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Do We Focus Too Much on Electricity?

A recent article posted on the GreenMoney e-jounal site argues that society is moving rapidly into a period of structural (and possibly abrupt) decline in fossil fuel use. The story, like many which argue along similar lines, draws on the current upward trend in renewable electricity deployment, noting that “Renewable energies have become too economically competitive for fossil fuels to contend with . . . “.

While this may be true at the margin when generating electricity, what does it mean for the energy system as a whole? Oil, gas and coal make up 80% of primary energy use (Source: IEA World Balance 2013), although it is often argued that this isn’t a representative picture as a significant percentage of the energy in fossil fuels is wasted as heat loss in power plants, which wouldn’t be the case for a technology such as solar PV. However, moving past primary energy and looking instead at final energy (i.e. the energy which we use to generate energy services such as mobility – so gasoline is a final energy whereas crude oil is primary energy) we see that oil products, natural gas and fuels such as metallurgical coal still make up two thirds of energy use, with electricity and heat comprising just over 20% of the mix. The balance is biofuels (comprising liquid fuels and direct use of biomass) and waste (IEA Sankey Chart for 2013).

Today electricity is generated primarily from coal and natural gas, with nuclear and hydroelectricity making up most of the difference. In 2014 the world generated 23,536 TWhrs of electricity, of which wind was 706 TWhrs (3%) and solar 185 TWhrs (<1%). Wind grew at 10% and solar at nearly 40% compared to the previous year (Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy). This contrasts with an overall growth in electricity generation of 1.5% per annum. It is certainly possible to imagine a world in which solar and wind grow to dominate electricity production, but then we also need to imagine a world in which electricity grows to become the dominant final energy for renewables to dominate the energy system overall.

This is one of the key subjects that is dealt with in a recent Shell publication that I have worked on during this year; A Better Life With a Healthy Planet – Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions. For me, the most telling outcome of the scenario analysis and energy system modelling work behind the publication was that even in the latter part of the century when a net-zero carbon dioxide emissions state might be reached, electricity still only makes up ~50% of final energy. This means that 50% of final energy is something else!

The scenario presented shows a world that still requires several types of final energy to meet its needs. For example, liquid hydrocarbons still dominate in shipping and aviation, even as road passenger transport is hardly serviced by hydrocarbons at all. For road freight transport, a three way split has emerged between electricity, hydrocarbons and hydrogen.

Industry remains a large user of thermal fuels throughout the century, with key processes such as cement, chemicals and metallurgical process all dependent on their use for the foreseeable future. Electrification makes significant inroads to other types of industry, but this is far from universal. Hydrogen is a potential thermal fuel of the future, but processes might have to be modified significantly to make use of it. For example, it is possible for hydrogen to act as the reducing agent in iron smelting, but today this is a pilot plant scale research project.

Even the manufacture of hydrogen might take two routes, with competition through efficiency and cost determining the eventual winner. The first is the conversion of natural gas to make hydrogen, with the resulting carbon dioxide captured and geologically stored. Alternatively, hydrogen can be produced by electrolysis of water with renewable energy providing the necessary electricity.

Of course the continued use of fossil fuels to meet the needs of hydrocarbons in transport, industry and even power generation means extensive deployment of carbon capture and storage (CCS).

Meeting the aim of the Paris Agreement and achieving a balance between anthropogenic emission sources and sinks (i.e. net zero emissions) is a complex challenge and not one that can necessarily be serviced by wind and solar, or for that matter electricity, alone. Rather, we potentially end up with a more diverse energy system, much larger in scale than today, with a set of new processes (CCS), new industries (hydrogen based) and new sources (solar PV).

NZE Energy System Development

Original Post

David Hone's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 1, 2016

David, your commercial on behalf of Royal Dutch Shell Fossil Fuel Inc. is duly noted.

What’s the answer for the critical imperative of protecting climate? Let’s start by eliminating this “net-zero” promotional nonsense. In truth, we don’t focus enough on electricity, which can be generated with nuclear and renewables 100% emission-free.

That means replacing your company’s climate-destroying product in home heating and transportation, which would pretty much end Shell’s 19th-century income stream. It’s long overdue.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on August 1, 2016

The biggest mistake advocates of 100% renewable energy routinely make (aside from conflating electricity with energy) is that there is simply not a solution on the table for fueling heavy duty transportation and high heat manufacturing at the scales required to replace conventional fuels. Renewables are making laudable inroads into the most inefficient sectors of our energy system, the low hanging fruit, but they are just as far away as ever from servicing the most challenging sectors.

We use liquid fuels because they provide competitive performance advantages in making big machines go fast and do heavy work. Jet fuel has been highly optimized to provide specific performance characteristics around energy density, cold flow, safety, cost and availability. We can continue to improve our fuels to make them cleaner and marginally more efficient, but these would be synthetic fuels, not purely renewable fuels. The biofuels we have today are produced in relatively trivial quantities and generally offer inferior performance.

Batteries are an order of magnitude off from liquid fuels in terms of energy density and have little role to play in heavy transportation. Though heavy transportation is routinely electrified, freight train engines traditionally use diesel to power electric motors and the new generation of US Navy ships use marine diesel to power 100% electric ships.

I have always been skeptical of the vision of a hydrogen economy, hydrogen is expensive and dangerous to work with, and there is nothing new about it. The military had hydrogen airships in the 1920’s, if hydrogen truly offered a superior solution the militaries of the world would have adopted it decades ago.

Meanwhile methane is wildly abundant in nature (the hydrates offer an effectively unlimited resource). Methane is non-toxic, cheap, and versatile, it can fuel all energy sectors and be readily converted into clean synthetic liquid fuels, and it is already used to fuel the most demanding applications. One of the most promising emerging pathways is to react captured CO2 with methane to create liquid alcohol fuels and achieve a form of carbon recycling.

We will never go to zero emissions from fuels, we will always need fuels, but we can achieve net-zero emissions by storing carbon in the soils through improved agriculture and habitat restoration.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 1, 2016

Edward, fossil methane is indeed cheap and versatile. It’s only non-toxic if you ignore the toxic effect of the waste it generates, CO2 and CO, on the world’s oceans, where it quickly turns into carbonic acid. Maintaining business-as-usual for the next three decades will lower oceanic pH to levels unsurvivable for plankton, the bottom of the food chain. All downhill from there.

Would you agree that a truly net-zero and responsible position would be limiting extraction, including hydrates, to what is concurrently sequestered? Seems obvious, but I note significant ambivalence from those who profit from extraction.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on August 1, 2016

Net zero means net zero. We can store boundless amounts of carbon in our soils if we were to engage in a truly comprehensive strategy to improve soils globally. The methods are within our means.

And do you have a solution for fueling heavy transportation? Or just a bunch a rhetoric that sidesteps the conversation. It is demand for fuels that drives the extraction of them, not some conspiracy.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 1, 2016

Edward, I presented a solution, but you (predictably) sidestepped it.

“Sequester carbon of the molar equivalent to whatever you pull out of the ground”. Not hard to understand, but expensive. Any other definition of “net zero” is BS.

Not sure what conspiracy you think is at play here – all I see is simple economics at odds with the environment. And if we legalized heroin demand would no doubt drive production, but I’m not sure we’d be happy with the result.

Ed Dodge's picture
Ed Dodge on August 1, 2016

Bob, you said nothing about how to fuel heavy transportation.

I do believe that we can sequester carbon on a molar equivalent basis in soils to achieve a balanced system. There is not enough research on the subject to prove my hypothesis analytically, but it is what I believe.

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on August 1, 2016

Electrification was the greatest achievement of the 20th century. It’s very important. From IEEE…

How many of the 20th century’s greatest engineering achievements will you use today? A car? Computer? Telephone? Explore our list of the top 20 achievements and learn how engineering shaped a century and changed the world.

1. Electrification
2. Automobile
3. Airplane
4. Water Supply and Distribution
5. Electronics
6. Radio and Television

Robert Hargraves's picture
Robert Hargraves on August 1, 2016

Your brochure image is two-pages across, too hard to read on the screen. Do you have a link to a page-at-a-time version?

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on August 1, 2016

Nice to see “bioenergy” and soil carbon sequestration (Ed Dodge) included in the discussion. We will likely find that more fertile carbon rich soil grows plants even faster for a helpful non-linear climate solution. Further, the forests planted by logging interests decades ago should not be seen as nature. We can and should learn what biology is capable of.

In concept, solar + biofuel = solar-biofuel looks good in theory.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 2, 2016

Sorry, I wasn’t clear.
Heavy transportation would be fueled the way it is now, but fuel production unmatched by a molar-equivalent sequestration of carbon would be prohibited.

Research and investment in soil sequestration would go into hyperdrive, and we’d find out very soon whether your hypothesis is correct. Or, we’d find out accepting responsibility for using the atmosphere as a waste dump is more costly than powering everything (except aviation) with nuclear electricity.

My hypothesis is Shell and other major producers are incapable of accepting any responsibility for climate change, so it will have to be mandated. Like when automakers thought they had no responsibility for passenger safety, and fought putting safety glass and seat belts in cars.

Helmut Frik's picture
Helmut Frik on August 2, 2016

Here is a viable solition for most of heavy transport on roads, combined with batteries to rund 100km before / after highway transport.

Trains working in heavy transportation outside the US run rnearly 100% with electricity today. The diesel freight trains are a US-specific product only used in some developing countries outside the US where there is not enough grid power available, or not enough finances to invest in the more efficient electric solution, or there are rarely used parts of the rail network.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on August 2, 2016

electricity, which can be generated with nuclear and renewables 100% emission-free

Nuclear and renewable electricity generation imply emissions.
As rich uranium layers are getting exhausted, nuclear now more than ever.
Up to ~50% of that of natural gas as shown in the studies referred in the link. Roughly 10 times more than wind & solar.

Rick Engebretson's picture
Rick Engebretson on August 2, 2016

Helmut, Europe has done many things extremely well, having become developed before the fossil fuel era. One example is the system of canals and waterway transport. Inland and international water transport perhaps even defines European commerce.

We in the US have neglected our waterways for decades, but not forgotten them. The “northwest passage” water route was never found, but the Erie Canal allowed international water transport to Duluth, MN. Similarly, the Mississippi River became a key inland transport provider after investment priorities. With this water circulatory system we would also get inland “climate control.” You are right, we need some priorities adjusted.

European railroads are cute and sexy, but nothing like the beasts in America.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 2, 2016

“Studies”? Bas Gresnigt, that’s propaganda written by fringe lunatics living in fear of the Nuclear Boogeyman. IPCC:

“The life cycle GHG emissions per kWh from nuclear power plants are two orders of magnitude lower than those of fossil-fuelled electricity generation and comparable to most renewables (EC, 1995; Krewitt et al., 1999; Brännström-Norberg et al., 1996; Spadaro et al., 2000). ”

Or – “roughly” one order of magnitude (fringe lunatics: 10 times) fewer emissions than you say there are. If you continue posting nonsense like that, readers might think you are one!

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on August 2, 2016

not a solution … for fueling heavy duty transportation … at the scales required to replace conventional fuels.

It’s coming with the fast decreasing costs of P2G ( ) and the decreasing whole sale electricity prices thanks to wind & solar.
Remote controlled, unmanned P2G units housed in a sea-container at the gas station are in development (already pilots). So the gas station will only need a power line, which is cheaper and less risky than bulk transport of gas.

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 2, 2016

Bas Gresnigt, you might be interested in new C2R (Coal to Renewables) technology being developed in Schleswig-Holstein, where massive coal-powered fans blow air on wind turbines, and bright coal-powered lights shine on solar panels. By 2340 C2R will be 100% coal-free!


Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 2, 2016

Edward, I can empathize with the frustration of going up against advocates of 100% renewable energy. But add to that, taking on Merriam-Webster for conflating electricity with energy:

electricity noun a form of energy that is carried through wires and is used to operate machines, lights, etc.”

Keep fighting the good fight.

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on August 2, 2016

You refer to an old 2000 IPCC report, and studies that are even older. Can’t find that information in the 2014 IPCC report. Probably deleted as it’s questionable or wrong.
I referred to a publication of 2014 which refers to a 2012 report.

Since 1999 the grade of Uranium ore declined substantially. In 2012 it was ~0.05% on average. That implies increased CO2 emissions per KWh.

Estimations are that at a grade of 0.02% the emissions of nuclear per KWh will surpass those of natural gas.
No new findings of rich layers in past decades…

Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on August 2, 2016

Bas Gresnigt, average uranium concentrations are double what you claim. You’ve been banned twice for lying, do we need to do it again?

Darius Bentvels's picture
Darius Bentvels on August 2, 2016

May be you can agree that your statement in your first comment:”…electricity, which can be generated with nuclear and renewables 100% emission-free.”
is off reality?
(you implicitly admitted that already in your other comments above)

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