Energy transition – it’s not that complicated

no fossil fuel combustion

Policy makers can focus on replacing energy conversion devices and be confident they are on track.

The global roll-out of zero carbon energy technologies now appears unstoppable – even in the eyes of Ben van Beurden, CEO of Royal Dutch Shell. With the writing on the wall, Mr. Beurden is determined that Shell be part of the process. “We see a lot of wind and solar being added to the world’s energy system. That has to happen. In fact, it must accelerate,” he said recently. “I believe we must be relevant to today’s world, reshape ourselves for the future and play a role in energy transition.”

Indeed, the replacement of fossil fuels with wind, water, solar, geothermal and hydrogen is accelerating, with negligible disruption. Coal is yielding to wind and solar as the cheapest source of energy for electricity generation. No grids have failed as a result. There are waiting lists for new electric vehicles, which are proving themselves more powerful, cheaper to run, and easier to maintain. They are as safe, reliable and as snazzy as those CO2-belching chariots parked in your garage.

However, political and social discourse doesn’t really have a dispassionate way of dealing with these developments. There is little agreement on the process and speed of energy transition and how it relates to the now manifest existential threat of climate change. Instead, we are flooded with multitudinous and often conflicting views on what should happen, should not happen, and why. Complete system change, a scheduled shut down of fossil fuel production, blocking oil pipeline construction, energy democracy, carbon taxes, de-growing the economy, investment, denial – all get equal air time.

But the focus of the debate – energy transition – is not that complicated. Energy systems may be complex, and switching them out on the fly a challenge, but the concepts driving change are not. Here are four to remember.

1) Energy transition is part of an overarching global pollution response and clean up effort

The international community has responded to greenhouse gas pollution through the Paris Accord, a diplomatic commitment to end or limit emissions of carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and several industrial chemicals based on fluorine. Carbon dioxide accounts for up to 75 percent of these gases and is produced almost entirely by the world’s inventory of coal-fired electricity plants, automobiles, cement plants, and steel mills.

What we see here is a carbon dioxide spill. It may be invisible, odorless, and mixed with visible water vapor, but it is dangerous pollution because it is produced by fossil fuel combustion.

The roll-out of zero carbon energy technologies is regarded as the most important (and practical) pathway toward meeting those commitments. Zero carbon technologies don’t pollute. They are mature, proven, and rapidly becoming cost competitive. As it stands, however, the roll-out is for the most part constrained by conventional politics and economics, so it is occurring at different speeds, slow and fast, in different jurisdictions around the world.

While energy transition aims to stop carbon dioxide pollution, the cleanup part is a step or two behind. Shell has a carbon capture and storage system installed on its upgrader plant in Fort Saskatchewan, Alberta. About a third of the plant’s CO2 emissions are captured, liquefied and buried in rock formations 2 kilometers under the prairie. There are a number of approaches in discussion around far more ambitious “negative emissions” – that is, ways and means to remove accumulated CO2 directly from the air. One technology is at the demonstration stage. Another, the STEP process is in development in a lab at George Washington University, and may be capable of capturing and disposing of carbon dioxide at the volume and speed necessary to prevent catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.

internal combustion engine
The world’s most popular fossil fuel-burning energy conversion device.

2) All energy transition strategies have a common goal: replace fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices

Addressing climate change may require system change, stopping oil pipelines, carbon taxes, massive re-direction of capital, or all of the above. Regardless, the final outcome of all strategies is the switch to zero carbon energy systems.

Small modular reactor
Assuming impeccable safety standards, small modular reactors could replace the guts of a coal fired electricity plant, leaving the rest of the facility intact. Image: Terra Power

It’s early in the game, but zero carbon outcomes are being pursued now in four energy-intensive sectors of the global economy: electricity generation, transportation, heavy industries (such as cement and steel manufacturing), and building/home operations. To stop carbon dioxide pollution, each sector is taking steps to replace the specific technologies that produce said pollution. For example, the automotive industry is beginning to replace internal combustion engines with electric motors in the aggregate fleet of about a billion motor vehicles worldwide. One innovative company is offering retrofit electric drive systems for existing vehicles. Grid operators around the world will eventually retire several thousand coal, oil or natural gas-fired steam turbines, along with the facilities that house them. They are to be replaced with wind turbines, solar arrays, geothermal plants, or fourth generation nuclear reactors.

The guiding principle is to replace energy conversion devices (ECDs) that emit carbon dioxide pollution with ECDs that do not. Complex infrastructure, transmission systems, and processes built around all such devices are added, replaced or modified accordingly.

3) Industrial initiative is at least as important as political will

The real action in energy transition happens in board rooms and factories as much as in the chambers of government. Automobile manufacturers build electric propulsion systems. Electric utilities install solar panels and wind turbines designed and built by multinational corporations. The role of bureaucrats and elected officials is to work with the private sector and do everything possible to foster industrial innovation and initiative.

4) Energy transition is a phase out / phase in process

Energy transitions have happened before. In the last century, internal combustion engines replaced horses, and diesel-electric locomotives replaced coal-fired steam engines. Such transitions were spontaneous and occurred at their own pace, with little or no social disruption, and were usually confined to one economic sector.

wind turbines and smoke stacks
During energy transition, the incoming and outgoing systems co-exist.

The 21st Century rendition of energy transition is different to the extent that it reaches into all energy-intensive sectors in all industrial economies. At the same time, it is sharply delineated, aiming specifically to replace the deeply rooted, fossil fuel-based devices that power the modern world.

There is a time element involved, a phase-out/phase-in process going on. This requires careful management of energy systems so they there is energy available to effectively carry out transition. Energy supplies must be maintained for the outgoing system as well as the incoming system. For a while, pipelines will coexist with EV charging stations. It looks bad, but it’s not.

Policy implications

There is a climate emergency afoot. It is a symptom of CO2 pollution from fossil fuel combustion. We stop the pollution – without delay – by replacing the energy technologies that produce the pollution, and we do this by navigating energy transition pathways. These pathways follow what is commonly called the “innovation chain” whereby technologies are financed, developed, tested, prototyped, and rolled out. Governments can accelerate the process through public-private partnerships, regulations and direct control.

Governments can craft policy designed specifically to replace ECDs and be confident they are on track. Governments in China and the UK have have set dates for phasing out internal combustion engines in automobiles. The state of Oregon changed public utility regulations to allow the sale of electricity at roadside EV charging stations. Governments can accelerate the replacement of ECDs through direct control of the industrial sector as they did during mobilization at the outset of two world wars. All of this requires sustained clear-headed cooperation among government, the people, and the private sector.

Climate Change – focused analysis, focused action

binoculars and turbines

Carbon dioxide is invisible, odorless and non-toxic. It is an essential component of the atmosphere – a greenhouse gas that keeps the surface of the planet much warmer than it would otherwise be. As such, it is in no way a threat to human well-being. Yet now, carbon dioxide is effectively a dangerous pollutant because the fossil fuel-based energy conversion devices (ECDs) that power the world economy burn fossilized hydrocarbons, and in the process discharge some 30 billion tonnes of this otherwise benign gas into to the atmosphere every year. This steady build-up of CO2 is altering the proportions of atmospheric gases, the result of which is now common knowledge. The prognosis is not good. If an effective response strategy is not implemented as soon as possible, as early as 2065 the world’s coastal cities may be under water and many settled parts of the world too hot to support human habitation.

Public awareness of the situation is increasing, but timely and effective action lags as the world struggles to bring two root problems into focus.

Firstly, humans populations are growing, and in the process relentlessly degrading the biosphere. We are burning forests and clearing land for agricultural and industrial development, systematically releasing very large amounts of natural carbon stored in vegetation and in soils. Cleared agricultural lands worldwide are fertilized with nitrogen, which releases nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas about 300 times more potent than CO2. Emissions from this kind of environmental exploitation are thought to account for up to one third of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. Among the remedies: checking population growth, planting millions of trees, and restricting the use of artificial fertilizers.

The second problem involves a technical miscalculation. Since the industrial revolution, various types of energy conversion devices have transformed the chemical energy of fossil fuels (coal, oil and natural gas) into mechanical and heat energy. The energy produced has been used to generate electricity, propel all manner of vehicles, make steel and concrete, prepare countless meals, and mow a lot of lawns. Fortunes were made bringing these energy conversion devices to market and constructing the complex domestic and industrial systems for which they provide power. More fortunes were made supplying the fossil fuel for those devices. While all of these economic benefits were occurring, only a few scientists – John Tyndall, Svante Arrhenius, Guy Callender among them – had the presence of mind to calculate how the exhaust from fossil fuel combustion would impact the thermodynamics of the atmosphere.

Although the miscalculation multiplied by orders of magnitude and eventually became part of the wallpaper of modern life, it is important to recall the initial, fundamental, and rather simple error: that is, energy conversion devices that burn fossil fuels increase the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Period. That being the root problem, the solution is correspondingly simple: replace all energy conversion devices that add fossil-source carbon dioxide to the atmosphere with energy conversion devices that do not. Essentially this is a pollution response and cleanup operation, the core task, the hinge on which all manner of system changes take place – including removing carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere.

From an engineering perspective, the world already has the necessary hardware at hand. However, deployment of said hardware is not as speedy as some might hope. Deployment remains subject to the constraints of conventional economics. Its not like World War II, when government war policy saw automobile assembly lines become tank assembly lines in a matter of weeks. But that could change.

From a policy perspective, the miscalculation will be remedied when the global community classifies climate change as a symptom of carbon dioxide pollution, and focuses on rapid phase out of the mechanical devices – in the electricity, transportation, heavy industrial, and building sectors – which are the source of that pollution. The ensuing pollution response and cleanup operation will of course transform the energy space.