Editorial: Keeping it clean-ish [NGW Magazine]
The International Energy Agency has deftly negotiated the changing world of supply and demand. When it was set up in 1974, western governments could be brought down by the politically motivated actions of the Opec cartel.
But for much of the last decade or more there has been an excess rather than a scarcity of oil in the world’s markets.
On the other hand, there is a very definite chance of a carbon-free energy squeeze just when the world is entering the last investment cycle before 2050. The goal of a net-zero carbon world by that date – with possibly another 2.5bn people to serve – seems to be beyond reach. Money is always scarce and lead times can be long. The IEA is now therefore focusing its efforts on this new threat to the OECD’s way of life.
Its latest report on the need for innovation dots the i’s and crosses the t’s of what many observers, including NGW, had been suspecting even before Covid-19 threw a spanner into the works: the technology does not exist on the scale needed to enable a net-zero carbon economy by 2050 without a major reduction in living standards.
The IEA points out big gaps in the knowledge base when it comes to long-distance transport and heavy industries like steel, cement and chemicals manufacturing. They have no commercial solution for net-zero emissions, with commercially untested large-scale hydrogen manufacturing and carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) doing most of the heavy lifting.
"The innovation process that takes a product from the research lab to the mass market can be long, and success is not guaranteed,” the IEA says. Renewables are very good at electricity generation most of the time, and no doubt efficiency measures and demand-side response will also help; but electricity is only a small part of total energy demand. The IEA said: “The message is very clear: in the absence of much faster clean energy innovation, achieving net-zero goals in 2050 will be all but impossible."
The key is in ‘net’: be as dirty as you like in some sectors as long as you offset elsewhere. But even that is difficult: a shortage of suitable land in Britain means that offshore gas producing companies are keeping their tree planting plans a closely-guarded secret. But given the UK offshore only accounts for 4% of the national total emissions, a sense of proportion is also absent.
The European power sector has to be net-negative, in order to allow emissions where they are unavoidable.
As a report prepared for utilities’ group Eurogas by Norwegian consultancy DNV GL shows, retaining molecules wherever possible, especially in space heating, would allow trillions of euros to be saved, and with a lower carbon price by 2050 compared with the European Commission’s own preferred, electron-operated model. That also depends heavily on a very large margin of renewable capacity to ensure peak demand may be met. Diverting the surplus to electrolyse also seems an incredibly wasteful process.
Things are happening with hydrogen: the amount of practical analysis done on the suitability or adaptability of old infrastructure to carry hydrogen is mushrooming: steel pipelines, boilers and kilns – there is a lot of moisture as a by-product of combustion – are all being tested, to destruction in some cases. Northwest Europe’s coastline is bristling with projects to strip out carbon from methane or from industrial emissions and inject it underground offshore. Detailed scientific reports are proliferating. And the labour market would also benefit from a surge in demand for hydrogen in the energy-intensive sector, much of which has decamped to countries with a lighter regulatory touch.
The obvious solution, blue hydrogen, appears to be off the menu for now owing to definitions of what is green. Germany, which aspires to become a world leader in hydrogen technologies, ruled out subsidies for anything other than green hydrogen in a new strategy unveiled last month – much to the chagrin of its gas industry.
One can only marvel at this perverse determination to settle only for the purest, when every affordable percentage point reduction in greenhouse gas emissions ought to be something to work for. The critics of the molecule model tend to deride small reductions as being not worth it; or they talk about lethal methane emissions as if they have not always been with us and are not regretted by the gas industry – as any economic loss is.
‘Green’ hydrogen itself may well be misnomer, once the lifecycle emissions are considered: the rare earth minerals that will need to be imported; the wind turbines and their tons of cement and non-recyclable vanes; and the solar panels that will have to be built in the coming years and then later disposed of – all cost something. On the other hand, ‘blue’ hydrogen from gas coupled with steam methane reformation and pyrolysis or CCS is clean and creates more jobs in Europe.
There is also a political price to consider: a self-reliant energy model, which electrons imply, is also isolationist. While for many developed countries energy security is one of the most important strategic goals, in future, this will be less of a worry than it was in 1974. No longer depending on Russian, Algerian and other gas for so much of its energy, Europe can continue to import methane as feedstock for locally-produced hydrogen while keeping open the diplomatic channels with its neighbours in the process.
But first things first: the new technology, whatever it is, must be technically and economically feasible – and for that proof we are still waiting.