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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.