Future Fuels

A panoply of fuels, from algae to hydrogen, have been identified as potential technologies that can solve the twin goals of meeting the energy needs of an expanding world population while also mitigating climate change and ensuring that future generations can live comfortably.

The big problem with all of these is achieving the scale needed to provide energy for billions of people. It’s all very well to experiment in a lab, but the real challenge of energy is not just to produce it, but to do at scale and economically. This is the case with hydrogen.

Some of the new fuels being developed have been pioneered by large oil and gas companies, raising a real question mark over whether the research and development money being spent is “greenwash”. Algae is an example. 

The commodities used to produce future fuels also have alternative uses, raising the prospect of potential competition between supply chains. Biofuels are a good example; using crops to make energy is viable, but not if people are left without food.




Future fuels… Just because it works in the laboratory doesn’t mean that a technology can be scaled up to meet the world’s burgeoning energy demand.

Going Electric

The biggest advances in low carbon energy have been made in the field of electricity. Transport and heat lag far behind. 

E-mobility has been talked about for many years, but the portion of the world’s vehicle stock that uses electricity is tiny. Despite the many TV adverts in the west providing racy images of electric vehicles, less than 1% of the vehicles on the road are electric, and most of those in use are hybrids — which means that much of the time they will be using fossil fuels part of the time.

Using electricity is only a low carbon solution, moreover, if the fuels used to generate electricity are low carbon. Charging an electric vehicle using electricity that is generated from coal simply shifts the problem of carbon emissions from the vehicle to the power station.

For the same reason, heating is also a hard-to-decarbonise sector. Replacing a gas boiler with electric heating doesn’t reduce emissions if the electricity is being generated by burning gas. Similarly, while hydrogen boilers will help, if the hydrogen used is derived from fossil fuels rather than electrolysis, the climate benefits are negligible.


Don’t be fooled by the idea that electricity is “greener” than other sources of energy! If it’s generated from fossil fuels, there is little benefit in using it. The carbon saving comes when the power is made from renewable sources such as wind or solar,

Despite the above caveats, a revolution is underway. Electric bikes and scooters have started to proliferate in urban areas, and the range of electric vehicles is gradually improving. Innovative car finance schemes are making EVs viable options for many, rather than the wealthy few. It is still hard to see EVs making inroads in developing countries, but electricity grids are expanding globally and this could provide a tipping point for a more widespreads use of electric vehicles in emerging markets.

Smart Technology

Smart technology refers to a range of technologies that allow energy to be used more intelligently.

For most people, that means a smart meter in the home. If you live in Western Europe, it’s likely that your electricity provider will have supplied one of these already. The reality is, these machines are not very smart. They give you a reading on how much power your are using at any particular time, but not much more. 

The real value of Smart Technology comes through when tracking energy use is combined with new systems that can work intelligently together. These are often referred to as “grid edge” technologies. “The grid edge is the hottest area in energy today,” I was told at a conference. 

These technologies range from Apps on your phone that allow you to monitor the power going through your home on a room-by-room or even a device-by-device basis, to auotmation procedures that allow you to contract with your electricity supplier to feed electricity back into the grid when you are not using it. 

When these are combined with EVs, there is potential for theworld’s car fleet to become a giant battery that can supply electricity back into homes or to companies when renewable systems are under pressure. This could potentially solve the problem of the intermittency of energy sources such as wind or solar power.



Smart meters really aren’t always that smart. The one installed by my power supplier did very little more than blinking at me. I could get a few details about how much energy I had used by pressing some buttons, but nothing that gave me ideas about how to save power or reduce my carbon footprint. 

Energy Storage

In the last decade, energy storage has evolved from dysfunctional batteries to large-scale techologies such as pumped water storage and mega batteries designed by entrepreneurs like Elon Musk that provide viable alternatives to wind and solar for power generation. The cost of batteries and of energy storage is also falling rapidly.

The range of car batteries is also gradually being extended, and a range of materials such as selenium have been identified that can be used with standard lithium and cobalt batteries to boost their range and their longevity. These could also potentially resolve the resource constraint around soem of the materials used in batteries, which have limited reserves and are concentrated in only a few countries. 

Despite that, the problems around the intermittency of renewables remain, and none of the batteries developed so far as as cost-effective as fossil fuels for back-up power generation.


Energy storage technologies are improving, but are still typically not as cost-effective as using fossil fuels.

Nuclear Horizons

The nuclear industry has suffered from multiple deadly accidents over the eyars, and it remains an extremely expensive form of energy.

The already-tarnished reputation of nuclear power suffered another setback after the Fukushima incident in Japan in 2011. Most of the nuclear reactors in the world today are ageing, and many countries have balked at the cost of building new reactors, particularly given public opposition and the safety risks.

For many people, there is a gut reaction against nuclear from the association with nuclear weapons. The infamous nuclear attack on Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the United States at the end of World War II is sufficent for many to reject the peaceful use of nuclear power. 

That said, countries such as France have operated theri nuclear industry with few mishaps. Around 75% of the electricity generated in France is made using nuclear reactors. And significant advances in nuclear fusion are expected in the coming decade.

The renowned environmentalist James Lovelock advocated the use of nuclear energy in his book The Return of Gaia, and even some environmental campaigners see the potential for using nuclear energy to reduce carbon emissions.


Always controversial

The link between nuclear energy and nuclear weapons remains a stumbling block for the widespread expansion of nuclear power. But even for some environmentalists, it is seen as a potential way to reduce harmful carbon emissions.

Carbon Capture

Rather like future fuels such as algae, Carbon Capture (Use and Storage) has been seen both as a potential solution to the problem of climate change and as yet another source of hot air and greenwash.

The reality is that despite decades of promises, there are no examples of successful implementations of CCUS that are of a large enough scale to make any conceivable difference to carbon emissions.

The oil industry has “donated” $1 billion for research into scaling up the multiple pilot projects that have been attempted. But even some of the proponents of CCUS (such as myself) are beginning to wonder if this is just a gesture.

The story goes that, if CCUS can be developed at scale, it will allow fuels such as oil and gas and even coal to continue to be used without damaging the environment. But it is beginning to sound like the oil and gas companies are just kicking the can down the road. 

The reality is that CCUS faces many challenges, the most critical of which is, Who will pay? Shell’s CCS venture at Peterhead in Scotland was scuppered when the Tory government that had supported it pulled out at the last minute. But the pilot schemes have also met with public opposition, based on a lack of knowledge of what will happen to the sequestered emissions in the future.


A suspicion of greenwash and multiple challenges

It’s still difficult to tell whether CCUS has a future, or whether it will be another example of the ball being kicked down the road to justify continued investment in fossil fuels.

Energy Transitions

Sustainable Transitions

A Sustainable Energy Future?

The world’s energy system is going through a profound transition from fossil fuels to low carbon and renewable resources. Many people believe that the risk of climate change is not being addressed quickly enough, and that the switch from fossil fuels such as coal, oil and gas is happening too slowly.

Communities Are Key

Most companies and even governments think about the energy transition in techno-economic terms. They argue about what technologies to put in place, the potential costs and who will pay. But for most people it is more basic: they want access to energy at a reasonable price, but they also to live on a planet that has a future.

Understanding The Transitions

The energy transition is not a single thing. Decarbonizing heating and cooling is a very different challenge to switching the world’s car fleet from gasoline and diesel to low carbon alternatives. It helps to break down the problem into manageable chunks, and then see the synergies between the different pathways. 

Don't Get Hooked on Technologies

For the last century, the energy industry has harnessed sophisticated  technologies to deliver energy from centralised hubs to  billions of people. That top-down model is now changing. Disruptive new technologies are emerging that will transform the energy landscape, giving more power and choice to communities and individuals. 

Leadership and Vision

For the transitions to be sustainable, radical transformations in leadership, business models and systems are urgently needed. Uncertainties cannot be used as an excuse to delay taking action. We believe that everyone needs to have a voice in the energy system of the future. A visionary approach that treats individuals with respect, rather than as costs and externalities.

What I Offer

I have worked in the energy industry for more than 30 years, as a journalist,  consultant and analyst. I  offer training and consulting on the impact of new energy on oil and gas use. I believe that the future of energy will be decided by people rather than technology and offer training and coaching on strategy and leadership in the new era of energy transition.

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Click on the nearby buttons to find out more about our stance on the energy transition

Heating and Cooling

Fuels used in heating  have gradually evolved from solid fuels such as coal, to liquid fuels such as kerosene and heating oil, to gaseous fuels such as LPGs and natural gas.

The equipment used to burn the fuels has moved in tandem. My grandmother’s house had kerosene stoves in each room, and there was a coal fire in the living room. The use of energy to provide in home is known as residential, and for shiops and offices it is generally called commercial heating. Sometimes you will see the term ‘space heating’ to differentiate between heating to keep warm and to heat water for cooking.


The use of coal gave way in the 1970s and 1980s to central heating, where a central boiler powered by gas or electricity would heat the water in radiators to provide heating for the home. Many older homes, particualrly in germany and parts of the UK, have large tanks which are filled up with gasoil (also known as heating oil) during the year, and that provides the fuel to keep a house warm. Nowadays, natural gas is now most commonly used in homes in Europe as the boiler fuel, although electrical equipmentn may also be used, for instance electric bar heaters in the UK or electric-powered portable oil or fan heaters, as well as the kotasu in Japan.

The picture for commercial properties is broadly similar to the residential picture, although larger factories may find significant economies of scale that can be integrated with their production processes.

Blowing Hot and Cold

As global warming accelerates, and people become more affluent in emerging markest, the balance between heating and cooling needs is changing.

Many homes in poorer countries do not have central heating, and so use local installations such as LPG, kerosene or paraffin stoves to keep warm, and for cooking. The use of firewood and coal is also common in less affluent countries in northern Asia. El;etcric heating is generally expensive, but may often be found in poorer homes which cannot afford to install more efficient central systems. In the former Soviet Union, many homes were heated using waste heat from industrial facilities, and this form of heating remains fairly widespread.

A notable trend for the future is the increasing use of electricity for cooling, particularly in countries that have been too poor to afford such luxuries. Air-conditioning is common in the United States and the Middle East,  but is being installed more frequently in homes in Europe, South America and Asia. Electric fans have been used in tropical regions for cooling for many years, and their use is also growing. This trend is likely to be accelerated by global warming.

The intensity of the heat source required has become a notable field of research. While intense heat is required to cook, less intensive sources can be used to warm water or to keep homes warm. Tapping geothermal energy through the use of heat pumps has become popular in some countries, although it remains an expensive option. 


Mobility and Transport

Few people know that the first road vehicles were powered by alcohol and natural gas. Alcohol went out of use in the United States in the 1920s when prohibition came in. The growth of petrol (gasoline) and diesel as a fuel soared the the 1940s and 1950s as passenger use became more popular, and as long-haul trucking became the norm. Nowadays, 1 in 11 barrels of oil is used by the American motorist, and transportation use accounts for nealry two thirds of all oil demand.

Transport is regarded as a hard-to-decarbonise option because the vehicle stock turns over fairly slowly. Most cars are on the road for at least 15 years, and while decisions on the make-up of commercial-vehicle fleets are usually based on economics, the choice of passenger vehicle is dictated mostly by brand image and psychology. People who have driven a liquid-fuelled car for most of their lives are often loathe to experiment.

The main Alternative Fuelled Vehicles (AFVs) use either gas or electricity.

The AFVs that use gas are usually termed Natural Gas Vehicles (NGVs) and the fuels they use may be either Liquefied Natural gas (LNG), Compressed Natural Gas (CNG) or Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG). Large trucks often use LNG as their fuel, while passenger cars and vans most often use LPG or CNG as an alternative to petrol or diesel. 

The use of electric power in transport is mainly confined to passenger cars, usually at the top end of the price range, and for short-haul driving in giolf carts, trolley buses and so on. The types of electric vehicle (EV) include pure EVs and a panoply of different hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs), which have electric batteries but can also use gasoline or sometimes diesel.  



On your bike

Like many people during the Covid-19 lockldown, I bought an electric bike and have not regretted it for an instant. My ventures can be followed on my blog at The lockdown led to a surge in sales of electric bikes across Europe, as people with time on their hands opted for e-mobility for leisure. Many came out of lockdown with a renewed commitment to achieveing a sustainable lifestyle.

Manufacturing and Freight

The use of energy in manufacturing is determined partly by the type of goods being manufactured, and also by the location of factories and manufacturing plants and their proximity to different sources of energy.

Power sources can be incredibly flexible. In the 1700s, wind and water were widely used to drive mills that would do everything from grinding down grain to making cloth. Nowadays, the energy-intensity of fossil fuels means that coal, oil, gas and fossil-fuel derivatives such as petroleum coke are most widely used in manufacturing. This is particularly the case in large-scale energy intensive industries such as metal smelting.

Electricity is also used in  smaller factories, but it is generally more costly than bulk fuels. The size of the factory and economies of scale are always a consideration. In ceramics, for example, gas may be used for larger kilns, while electricity would be used typically for studio ceramics. This same pattern is seen across the manufacturing sector. Decisions need to weigh not only the current cost of fuels but also their future costs. Considerable research may be required when deciding on fuel selection.


Heavy Duty

Fuel decisions for manufacturing depend largely on the scale of the factory and how intensive the form of energy that is required. Decisions can affect long-term profitability, and need to be carefully considered.


As well as manufacturing the goods, energy is also consumed in delivering the goods to storage locations and their end-use markets. The type of energy consumed depends on the facilities used for transport.

Ships and barges are often used for bulky products that would be expensive to move by road. These typically use heavy fuel oil, diesel or gasoil. In the past, thse have used the power of wind, and this has occasionally made a resurgence. Electricity and gas are also occasionally used.

Trucks and lorries are also commonly used. These mostly use diesel, although ion some parts of the world gasoline is more commonly used. The idea of using gas in various forms has become more popular, but still not achieved critical scale (see above).

Airplanes are also commonly used to carry smaller items of freight. Most planes use aviation kerosene as their fuel.

An interesting development for the future relates to the location of the manufacture. The traditional pattern has been to make goods where it is cheapest, and then transport them to the markets where they will be consumed. The development of three-dimensional plastics could be a game-changer, as it would allow goods to be manufactured using computers and to minimise the freight required to reach market.    



Most people’s image of the power sector comes from the pylons that are used to transport electricity around the country, or perhaps of the wind farms and solar panels that you drive past on the motorway.

It’s difficult from this to conceptualise the scale of the power generated around the world. At any instant, the world consumes an amount of electric energy that is equivalent to that released by tens of thousands of nuclear explosions. This electricity has to be generated on a continuing basis because electricity is a flow, and it cannot be stored (although technologies are being developed to do this).

Electricity generation is either from fossil fuels, increasing natural gas, or from renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.  

The transmission and distribution of electricity involves a gradual stepping-down of the load carried in the lines until finally, when it reaches you home, it is relatively safe to use.

Industry also uses significant amounts of electricity, but this may be delivered more intensively as three-phase power.


The future is electric

Whether the electricity you use is low carbon depends on the fuels used to generate it. These range from coal and oi to lower carbon fossil fuels such as natural gas to zero-carbon renewable sources such as wind or solar.

Did you know how much carbon is emitted by a single search on Google? There’s an interesting factoid that goes the rounds that a single search uses enough power to fuel a light bulb for an hour. This turns out not to be true see but may people are unaware of the scale of energy use by the Internet. As the Internet of Things gets bigger, the use of power by technology firms will increase.  

Food and Agriculture

The world’s population is forecast to rise from 7.5 billion people currently to as many as 10 billion by 2050. This growing population is likely to be more wealthy than past generations and, for much of history, that has correlated with higher food consumption.

The climate toll of large-scale agriculture is clear. The amount of methane created by farm animals used for meat, the impact on biodiversity from  pesticides used to improve crop yields, and the deforestation that results from clearing large swathes of countryside to make land available for agriculture have all been widely noted.

More recently, however, there has been a growing awareness that food and energy issues cannot be separated.

The linkages were first exposed when the use of grains and sugar in biofuels resulted in fears of shortages of these foods for nutrition,

Biofuels are seen as valuable for meeting climate targets because, the theory goes, the crops used have already extracted the CO2 from the air, so it can be emitted without any overall climate impact. This has been the justification of European Union rules on bio-content in fuels, but it was only belatedly that these were accompanied by standards of sustainability and certification of the crops used.

Food and Energy Supply Chains in Conflict

Food and energy could end up competing for space. Biofuel requirements for fossil fuels are well intentioned, but the competing demands for grains and sugars from the food and energy sectors could become problematic.

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Waste Disposal

As the world’s population grows, more waste is produced. Waste disposal is critical to ensure that the environment for human habitation is hygienic and safe, but also to avoid biodiversity loss.

Although carbon has had a higher profile in recent years, the pollution from energy production includes a range of pollutive by-products, from sulphur and nitrogen oxides (SOx and NOx) to particulate matter (PM) and shloro-fluor carbons (CFCs) that can damage the ozone layer. There are always tradeoffs between making energy and curbing its harmful effects.

Pollution control is part of a bigger issue of how waste from a multitude of human activities can be disposed of safely and with the minimum damage to the environment. In many cases, the problem is not what we do or use, but how we get rid of it.

Recycling everyday garbage from household activity involves most people placing their used bottles and cans in a recycling bin. But that doesn’t solve the problem if the recycled products are shipped off to a foreign country where they may simply be burnt or jettisoned into the biosphere. That simply exports the problem.

Demonizing certain activities does not help. For example, plastics are durable and have the potential to be used to reduce carbon emissions. But disposal of plastics has become a major hazard to marine systems. 

Don't breathe too deeply

Air pollution and carbon emissions are both problematic for the environment. But in Asia, air quality issues are of much more concern for most people than the long-term risk of climate change. 

A Methodological Approach

The issues around waste and hygiene are hugely divisive. It is fraught with issues of wealth, class and privilege.  Social groups often demonize each other without self-scrutiny. As the populist right has become more dominant, this is often expressed in overt racist tones — Trump’s references to the Covid-19 virus as the Chinese virus are a case in point.

Many people take the approach of turning a blind eye. It it’s not visible, it’s not a problem. Exporting waste to poor countriers in Africa and Asia is common-place, and this has also been proposed as a solution for the disposal of nuclear waste. Organised crime has often got involved in the waste business because it is profitable and because there is limited oversight of those involved. Usually that’s because people would rather not know what goes on.  

A methodological approach is required to measure the various impacts of waste disposal. Just as fossil fuels and renewables have been evaluated using the yard-stick of life-cycle analysis, a holistic approach to waste disposal that would provide objective metrics about who is affected is required. Above all, there needs to be transparency among the companies and institutions involved in waste disposal. Local councils cannot hide behind the promises of their contractors, but should actively monitor their activities.   

Energy Efficiency

Improving your own carbon footprint is obviously a positive step, and much can be done by simply improving energy efficiency, particularly where grants are available from local or central government.

But it’s also human nature to do nothing when you see other people doing nothing. And it’s just as much a human failing to feel smug about your own contribution and to disdain others who you perceive to not be doing as much as you.


Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency can be measured easily, and improvements are often not nearly as costly as people think.

Energy efficiency is not just about improving how your boiler works. Enormous energy savings can be made by businesses, by managing the activities of employees in the heating and illumination of offices, but also by monitoring energy use in manufacturing processes, particularly those that are energy intensive such as ceramics or metal-smelting. 

Societal Change

Improving your own carbon footprint is obviously a positive step, and much can be done by simply improving energy efficiency, particularly where grants are available from local or central government.

But it’s also human nature to do nothing when you see other people doing nothing. And it’s just as much a human failing to feel smug about your own contribution and to disdain others who you perceive to not be doing as much as you.


Energy Efficiency

Energy efficiency can be measured easily, and improvements are often not nearly as costly as people think.