Updated: Jul 19
Progressing with the energy transition
The CEO of CREAS did a talk about this subject last year at a tedx event.
Link to tedx speech here: Carbon Dioxide Problem of the Past or Fuel of the Future? | Kevin Clarke | TEDxWoodLane - YouTube
I've been working in the oil and chemical industries for 30 years and through that period I've been exposed to the most amazing revolutions and many of those have been hidden from the wider public.
· If you think back to acid rain, that's not an issue anymore. We've taken out more than 99.5% percent of sulphur from all the petrol and all the diesel that we use.
· If you think about ozone depletion, the chemicals industry rallied very quickly and replaced chlorofluorocarbons with alternatives and now we're actually seeing the ozone layer is repairing itself very, very slowly over time.
Today we're still continuing with those innovations:
· We're using biomimicry to recover heat that was previously just wasted to atmosphere and boost that temperature up so that we can then use it in the production processes.
· We're using artificial intelligence to control process plants so that we can produce more petrol and diesel per barrel of crude - if we run less crude, we use less energy and we make less emissions.
These things are just incredible. Behind this there's this human ingenuity and creativity that just continues to stagger me and I've been so happy to have been involved in the industry over those years. These industries have a bad image but actually, there's a lot of really great innovation going on inside those organisations.
Let's now talk about the challenge of the energy transition that we have to go through. Now this talk covers global energy in just 10 minutes and it's a massive subject, so I'm going to bring it right down to just about the UK and the challenges that the UK faces today. These are very similar to other nations around the world - everyone will have their own specificities but they will be of a similar kind of nature to the way that we deal with them in the UK.
So if we look at the UK how big is the challenge we face? In 2019 the UK usesd 227,000 million watts of energy - now that is a big number with a lot of zeros and won’t really mean a lot to people day-to-day. Every household consumes on average two thousand watts of electricity and gas per year - that's what you pay in your utility bill. Which means that that amount of energy is 114 million households worth - but that can’t be right because there are only 28 million households in the UK. The reason is for every unit of energy that we use in our households, we cause another three units to be used indirectly elsewhere in the economy. Also it’s important to point out I'm talking about total energy - I'm not just talking about electricity. In terms of electricity alone, we generate 34,000 million watts, again another big number, but it's actually only 15 percent of the total energy consumption of the country.
Next let's take a look at where that energy comes from. Everyone's very excited about wind and solar and tidal and things like that, but actually from a total energy point of view we only generate four percent of our total production from these clean sources. Staggeringly 78% of our total energy production still comes from oil, gas and coal, and although we've done a great job of winding down coal consumption over time in 2019, the UK still used as much coal as the entire production of Greece or Romania or Bulgaria - so we've still got a lot of work to do.
If we look at where the energy goes to, it's not going to industry. People think industry consumes this vast volume of energy - 17% of the total energy production goes to industry, 76% of our energy consumption can be traced back to each one of us as individuals. It's for petrol and diesel for our cars, it's for heating and lighting our houses, it's for running offices, supermarkets, and shipping materials around. It's for municipal transport - buses, trains and so on. We each have a part to play in this energy transition. We have to change our own behaviours, as well as having government policy to encourage us all to make changes to our consumption.
What are the solutions out there? If we look at the UK, we're really focused on nuclear, solar and wind power and they each have their advantages and disadvantages.
· We're building Hinckley Point C nuclear power plant at the moment: it's going to take about a decade to complete. It's a very complicated project to deliver but it's an amazing instant increase in our available power supply by about 3000 megawatts.
· If you compare that endeavour to solar – with solar you can deliver a solar farm in a matter of months maybe a year or two at a maximum. This picture shows Lyneham solar farm - one of the biggest ones in the UK. It has 68 megawatts of capacity, but in the UK, we don't necessarily get a lot of sun. On average this solar farm delivers about seven megawatts – compare that to the 3000 megawatts of Hinckley Point - but you can see in the picture, it consumes a vast amount of land.
· Wind comes somewhere in between – expensive, especially offshore wind power because you're working out at sea (sometimes far from land) with big heavy equipment. It's harder to install, so costs are higher as a result. It also uses a lot of sea area - if you compare Lyneham’s 400 acres to Hornsey One wind farm - Hornsey One covers one hundred thousand acres of sea.
· Just for comparison, if we were to build a solar farm the same size as Hinckley point C, 3,000 megawatts, we'd need 420 Lyneham’s or the land area of three times the Liverpool metropolitan city region. So clearly solar on its own isn’t practical and that's why a more diverse mix of different power generation sources helps, not least because the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow. You need a steady source of energy as well.
Let's now focus on how the UK has been doing on driving down CO2 emissions - actually not too bad, but mostly driven by the blue bar (shown in the graph) reducing, that's coal consumption. We've been driving coal out of our energy mix consistently year-on-year and there were some big announcements on coal at COP26 which looks promising. If we could keep the rate that we've been doing in the last 15 years we'll get to net zero in the mid 2040s. But, if you take that 35 percent reduction we've done in the last 15 years, it is going to be harder to achieve the next 35 percent and the 35 beyond that, so we will have to work harder and harder over time to achieve that net zero objective.
The scorecard is not too bad - we still have this massive mountain to climb. Can we decarbonize our power generation? Absolutely. I don't think there's any problem in doing that - but remember power is 15% of our total energy consumption.
The other sectors are industry, transport and domestic heating and lighting. They're a tougher problem and we need a mixture of solutions to decarbonize those. Every time you translate energy from one source to another you lose efficiency - you're wasting energy - so we need to electrify as much of our energy consumption as possible so we can directly use renewable energy, but that won't be enough. Even in 2050, we'll still be using fossil-based energy. To avoid the emissions, we've got to use technology like carbon capture to avoid that carbon getting into the atmosphere. We need to be using plant-based carbon-neutral energy as well.
You may not have even noticed but on 1st September 2021, the UK and Europe switched from 5% percent bioethanol in petrol to 10% bioethanol - you can see the new pump markings on this picture. Overnight that reduced our oil demand related to petrol by 5%.
Energy conservation is something that we can all help with. If we can cut the top off that decarbonization mountain, it makes the job a little bit easier. Finally, I'm a hydrogen geek - green hydrogen in particular is the way forward. This is hydrogen from water and renewable energy. It's a technology that's been around for about 100 years - split water molecules apart into hydrogen and oxygen. That hydrogen we will need to decarbonize the heavy industry users; steel, cement and so on, which we can't easily electrify.
Next let's look at CO2 itself. Nice pint of Guinness in this picture! Is CO2 such a bad thing?
When you read daily about climate change, CO2 is a bad thing and I'm not going to tell you anything different to that. But recently, in September 2021, you may have seen this in the press: why is there a CO2 shortage?
Now it's bizarre that the UK emits 350 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere every year, but we're short of CO2. The answer is that it's the wrong kind of CO2!.
We use CO2 for all kinds of things in our daily life: daily staples from preserving fruit and meat, distributing those in cold vehicles around the country, promoting plant growth in greenhouses, water treatment, sterilizing medical equipment, baking bread, beer and soft drinks and filling fire extinguishers. We use a lot of CO2 just in our daily activities.
The reason for this CO2 supply shortage is ammonia and fertilizers. Up on Teeside there are some really big ammonia plants and they take natural gas, convert it to ammonia and the ammonia to fertilizers and they produce food-grade carbon dioxide as a by-product. Recently, we've seen gas prices spike up dramatically and these ammonia plants became unprofitable and the owners were considering shutting the plants down, which would have meant we would have lost that food grade carbon dioxide by-product. The government therefore stepped in support those operations, to produce CO2. Therefore, we now have this odd situation where we're burning natural gas just to make CO2 to use for food production - like how does this even work?
Historically that's been good for these ammonia plants, because it's made them lower carbon emitters (to the atmosphere) than other ammonia plants in the world. But in the future, we need ammonia to be a zero-carbon emitter. So what would that look like: we have green hydrogen (which I mentioned before) and green nitrogen taken from the atmosphere, we make green ammonia and fertilisers. The problem is that we've now lost that by-product CO2 that we linked into the old natural gas-based operation. We will need an alternative source of CO2 and we need to forge a new link into that new source of CO2. We already have plenty of industrial plants and power plants that are emitting CO2 to the atmosphere, so we need to use carbon capture technology to convert that CO2 into concentrated, clean food grade CO2.
Methanol: does anyone even know what methanol is?
Methanol is a really versatile chemical but it's hidden away behind a lot of our daily life. We use it to make plastics, to make spectacle lenses (polycarbonates), paints, adhesives, pharmaceuticals, synthetic fibres. It's used to manufacture plywood, anti-freeze, and in China they are using it to replace petrol for cars and, looking forward, the shipping industry is looking at it as a potential low-carbon marine fuel. It's a really versatile chemical that touches us probably every day.
How do we make methanol? Natural gas, coal, carbon emissions, the usual story. Can we make methanol in a greener way? Sure. Start from green hydrogen again, and we need a source of CO2 – once again not a problem. We link the green methanol production to an existing industrial facility, capture the carbon dioxide that would have been emitted to the atmosphere and we use that. So we start to think of CO2 as a material that has some intrinsic value, rather than just as an environmental pollutant.
We're now thinking about displacing carbon atoms from natural gas and using the carbon atoms in CO2 as a feedstock, that we would have put to the atmosphere. So a very different and more circular proposition.
I previously talked about our own impact on energy consumption and the fact that 76% of our energy can be traced back to each of us as individuals. We can all do something to help to drive this transition and this change looking ahead, but what are those things?
· We need to go to more plant-based material, sustainably sourced, plant-based packaging in particular displaces plastics, which reduces the amount of oil consumption and fossil fuels that we are using to produce those plastics.
· We need to monitor and manage our own energy consumption carefully. Energy today is too cheap, we need to treat it like gold.
· If we have the opportunity, we should generate our own power and we need to move towards electricity from all other sources of energy, away from gas.
· We need to drive green, and
· We need to use more public transport because public transport is also moving towards electrical power and towards zero emissions hydrogen, and finally (and definitely not least)
· We need to reuse and recycle anything and everything that comes from fossil fuels. Keep those fossil fuels in the ground, keep those plastics from being produced.
Now, I hope our person in the 22nd century has got a smile on their face, because I’m really optimistic. The human energy that goes into the energy industry is incredible and I think we have a reason to be optimistic.