to the national delegations, begging for commitments to carbon emissions reductions. Besides leading to squabbling and game-playing, the country representatives do not even have the practical means of achieving these changes. Instead, I said, the energy production companies should be summoned to the climate talks and given obligations – to decarbonise the energy resources they sell, and to increase their production of renewable and sustainable energy. I said that without that, there will be no progress.
Oil and gas companies always point to energy demand as their get-out-of-jail-free card – they insist that while the world demands fossil fuel energy, they, the energy resource companies, are being responsible in producing it. Their economists say that consumer behaviour can be modified by pricing carbon dioxide emissions, and yet the vast majority of the energy they supply is full of embedded carbon – there is no greener choice. They know that it is impossible to set an economically significant carbon price in any form, that there are too many forces against it, and that any behavioural “signal” from carbon pricing is likely to be swallowed up by volatility in the prices of fossil fuels, and tax revenue demands. Most crucially, the oil and gas companies know that fossil fuels will remain essential for transport vehicles for some time, as it will be a long, hard struggle to replace all the drive engines in the world, and high volumes of transport are essential because of the globalised nature of trade.
So, the oil and gas majors do not appear to be serious about renewable energy, but are they also in denial about fossil fuels ? All business school graduates, anybody who has studied for an MBA or attended an economics course, they all come out with the mantra that technology will deliver, that innovation in technology will race ahead of the problems. Yet, as the rolling disasters of the multipleFukushima Dai-ichinuclearreactoraccident and the continuing oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico from the blowout of the Horizon Deepwater drilling rig show, technological advancement ain’t what it used to be. Put not your faith in technology, for engineering may fail.
For the oil and gas companies to be going after the development of unconventional fossil fuel resources is an unspoken, tacit admission of failure – not only of holding a bold vision of change, but also a demonstration of the failure of being able to increase production from discoveries of more conventional petroleum and Natural Gas. It is true that oil and gas exploration has improved, and that technology to drill for oil and gas has improved, but it could be said that the halting pace of technological advancement means that the growth in fossil fuel exploitation is not strong enough to meet projected demand. Technology does not always make things more efficient – the basic fossil fuel resources are getting much poorer, and perhaps scarcer.
“Over the past decade the world economy has experienced a persistent increase in oil prices. While part of this may have been due to continued rapid demand growth in emerging markets, stagnant supply also played a major role. Figure 1 shows the sequence of downward shifts in the trend growth rate of world oil production since the late 1960s. The latest trend break occurred in late 2005, when the average growth rate of 1.8 percent per annum of the 1981-2005 period could no longer be sustained, and production entered a fluctuating plateau that it has maintained ever since.”
There is an increasing amount of evidence and projection of Peak Oil from diverse sources, so perhaps our attention should be drawn to it. If this type of analysis is to be trusted, regardless of whether the oil and gas companies pursue unconventional oil, change is inevitable. Bringing the oil and gas companies onto the world stage at the United Nations climate talks and demanding a reduction in fossil fuel production would be an straightford thing to make commitments to – as it is happening already. A huge facesaver in many respects – except that it does not answer the energy security question – how the world is going to be able to adapt to falling fossil fuel supplies. You see, besides Peak Oil, there are other peaks to contend with – it will not simply be a matter of exchanging one energy resource with another.
Can the oil and gas companies hold on by selling us Natural Gas to replace failing oil ? Only if Natural Gas itself is not peaking. As the oil and gas companies drill deeper, more Natural Gas is likely to be found than petroleum oil, but because they are so often associated, Peak Oil is likely to be followed quite sharply by Peak Natural Gas. But does anybody in the oil and gas companies really know ? And if they did, would they be able to let their shareholders and world’s media know about it without their businesses crumbling ?
What I want to know is : with all the skills of dialogue, collaboration, and facilitation that the human race has developed, why can Civil Society not engage the oil and gas companies in productive communication on these problems ?