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The long goodbye to fossil fuel: what’s the best strategy for renewable energy?    

12 Sep 2018 Dave Elliott
Photo of oil pipeline
(Courtesy: iStock/picturejohn)

While coal use is being challenged around the world, renewable energy is roaring ahead and those who back renewables often feel that any talk of finding ways to reduce the impact of continuing to use fossil fuel risks deflecting or slowing the growth of renewables. It is certainly the case that fossil fuel interests want to stay in the game as long as they can and they will see ameliorative clean-up options as a way to extract as much value as possible from the major investments they made in the past. Some will also see emission clean-up technology as more viable than renewable energy technology, with the latter sometimes being depicted as far off and even utopian. We hear less of that nowadays, with renewables supplying around 25% of global electricity, but it is still the case that fossil fuels remain the dominant energy suppliers, and they will be so for some while. In which case, if carbon emission reduction is seen as urgent, then clean-up options are also urgent, if only perhaps as an interim measure.

That’s the topic of a forthcoming Palgrave book, The Long Goodbye to Fossil Fuels edited by Geoff Wood et al. As my chapter in it makes clear, of the many technical clean-up/ameliorative options, some may complement rather than undermine renewables, so that conflicts might be reduced somewhat. For example, while carbon capture and storage (CCS) might be seen as just a way to allow for the continued use of fossil fuel (see my last post), its initial development for that purpose might also be seen as an interim step toward the adoption of “negative carbon” biomass with carbon capture and storage (BECCS). However, there are issues. Some see enthusiasm for BECCS as misplaced – and unwelcome anyway given its large-scale land use – and as a smokescreen for continued fossil fuel use with CCS.  So, although there might be some complementarity, the potential for conflicts still remains.

if we are to move successfully to a sustainable future, [greens] may have to learn to ‘deal with the devil with a long spoon’

Dave Elliott

For another example of potential conflicts, but also of possible strategic complementarity, some see the idea of converting fossil gas into hydrogen by steam reformation, with CCS added to reduce emissions, as, variously, a diversion from a switch to genuinely green hydrogen, produced using renewable sources (with no need for CCS), or as a way to establish greener gas in the heating market, ready for later replacement by fully green gas when that becomes available on a wide scale. The point being that, at present, steam reformation is much more economically viable than (renewable) power-to-gas conversion.

While that may be true, a key strategic problem then emerges. If we continue to focus on the cheaper short-term ameliorative options, the longer-term renewable options will always remain longer term: they must be promoted before they can (hopefully) become competitive. That was to some extent the fate of renewables in the past, often being faced with objections from those seeking support for ameliorative measures for fossil fuel use, which usually look cheaper and easier in the short term.

Changing times

That is changing – renewables are winning. Nevertheless, it is clear, even if we are looking to near 100% renewable scenarios, that fossil fuel use will continue for some while, particularly in the heating, industrial and transport sectors. While ideas are emerging for dealing with these using renewables, they will take time to develop fully, so some fossil fuels will have to continue to take the strain for a while. In which case they need to be cleaned up.

In a context of diminishing reliance on fossil fuels, that should not be a problem in principle, even for the most devoted renewable energy enthusiasts, but the key issue will be the timeframe – how fast can renewables be expanded, and how much can energy efficiency help slow and ideally reduce demand? What do we need to do to get emissions down rapidly, so as to keep temperature rises below danger levels? And, not incidentally, what role might nuclear power play in all this?

There are a range of scenarios addressing such issues. Some are optimistic about the potential for renewables, others less so – and some look to fossil CCS, nuclear and even geo-engineering as being needed urgently. For example, IRENA, the International Renewable Energy Agency, has produced a scenario in a joint report with the IEA, with renewables supplying 82% of global electricity by 2050, and 65% of global primary energy by 2050, with CCS use limited mainly to industry.

There are some more optimistic scenarios. For example, Jacobson et al. at Stanford University, US, look to wind, water and solar power supplying nearly 100% of all energy by 2050 globally with no CCS or nuclear. However, even in an ambitious scenario like that, fossil fuels are still likely to play a key role for a while, with, in some countries, that probably being unavoidable. For example, 90% of South Africa’s electricity comes from coal plants. That is changing but it will take time. In which case, although change must be a high priority, we need to decide which interim ameliorative technologies to adopt in parallel.

Options

Carbon capture is clearly an option although, at present, it is not doing too well. As noted in my last post, the UK abandoned its £1bn CCS competition in 2015 and the latest UK government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) projections have it only at 1 GW by 2035 in the UK. Major CCS projects have also been abandoned in the US and Norway. BECCS obviously depends on CCS being available, so that too is stalled – and the case against seeing it as a backstop option grows: see my next post. The more exotic idea of direct air capture from the atmosphere is still being looked at, but it is a long shot – although it would be carbon negative, and can be done anywhere, the proportion of CO2 in air is much less than that in power station exhausts.

However, if some type of CCS is developed successfully then that might play a role, e.g. in Asia, where coal looks likely to continue for a while, although its high cost seems likely to make it of limited use in the energy sector: there will be diminishing returns from building major new long-lived fossil plants. CCS is perhaps more suited to the chemical and industrial sector, which we will need into the future. Although carbon capture and utilization (CCU) seems a better option than storage – creating value from captured carbon by making synfuels from it. Though then, since they will be burnt, it is no longer a carbon negative option.

In the power sector, and also in industry, combined heat and power/cogen arguably makes more sense than CCS, or even perhaps CCU, getting more value from the fossil fuel input, with biomass feedstock, green gas and geothermal heat in some cases being able to augment or replace fossil fuels over time. So CHP is a valuable potential transitional option for heat as well as power – and its power-to-heat ratio is flexible, so it can aid grid balancing, thus complementing variable renewables. So of course do basic energy efficiency improvements; lowering demand makes it easier to meet with renewables, as well as reducing emissions. There are many opportunities in all sectors and they need to be addressed urgently.

So there is a range of options. The technical and economic details are maybe less important than the strategic context. If fundamental conflicts over strategy persist, fuelled by climate denial and/or doubts about renewables, then it will be hard to pursue a rational supply mix of renewables and abated fossil plants. All fossil projects may be resisted by green zealots as “backsliding”, and opportunities for complementarity may be lost – even in the case of the interim use of fossil gas for back-up plants for balancing variable renewable energy. For some greens, perhaps understandably, having anything to do with fossil fuel will remain an anathema, but if we are to move successfully to a sustainable future, they may have to learn to “deal with the devil with a long spoon”, at least for a while. But does that mean that BECCS is still in with a chance? See my next post –  it may not be needed.

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