While all fossil fuels are contributing to the accumulation of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, coal stands apart as really problematic, not just because of its CO2 emissions today (see chart, global emissions in millions of tonnes CO2 vs. time), but because of the vast reserves waiting to be used and the tendency for an emerging economy to lock its energy system into it.

Global energy emissions

Global emissions, million tonnes CO2 from 1971 to 2010

I recently came across data relating to the potential coal resource base in just one country, Botswana, which is estimated at some 200 billion tonnes. Current recoverable reserves are of course a fraction of this amount, but just for some perspective, 200 billion tonnes of coal once used would add well over 100 billion tonnes of carbon to the atmosphere and therefore shift the cumulative total from the current 580 billion tonnes carbon to nearly 700 billion tonnes carbon; and that is just from Botswana. Fortunately Botswana has quite a small population and a relatively high GDP per capita so it is unlikely to use vast amounts of this coal for itself, but its emerging neighbours, countries like Zimbabwe, may certainly benefit. This much coal would also take a very long time to extract – even on a global basis it represents over 25 years of use at current levels of production.

This raises the question of whether a country can develop without an accessible resource base of some description, but particularly an energy resource base. A few have done so, notably Japan and perhaps the Netherlands, but many economies have developed by themselves on the back of coal or developed when others arrived and extracted more difficult resources for them, notably oil, gas and minerals. The coal examples are numerous, but start with the likes of Germany, Great Britain, the United States and Australia and include more recent examples such as China, South Africa and India. Of course strong governance and institutional capacity are also required to ensure widespread societal benefit as the resource is extracted.

Coal is a relatively easy resource to tap into and make use of. It requires little technology to get going but offers a great deal, such as electricity, railways (in the early days), heating, industry and very importantly, smelting (e.g. steel making). In the case of Great Britain and the United States coal provided the impetus for the Industrial Revolution. In the case of the latter, very easy to access oil soon followed and mobility flourished, which added enormously to the development of the continent.

But the legacy that this leaves, apart from a wealthy society, is a lock-in of the resource on which the society was built. So much infrastructure is constructed on the back of the resource that it becomes almost impossible to replace or do without, particularly if the resource is still providing value.

As developing economies emerge they too look at resources such as coal. Although natural gas is cleaner and may offer many environmental benefits over coal (including lower CO2 emissions), it requires a much higher level of infrastructure and technology to access and use, so it may not be a natural starting point. It often comes later, but in many instances it has been as well as the coal rather than instead of it. Even in the USA, the recent natural gas boom has not displaced its energy equivalent in coal extraction, rather some of the coal has shifted to the export market.

Enter the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The idea here was to jump the coal era and move directly to cleaner fuels or renewable energy by providing the value that the coal would have delivered as a subsidy for more advanced infrastructure. But it hasn’t quite worked that way. With limited buyers of CERs (Certified Emission Reduction units) and therefore limited provision of the necessary subsidy, the focus shifted to smaller scale projects such as rural electricity provision. These are laudable projects, but this doesn’t represent the necessary investment in large scale industrial infrastructure that the country actually needs to develop. Rooftop solar PV won’t build roads, bridges and hospitals or run steel mills and cement plants. So the economy turns to coal anyway.

This is one of the puzzles that will need to be solved for a Paris 2015 agreement to actually start to make a difference. If we can rescue a mechanism such as the CDM and have it feature in a future international agreement, it’s focus, or at least a major part of it, has to shift from small scale development projects to large scale industrial and power generation projects, but still with an emphasis on least developed economies where coal lock-in has yet to occur or is just starting.

As governments struggle to find practical routes forward with positive outcomes for CO2 mitigation, attention is turning to dealing with other greenhouse gases, particularly methane. A number of methane emission initiatives are now underway or being planned, for example those within the Climate and Clean Air Coalition.

Methane seems like an obvious place to start. Anthropogenic emissions are about 250 million tonnes per annum. A tonne of methane emitted now has a short term (20 years) impact on atmospheric warming which is some 80 times greater than a tonne of CO2. This means that over the period of twenty years, the methane will add 80 times the amount of heat to the atmosphere as the carbon dioxide. But methane breaks down in the atmosphere quite quickly with a ‘half life’ of about seven years, so on a 100 year basis (with the methane effectively gone) the impact of a tonne of methane emitted now compared to a tonne of CO2 is much less. The factor falls to about 28, but even with a lower multiplier reducing methane still seems to be a worthwhile endeavour. While agricultural methane may require real lifestyle changes to bring down, e.g. less meat consumption, industrial methane emission management looks like something that can be done. Often mitigation may be a case of good housekeeping, such as monitoring and maintaining pipelines to minimize fugitive emissions.

While most articles about methane simply use the GWP (Global Warming Potential over 100 years) of 28 and present data and economics on that basis, a few dig deeper. Of note is the work of the Oxford-Martin School who present a number of policy papers on methane. In the more popular press, Burning Question author Duncan Clark has written about methane.

Both follow a similar line of reasoning. They note that methane and CO2, while both greenhouse gases, behave very differently with regards their impact on the actual goal of the UNFCCC, to limit eventual peak warming to 2°C or less. As noted, methane is a relatively short lived gas in the atmosphere, whereas CO2 is a long lived gas that accumulates in the atmosphere. This means there is another dimension to the issue, time. The point in time at which they are emitted relative to each other and the shape of any reduction pathway relative to the other is important. Duncan Clark describes this in the following way:

The difference between carbon dioxide and methane is a bit like the difference between burning coal and paper on a fire. Both generate plenty of heat but whereas the coal burns steadily for a long time and accumulates if you keep adding more, the paper gives an intense burst of warmth but one that quickly disappears once you stop adding it.

Their conclusions are similar. Peak warming is largely dictated by the cumulative amount of CO2 emitted over time. If a certain amount of methane is also emitted, the timing of that emission is what matters. Methane that is emitted today will immediately impact the rate of warming, but long before we reach peak warming (assuming CO2 emissions are eventually brought under control and warming actually peaks) the methane will have left the atmosphere and been converted to carbon dioxide, in which case it’s impact on peak warming is based only on the CO2 that remains from the methane. We may have accelerated warming in the short term but peak warming will remain largely unchanged. In this case, the warming potential of methane expressed in terms of its impact on peak temperature falls sharply and comes close to the stoichiometric conversion of methane to carbon dioxide, which is about 3, i.e. a tonne of methane when combusted or oxidised in the atmosphere gives rise to about three tonnes of carbon dioxide. Conversely, methane that is emitted much later, say when we are close to peak warming, will directly add to whatever level of temperature we happen to reach.

Does this mean that we shouldn’t bother about methane today? Unfortunately the answer is an ambiguous one. If we are confident that the world will quickly and decisively reduce CO2 emissions then of course we must also be reducing methane and other greenhouse gases as well. If we don’t, then we will still have a methane problem at the time peak CO2 induced warming occurs, in which case we will almost certainly overshoot our peak warming goal, i.e. 2°C, with the additional warming from the other greenhouse gases. But if we don’t address the CO2 issue, then addressing the methane issue now doesn’t offer a lot of benefit for later on. Instead, the benefit that we do get is less short term warming as we will have removed the intense burst of warming that the methane is providing.

Of course, since we don’t know how well or otherwise the task of CO2 mitigation will proceed (despite the fact that the track record is pretty poor), we feel obliged to act on methane now in case the CO2 mitigation picks up.  At least we know that we will slow down the near term rate of warming by doing so.

Not surprisingly, it turns out that dealing with methane and atmospheric warming is just as complex as dealing with CO2. In the case of CO2, many are convinced that steps such as efficiency measures can curtail warming, when all they are probably doing is geographically or temporally shifting the same CO2 emissions such that the eventual accumulation in the atmosphere is unchanged. In the case of methane, treating it as if it were interchangeable with CO2 but with a convenient and high multiplier may make us feel that modest effort is delivering great benefit, when it may be the case that little benefit is being delivered at all.

In both cases it is the science that we have to look at to decide on the appropriate strategy, not expediency and certainly not sentiment.

As we head towards COP21 in Paris at the end of 2015, various initiatives are coming to fore to support the process. So far these are non-governmental in nature, for example the “We Mean Business”  initiative backed by organisations such as WBCSD, CLG and The Climate Group. In my last post I also made mention of the World Bank statement on Carbon Pricing.

2 C Puzzle - 3 pieces

This week has seen the launch of the Pathways to Deep Decarbonization report, the interim output of an analysis led by Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and of the UN Sustainable Development Network. The analysis, living up to its name, takes a deeper look at the technologies needed to deliver a 2°C pathway and rather than come up with the increasingly overused “renewables and energy efficiency” slogan, actually identifies key areas of technology that need a huge push. They are:

  • Carbon capture and storage
  • Energy storage and grid management
  • Advanced nuclear power, including alternative nuclear fuels such as thorium
  • Vehicles and advanced biofuels
  • Industrial processes
  • Negative emissions technologies

These make a lot of sense and much has been written about them in other publications, except perhaps the second last one. Some time back I made the point that the solar PV enthusiasts tend to forget about the industrial heartland; that big, somewhat ugly part of the landscape that makes the base products that go into everything we use. Processes such as sulphuric acid, chlorine, caustic soda and ammonia manufacture, let alone ferrous and non-ferrous metal processes often require vast inputs of heat, typically with very large CO2 emissions. In principle, many of these heat processes could be electrified, or the heat could be produced with hydrogen. Electrical energy can, in theory, provide this through the appropriate use of directed-heating technologies (e.g. electric arc, magnetic induction, microwave, ultraviolet, radio frequency). But given the diversity of these processes and the varying contexts in which they are used (scale and organization of the industrial processes), it is highly uncertain whether industrial processes can be decarbonized using available technologies. As such, the report recommends much greater efforts of RD&D in this area to ensure a viable deep emission reduction pathway.

Two key elements of the report have also been adopted by the USA and China under their U.S.-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue. In an announcement on July 9th, they noted the progress made through the U.S.-China Climate Change Working Group, in particular the launching of eight demonstration projects – four on carbon capture, utilization, and storage, and four on smart grids.

Reading through the full Pathways report I was a bit disappointed that a leading economist should return to the Kaya Identity as a means to describe the driver of CO2 emissions (Section 3.1 of the full report). As I noted in a recent post it certainly describes the way in which our economy emits CO2 on an annualised basis, but it doesn’t given much insight to the underlying reality of cumulative CO2 emissions, which is linked directly to the value we obtain from fossil fuels and the size of the resource bases that exist.

Finally, Sachs isn’t one to shy away from controversy and in the first chapter the authors argue that governments need to get serious about reducing emissions;

The truth is that governments have not yet tried hard enough—or, to be frank, simply tried in an organized and thoughtful way—to understand and do what is necessary to keep global warming below the 2°C limit.

I think he’s right. There is still a long way to go until COP21 in Paris and even further afterwards to actually see a real reduction in emissions, rather than reduction by smoke and mirrors which is arguably where the world is today (CO2 per GDP, reductions against non-existent baselines, efficiency improvements, renewable energy goals and the like). These may all help governments get the discussion going at a national or regional, which is good, but then there needs to be a rapid transition to absolute CO2 numbers and away from various other metrics.

There is a well-known saying that “Politics makes strange bedfellows”. In recent weeks, carbon pricing has seen its share of media exposure and strange bedfellows, although this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that it is all about politics anyway. The good news is that this much maligned and misunderstood subject is finally getting some solid airtime, albeit from some interesting supporters.

The re-emergence of this subject has been building for some time now, but perhaps was highlighted by the June 21st op-ed by Hank Paulson in the New York Times. Paulson served as Secretary of the Treasury during the recent Bush administration, following many years at the helm of Goldman Sachs. Although his article was in part directed at the launch of the recent Risky Business report, Paulson used the opportunity to reach out to the Republican side of the political spectrum in the US and argue that a carbon price (a tax in this case) was “fundamentally conservative” and “will reduce the role of government” rather than the opposite which many opponents argue. At least in my view, he is right. Intervening in the energy mix, forcing certain technology solutions, requiring a given percentage from a particular energy source and so on are all big government steps towards addressing emissions. A carbon price is clean and simple and can get the job done.

On the opposite page of the New York Times was the reality check from Nobel Prize winning economist Paul Krugman. While Krugman made it clear that Paulson had taken a “brave stand” and that “every economist I know would start cheering wildly if Congress voted in a clean, across-the-board carbon tax”, the sobering reality from Krugman is “we won’t actually do it”. Rather, he imagines a set of secondary measures, the “theory of the second best” as he calls it, including vehicle efficiency standards, clean energy loan guarantees and various other policy measures. My view is that while all of these are important parts of a coherent energy policy, they are approaching third best when it comes to CO2 emissions.

Meanwhile, another strong advocate of carbon pricing has emerged, namely the World Bank. They have never been silent on the issue and indeed have pioneered policy approaches such as the Clean Development Mechanism of the Kyoto Protocol, but this time they have gone much further and are being considerably louder and bolder. The World Bank have produced a statement, “Putting a Price on Carbon” and have called on governments, companies and other stakeholders (e.g. industry associations) to sign up to it. The statement calls for:

. . . the long-term objective of a carbon price applied throughout the global economy by:

  • strengthening carbon pricing policies to redirect investment commensurate with the scale of the climate challenge;
  • bringing forward and strengthening the implementation of existing carbon pricing policies to better manage investment risks and opportunities;
  • enhancing cooperation to share information, expertise and lessons learned on developing and implementing carbon pricing through various “readiness” platforms.

This is all good stuff, but of course now it needs real support. A further look at the World Bank website illustrates the growing patchwork of activity around carbon pricing. It’s quite heartening.

cq5dam_resized_735x490!

To finish where I started, the strange bedfellows, perhaps nothing could be closer to this than seeing Australian mining magnate and now Member of Parliament, Clive Palmer, on the same stage as climate crusader Al Gore. Only weeks before Mr Gore had made the very clear statement that “We must put a price on carbon in markets and a price on denial in politics”, but nevertheless stood with Palmer as he announced that he would support the Government’s decision to repeal the Carbon Pricing Mechanism (there isn’t a colour for repeal on the World Bank map). I don’t think Mr Gore was particularly happy about that bit, but hopefully was there for the follow-on, where Palmer announced that his party would require a latent ETS to be established in Australia for use once Australia’s main trading partners were also pricing carbon. Given PUP’s (Palmer United Party) hold on the balance of power in the Australian Senate, this might at least mean that Australia will stay in the ETS club and emerge again as a player in the years to come. However, considering the fact that New Zealand, the EU, parts of China, Pacific North America (i.e. California, British Colombia), Japan and (soon) South Africa all have some sort of carbon price, latency may indeed be short lived.

One point of note on the annual calendar of energy events is the release by BP of their Statistical Review of World Energy. The data, all available to download in Excel format, covers the period up to the end of the previous year (i.e. the current data is to the end of 2013) and as such is about 18 months ahead of the equivalent data from the IEA (which is currently up to 2011 but will be updated later this year). Just about anything you might want to know on energy supply, energy consumption, CO2 emissions, fossil fuel reserves etc, is there for the interested user. In recent years BP have updated the tables to include a more comprehensive look at renewable energy as well.

The most recent release by BP was just a couple of weeks ago, so here are a few key energy/climate home truths within it;

Global CO2 emissions just keep on rising: This is hardly a surprise, but given the recent burst of capacity from the renewable energy sector there might be some sign of some levelling off at least. OECD emissions are at least flat now, but non-OECD emissions continue to rise sharply as coal use increases in particular (chart below in millions tonnes CO2 per annum).

Global emissions

 

The global CO2 intensity of energy isn’t budging: This is a bit more surprising given the influx of natural gas into the global economy and the build rate of renewables. But coal continues to surge and quite some nuclear has been shut down in Japan. The chart below shows the OECD intensity falling as renewables take off in Europe and natural gas increases in the USA, but non-OECD intensity offsets this to give a flat picture overall (chart below is in tonnes of CO2 per barrel of oil equivalent).

Global CO2 intensity of energy

 

The annual increase in fossil fuel use far exceeds the increase in renewable energy production: While many will readily quote the annual increase in renewable energy investment or annual increase in renewable energy capacity as evidence of turning the corner, the reality in terms of renewable energy produced is somewhat different. The chart below compares the annual coal increase with global solar and wind increases. For reference, the total fossil fuel increase from 2012-2013 was 183 Mtoe (million tonnes oil equivalent). The whole picture is rather distorted by the global financial crisis, but coal alone is increasing by something like 100-150 Mtoe per annum. At least for the last couple of years solar has been flat at about 7 Mtoe annual increase.

Increase in coal use

Solar and wind are growing rapidly, but the fossil fuel share of global primary energy is high and steady: Both solar and wind are in their early rapid growth phase where double digit annual increases are expected, but as they become material in the energy system at around 1% of global energy production, don’t be surprised to see this start to level off. The chart below has a log scale (otherwise solar and wind are barely discernible) and shows fossil fuel up in the mid 80′s as a percent of the global energy mix.

Energy mix fraction

Even in Germany it is taking a while for solar to make a showing: While solar PV in Germany is having a profound impact on electricity generation on long sunny days in June, the annual story when looking at total energy use is different. Solar has reached about 2% of the mix (i.e. reached materiality) and might even be showing some signs of slowing up and growing at a more linear rate (but a few more years data are needed to see the real trend). Again, this is a log chart.

German solar

 

Thanks to BP for the time and effort they put into this work every year.

With the USA (at a Federal level) going down the regulatory route instead, the Australian Prime Minister touring the world arguing against it and the UNFCCC struggling to talk about it, perhaps it is time to revisit the case for carbon pricing. Economists have argued the case for carbon pricing for over two decades and in a recent post I put forward my own reasons why the climate issue doesn’t get solved without one. Remember this;

Climate formula with carbon price (words)

Yet the policy world seems to be struggling to implement carbon pricing and more importantly, getting it to stick and remain effective. Part of the reason for this is a concern by business that it will somehow penalize them, prejudice them competitively or distort their markets. Of course there will be an impact, that’s the whole point, but nevertheless the business community should still embrace this approach to dealing with emissions. Here are the top ten reasons why;

Top Ten

  1. Action on climate in some form or other is an inconvenient but unavoidable inevitability. Business and  industry doesn’t really want direct, standards based regulation. These can be difficult to deal with, offer limited flexibility for compliance and may be very costly to implement for some legacy facilities.
  2. Carbon pricing, either through taxation or cap and trade offers broad compliance flexibility and provides the option for particular facilities to avoid the need for immediate capital investment (but still comply with the requirement).
  3. Carbon pricing offers technology neutrality. Business and industry is free to choose its path forward rather than being forced down a particular route or having market share removed by decree.
  4. Pricing systems offer the government flexibility to address issues such as cross border competition and carbon leakage (e.g. tax rebates or free allocation of allowances). There is a good history around this issue in the EU, with trade exposed industries receiving a large proportion of their allocation for free.
  5. Carbon pricing is transparent and can be passed through the supply chain, either up to the resource holder or down to the end user.
  6. A well implemented carbon pricing system ensures even (economic) distribution of the mitigation burden across the economy. This is important and often forgotten. Regulatory approaches are typically opaque when it comes to the cost of implementation, such that the burden on a particular sector may be far greater than initially recognized. A carbon trading system avoids such distortions by allowing a particular sector to buy allowances instead of taking expensive (for them) mitigation actions.
  7. Carbon pricing offers the lowest cost pathway for compliance across the economy, which also minimizes the burden on industry.
  8. Carbon pricing allows the fossil fuel industry to develop carbon capture and storage, a societal “must have” over the longer term if the climate issue is going to be fully resolved. Further, as the carbon pricing system is bringing in new revenue to government (e.g. through the sale of allowances), the opportunity exists to utilize this to support the early stage development of technologies such as CCS.
  9. Carbon pricing encourages fuel switching in the power sector in particular, initially from coal to natural gas, but then to zero carbon alternatives such as wind, solar and nuclear.
  10. And the most important reason;

It’s the smart business based approach to a really tough problem and actually delivers on the environmental objective.

Steps towards Paris 2015

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National climate negotiators and a number of Energy/Environment Ministers are currently meeting in Bonn as the global climate deal process slowly edges forward. Whether the steps being taken are big or small remains to be seen, but there are at least steps, so that is a start. The most well publicized have been those of the United States and China who are both active domestically with action on emissions. In the case of the USA this is the EPA rules that gained heavy media coverage and for China it is the notion that they will peak their coal use at some point in the reasonable future, perhaps as early as 2020. The idea of peak coal in China is also starting to appear in government conversations and is not just something emanating from the Chinese academic community.

But another step was also taken in Bonn last week when Ministers were in town as part of an ADP Dialogue; a new business coalition reared its head. Called “We Mean Business”, this is a coalition of a number of existing business linked organizations and has been established to demonstrate to government that a broad business base sees the need for action on climate change and is prepared to support their actions in creating the necessary policy frameworks under which emissions can then be reduced. “We Mean “Business” has started life with seven supporting organizations;

We Mean Business
The question that needs to be answered is how important is this and can such a group exert any influence over the process at all. Looking back, one parallel that comes to mind is USCAP (Unites States Climate Action Partnership), a group of some 25 companies and NGOs that coalesced around the 2007-2009 US process to implement climate legislation, but most notably a cap-and-trade bill. This was a detailed federal legislative process and USCAP certainly got into the weeds of it, with a comprehensive manifesto of requirements. When the Waxman-Markey Bill did eventually pass through the House there were many elements within it that aligned with the USCAP manifesto, so arguably that organization did have some influence on content. More importantly perhaps, the very existence of USCAP helped create the political space in which comprehensive legislation could be considered, even though the process eventually stalled and ultimately failed in the US Senate.

But Waxman-Markey was a specific piece of national legislation; at the international level the process is more complex. While a cap-and-trade system is a very tangible policy outcome with a set of well understood rules and metrics, the likely outcome from Paris may be far less defined. One aspect that is common to both is the need for political space in which to act. While the majority of this will come from the Parties themselves, business can play a role here. However, such a business coalition will have to act at both national and international levels to be truly effective, in that delegations are most likely given a certain negotiating mandate within which they can operate before they leave for the COP. As such, simply showing that business supports the process at the international level will probably not be enough.

The second area for business advocacy comes in terms of content. This is more difficult in that the business coalition will be made up of a broad range of constituents acting in many different sectors of the economy. While a cap-and-trade system may be ideal for one company in a given sector in a particular country, another company might prefer financial incentives to help it develop a particular technology. Further, the nature of the international agreement won’t include specifics such as cap-and-trade, but will be much more about the process of establishing suitable national contributions and commitments. However, a business coalition could at least ask for some basic building blocks to be included, such as the use of market instruments and the ability to transfer some or all of a national contribution between Parties , both necessary precursors to the longer term development of a global carbon market.

It is early days for “We Mean Business”, but it at least exists and is starting to mobilize resources and interest. But the hard work hasn’t started; what it will actually do and how it might positively influence the process and eventual outcome is for the days and months ahead.

Scaling up for global impact

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A visit to Australia offers a quick reminder of the scale to which Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) production has grown over recent years. This was a technology that first appeared in the 1960s and saw a scale up over the 1970s and 1980s to some 60 million tonnes per annum globally. As energy demand soared in the 1990s and 2000s, LNG production quickly rose again to around 300 million tonnes per annum today and could reach 500 million tonnes per annum by 2030 (see Ernst & Young projection below).

2012OGJcolors

Flying into Australia we crossed the coast near Dampier in Western Australia, which is currently “Resource Central” for Australia. The waters were dotted with tankers (I counted 14 on the side of the plane I was sitting on) waiting for loading, many of which had the distinctive LNG cryogenic tanks on their decks. Two days later the first shipment of LNG from the new Papua New Guinea project took place and this received considerable coverage in the Australian media. Clearly LNG is booming in this region, with even more to come. Most major oil and gas companies have projects in development and there are several LNG “startups” considering projects.

This is a great example of technology scale up, which is going to be key to resolving the climate issue by progressively shifting energy production and use to near zero emissions over the course of this century. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is one of the technologies that needs to be part of that scale up if we are serious about net zero emissions in the latter part of the century.

There are many parallels between LNG production and CCS which may offer some insight into the potential for CCS. Both require drilling, site preparation, pipelines, gas processing facilities, compression and gas transport, although LNG also includes a major cryogenic step which isn’t part of the CCS process.

LNG production and CCS are both gas processing technologies so the comparison between them needs to be on a volume basis, not on a tonnes basis. CO2 has a higher molecular weight than CH4 (methane), so the processing of a million tonnes of natural gas is the same as nearly 3 million tonnes of CO2. As such, the production scale up to 500 million tonnes of LNG by 2030 could be equated to nearly 1.5 billion tonnes of CO2 per annum in CCS terms, which is a number that starts to be significant in terms of real mitigation. The actual scale up from today to 2030 is projected to be 200-250 million tonnes of LNG, which in CCS terms is about 700 million tonnes of CO2.

This is both a good news and bad news story. The scale up of LNG shows that industrial expansion of a complex process involving multiple disciplines from across the oil and gas industry is entirely possible. LNG took two to three decades to reach 100 million tonnes, but less than ten years to repeat this. In the following ten years (2010-2020) production should nearly double again with an additional 200 million tonnes of capacity added. These latter rates of scale up are what we need now for technologies such as CCS, but we are clearly languishing in the early stages of deployment, with just a few million tonnes of production (if that) being added each year.

What is missing for CCS is the strong commercial impetus that LNG has seen over the last fifteen years as global energy demand shot up. With most, if not all, of the technologies needed for CCS already widely available in the oil and gas industry, it may be possible to shorten the initial early deployment stage which can last 20 years (as it did for LNG). If this could be achieved, CCS deployment at rates of a billion tonnes per decade, for starters, may be possible. This is the minimum scale needed for mitigation that will make a tangible difference to the task ahead.

The commercial case for CCS rests with government through mechanisms such as carbon pricing underpinned by a robust global deal on mitigation. That of course is another story.

For a country that has been so polarised on the climate issue and has struggled to make progress implementing effective mitigation policy, it is surprising how often the subject appears on the front pages of the national newspapers. I am in Australia for a couple of weeks visiting friends and relatives and seemingly on cue the carbon issue is front and centre of The Australian [$$] on the day I arrive. A previous visit timed itself perfectly with the announcement by then Prime Minister Julia Gillard that the country would have a carbon tax (now in the process of being repealed).

This time, the story headline is “Heartache as carbon credits turn to debt” and it discusses the challenge that one particular farmer is having banking his soil carbon credits. This may sound a bit obscure for the front page of a national daily, but such is the issue in Australia that a story like this becomes national news. Soil carbon is now at the heart of the national mitigation effort, with the government implementing an Emission Reduction Fund to encourage farmers to change their tilling, land management and crop growing practices to build up carbon in the soil. The increase in soil carbon can be converted to carbon credits and sold to the government.

EC11127_Fa

In the case of the farmer in this story, the stored carbon on his property and its potential for credit issuance is not being recognised as an asset by his bank and therefore his farm is under threat due to debt issues (unrelated to the credits). The problem the bank has is that under the current rules soil carbon credit issuance requires a guarantee of permanence that stretches out 100 years. This in turn ties up the land for that period, which potentially impacts on the bank should it end up with the property due to mortgage default.

There are plans by the current government to change the permanence requirement to 25 years, which may help solve the problem above and others like it, but in turn raises a new problem related to the mitigation potential of soil carbon. The point about carbon sequestration, whether it be via CCS, reforestation, soil carbon buildup or other means is that it should be permanent because of the cumulative nature of carbon emissions to the atmosphere. Simply reducing the flow of carbon to the atmosphere in a given year isn’t good enough if that same carbon eventually makes its way into the atmosphere later on.

While a 100 year permanence requirement doesn’t guarantee true sequestration either, it does at least shift any future release of that carbon into a time when the energy system should have substantially changed and other anthropogenic emissions are therefore much lower or even approaching zero. This can’t be said for a 25 year requirement. In such a relatively short space of time the energy system will still look largely as it does today, even if big change is underway. We need to be able to store carbon well beyond the fossil era or ensure that permanence actually means permanent.

With soil carbon now so important to Australia, these and other issues related to its implementation and most importantly, effectiveness and therefore recognition internationally are bound to continue to make news. While resource development is now the primary generator of national wealth, the country is nevertheless turning again to its rural sector to make ends meet.

As we near the middle of the year and therefore have, at least in the Northern Hemisphere (i.e. Germany), long days with lots of sunshine, renewable energy statistics start to appear in the media and the renewables distortion field enveloping much of Europe expands just that little bit more. The first of these I have come across was posted by a number of on-line media platforms and highlighted the fact that on Sunday May 11th Germany generated nearly three quarters of its electricity from renewable sources. Given the extraordinary level of solar and wind deployment in recent years, it shouldn’t be a surprise that this can happen. But it’s rather a one sided view of the story.

The flip side is of course December and January when the solar picture looks very different. The Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems ISE use data from the EEX Platform to produce an excellent set of charts showing the variability of renewable energy, particularly solar and wind. The monthly data for solar shows what one might expect in the northern latitudes, with very high solar in summer and a significant tailing off in winter. The ratio between January and July is a factor of 15 on a monthly average basis.

Annual solar production in Germany 2013j

But wind comes to the rescue to some extent, firstly with less overall monthly variability and secondly with higher levels of generation in the winter which offsets quite a bit of the loss from solar.

Annual wind production in Germany 2013

The combination of the two provides a more stable renewable electricity supply on a monthly basis, with the overall high to low production ratio falling to about 2. One could argue from this that in order to get some gauge of the real cost of renewable energy in Germany, monthly production of 6 TWh of electricity requires about 70 GW of solar and wind (average installed capacity in 2013, roughly 50% each). By comparison, 70 GW of natural gas CCGT online for a whole month at its rated capacity would deliver 51 TWh of electricity, nearly a factor of 9 more than for the same amount of installed solar plus wind. But to be fair, some of that 70 GW of natural gas will have downtime for maintenance etc., but even with a 20% capacity loss to 40 TWh, the delivery factor is still about 7. For solar on its own it will be closer to 10 in Germany.

Annual solar + wind production in Germany 2013

But this isn’t the end of the story. Weekly and daily data shows much greater intermittency. On a weekly basis the high to low production ratio rises to about 4, but on a daily basis it shoots up to 26.

Annual solar + wind production in Germany 2013 by week

 

Annual solar + wind production in Germany 2013 by day

Fortunately, Germany has an already existing and fully functioning fossil fuel + nuclear baseload generation system installed, which can easily take up the slack as intermittency brings renewable generation to a standstill. But the cost of this is almost never included in an assessment of the cost of renewable power generation. In Germany’s case this is a legacy system and therefore it is taken for granted, but for countries now building new capacity and extending the grid to regions that previously had nothing, this is a real cost that must be considered.

This is perhaps an anti-leapfrog argument (being that regions with no grid or existing capacity can leapfrog to renewables).  The German experience shows that you can shift to renewables more easily when you already have a fully depreciated fossil & nuclear stock, and your demand is flat.  Otherwise, this is looking like a potentially costly story that relies on storage technologies we still don’t have in mainstream commercial use.

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As a complete aside, but certainly the “flip side” of another issue, I came across this chart which highlights the flip side of rising CO2 levels in the ocean and atmosphere due to the combustion of fossil fuels – falling levels of oxygen. This is a very small effect (given the amount of oxygen in the atmosphere) and certainly not an issue, but it’s entirely measurable which is the interesting bit. The chart is produced by Ralph Keeling, son of the originator of the CO2 Keeling Curve.

Falling oxygen levels