Archive for the ‘Energy technology’ Category

One million tonnes of CO2

The first week of November sees Shell officially open its first major carbon capture and storage (CCS) facility, the Quest project. It is in Alberta, Canada and will capture and store about one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. Construction commenced back in September 2012 when the Final Investment Decision (FID) was taken and the plant started up and began operating for the first time in September of this year, just three years later. It is one of only a handful of fully integrated carbon capture and storage facilities operating globally. There are now many facilities that capture CO2 but mainly linked to Enhanced Oil Recovery which provides an income source for these projects.  Quest has dedicated CO2 storage, developed in an area some 65 kms from the capture site at a depth of about 2 kms.

Quest Construction

The Quest income source is not based on EOR; it has been able to take advantage of the government implemented carbon price that prevails within Alberta. Although the current carbon pricing mechanism has an effective ceiling of $15 per tonne CO2 which isn’t sufficient for CCS, let alone a first of its kind, it nevertheless provides a valuable incentive income to operate the facility which has been built on the back of two substantial capital grants from the Provincial and Federal governments respectively. A supplementary mechanism also in place in Alberta provide credits related to the carbon price mechanism for the early years of a CCS project, providing additional operating revenue for any new facility.

Canada, as it turns out, has become a global leader in CCS. The Quest facility is the second major project to be started up in Canada is as many years, with the Saskpower Boundary Dam project commencing operations this time last year.

As noted, Quest will capture and store approximately one million tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum. It demonstrates how quickly and efficiently large scale CO2 management can be implemented once the fiscal conditions are in place. Quest, which is relatively small in scale for an industry that is used to managing gas processing and transport in the hundreds of millions to billions of tonnes globally, demonstrates both the need for continued expansion of the CCS industry and the importance of carbon pricing policy to drive it forward. This single facility far surpasses the largest solar PV facilities operating around the world in terms of CO2 management. Take for example the Desert Sunlight Solar Farm in California, currently the fourth largest solar PV power station in the world. According to First Solar, it displaces 300,000 tonnes of CO2 annually, less than a third of that captured and permanently stored by Quest.

A key difference though is the use of the word displace. Alternative energy projects don’t directly manage CO2, they generate energy without CO2 emissions. But, as I have noted in previous postings and in my first book, the release of fossil carbon to the atmosphere is more a function of energy prices and resource availability. This means that even when a project like Desert Sunlight operates, the CO2 it notionally displaces may still be released at some other location or at some other time, depending on long term energy prices and extraction economics. There is no doubt that the CO2 is not being emitted right now in California, but that doesn’t necessarily resolve the problem. Quest, by contrast, directly manages the CO2 from fossil fuel extraction.

The requirement to provide alternative energy (i.e. without CO2 emissions) needs to grow, but we shouldn’t imagine that such action, by itself, will fully resolve the climate issue. That will come through the application of carbon pricing mechanisms by governments, driving the further expansion of both the alternative energy and CCS industries as a result.

A video about the Quest project, made by the constructors, Fluor, is available here.

From sunlight to Jet A1

In a world of near zero anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide, there remains the problem of finding a fuel or energy carrier of sufficiently high energy density that it remains practical to fly a modern jet aeroplane. Commercial aviation is heading towards some 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per annum so doing nothing may not be an option.

Although planes will certainly evolve over the course of the century, the rate of change is likely to be slow and particularly so if a step change in technology is involved. In 100 years of civil aviation there have been two such step changes; the first commercial flights in the 1910s and the shift of the jet engine from the military to the commercial world with the development of the Comet and Boeing 707. The 787 Dreamliner is in many respects a world away from the 707, but in terms of the fuel used it is the same plane; that’s 60 years and there is no sign of the next change.

Unlike domestic vehicles where electricity and batteries offer an alternative, planes will probably still need hydrocarbon fuel for all of this century, perhaps longer. Hydrogen is a possibility but the fuel to volume ratio would change such that this could also mean a radical redesign of the whole shape of the plane (below), which might also entail redesign of other infrastructure such as airport terminals, air bridges and so on. Even the development and first deployment of the double decker A380, something of a step change in terms of shape and size, has taken twenty years and cost Airbus many billions.


For aviation, the simplest approach will probably be the development of a process to produce a look-alike hydrocarbon fuel. The most practical way to approach this problem is via an advanced biofuel route and a few processes are available to fill the need, although scale up of these technologies has yet to take place. But what if the biofuel route also proves problematic – say for reasons related to land use change or perhaps public acceptance in a future period of rising food prices? A few research programmes are looking at synthesising the fuel directly from water and carbon dioxide. This is entirely possible from a chemistry perspective, but it requires lots of energy; at least as much energy as the finished fuel gives when it is used and its molecules are returned to water and carbon dioxide.

Audi has been working on such a project and recently announced the production of the first fuel from their pilot plant (160 litres per day). According to their media release;

The Sunfire [Audi’s technology partner] plant requires carbon dioxide, water, and electricity as raw materials. The carbon dioxide is extracted from the ambient air using direct air capture. In a separate process, an electrolysis unit splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is then reacted with the carbon dioxide in two chemical processes conducted at 220 degrees Celsius and a pressure of 25 bar to produce an energetic liquid, made up of hydrocarbon compounds, which is called Blue Crude. This conversion process is up to 70 percent efficient. The whole process runs on solar power.

Apart from the front end of the facility where carbon dioxide is reacted with hydrogen to produce synthesis gas (carbon monoxide and hydrogen), the rest of the plant should be very similar to the full scale Pearl Gas to Liquids (GTL) facility that Shell operates in Qatar. In that process, natural gas is converted to synthesis gas which is in turn converted to a mix of longer chain hydrocarbons, including jet fuel (contained within the Audi Blue Crude). The Pearl facility produces about 150,000 bbls/day of hydrocarbon product, so perhaps one hundred such facilities would be required to produce enough jet fuel for the world (this would depend on the yield of suitable jet fuel from the process which produces a range of hydrocarbon products that can be put to many uses). Today there are just a handful of gas-to-liquids plants in operation; Pearl and Oryx in Qatar, Bintulu in Malaysia and Mossel Bay in South Africa (and another in South Africa that uses coal as the starting feedstock). The final conversion uses the Fischer Tropsch process, originally developed about a century ago.

Each of these future “blue crude” facilities would also need a formidable solar array to power it. The calorific content of the fuels is about 45 TJ/kt, so that is the absolute minimum amount of energy required for the conversion facility. However, accounting for efficiency of the process and adding in the energy required for air extraction of carbon dioxide and all the other energy needs of a modern industrial facility, a future process might need up to 100 TJ/kt of energy input. The Pearl GTL produces 19 kt of product per day, so the energy demand to make this from water and carbon dioxide would be 1900 TJ per day, or 700,000 TJ per annum. As such,  this requires a nameplate capacity for a solar PV farm of about 60 GW – roughly equal to half the entire installed global solar generating capacity in 2013. A Middle East location such as Qatar receives about 2200 kWh/m² per annum, or 0.00792 TJ/m² and assuming a future solar PV facility that might operate at 35% efficiency (considerably better than commercial facilities today), the solar PV alone would occupy an area of some 250 km² , so perhaps 500 km² or more in total plot area (i.e. 22 kms by 22 kms in size) for the facility.

This is certainly not inconceivable, but it is far larger than any solar PV facilities in operation today; the Topaz solar array in California is on a site 25 square kms in size with a nameplate capacity of 550 MW.  It is currently the largest solar farm in the world and produces about 1.1 million MWh per annum (4000 TJ), but the efficiency (23%) is far lower than my future assumption above. At this production rate, 175 Topaz farms would be required to power a refinery with the hydrocarbon output of Pearl GTL. My assumptions represent a packing density of solar PV some four times better than Topaz (i.e. 100 MW/km² vs 22 MW/km²).

All this means that our net zero emissions world needs to see the construction of some 100 large scale hydrocarbon synthesis plants, together with air extraction facilities, hydrogen and carbon monoxide storage for night time operation of the reactors and huge solar arrays. This could meet all the future aviation needs and would also produce lighter and heavier hydrocarbons for various other applications where electricity is not an option (e.g. chemical feedstock, heavy marine fuels). In 2015 money, the investment would certainly run into the trillions of dollars.

What to make of recent emission trends?

  • Comments Off on What to make of recent emission trends?

Recent news from the International Energy Agency (IEA) has shown that the rise in global CO2 emissions from the energy system stalled in 2014. This was unusual on two counts – first that it happened at all and second that it happened in a year not linked with recession or low economic growth as in 1992 and 2009. In fact the global economy expanded by about 3%.

Information is scant at this point, but the IEA have apparently determined this using their Sectoral Approach (below, through to 2014), which has been flattening for a few years relative to their Reference Approach (following chart, ends at 2012). The Reference Approach and the Sectoral Approach often have different results because the Reference Approach is top-down using a country’s energy supply data and has no detailed information on how the individual fuels are used in each sector. One could argue that the Reference Approach is more representative of what the atmosphere sees, in that apart from sequestered carbon dioxide and products such as bitumen, the whole fossil energy supply eventually ends up as atmospheric carbon dioxide. The Reference Approach therefore indicates an upper bound to the Sectoral Approach, because some of the carbon in the fuel is not combusted but will be emitted as fugitive emissions (as leakage or evaporation in the production and/or transformation stage). No information has been provided by the IEA at this point as to the Reference Approach data for 2013 and 2014.

Global Energy System Emissions

Reference vs. Sectoral IEA

Putting to one side this technical difference, the flattening trend does represent a possible shift in global emissions development and it has certainly got many observers excited that this may well be so. If this is the case, what is driving this change and what might the outlook be?

It is clear that many governments are now intervening in domestic energy system development. There are incentives and mandates for renewable energy, enhanced efficiency programmes and some level of carbon pricing in perhaps a quarter of the global energy system, albeit at a fairly low level. More recently in China there has been a strong government reaction to air quality issues, which has given rise to some reduction in coal demand, particularly around major cities. But there is another factor as well and that is price – it is perhaps the overwhelming factor in determining fossil fuel usage and therefore setting the level of emissions. Price drives conservation, efficiency, the use of alternatives and therefore demand. Many of the aforementioned energy policy initiatives have been implemented during the recent decade or so of sharply rising energy prices.

A chart of the oil price (2013 $, as a proxy for energy prices) and global CO2 emissions going back to 1965 illustrates that big price fluctuations do seem to have an impact on emissions. Although emissions have risen throughout the period, sharp energy price excursions have led to emissions dips and plateaus as energy demand is impacted and similarly, price falls have led to resurgence in emissions. This isn’t universally true – certainly from 2004 to 2008 the very strong demand from China in particular was seemingly unaffected by the rising cost of energy, although the end of that period saw a global recession and a very visible dip in demand.

Oil price vs. Emissions

The latter part of 2014 brought with it a sharp reduction in energy prices (2015 is illustrative in the chart at $55 per barrel). With a much lower fossil energy price, demand may rise and the incentive for efficiency and the deployment of alternatives could well be impacted, although there may be some lag before this becomes apparent. The combination of these factors could therefore see emissions take yet another jump, but it is too early to see this in the data. 2015 emissions data might show the first signs of this.

There is of course continued upward pressure on emissions as well, such as the growth in coal use that is now underway in India. Over the three year period to the end of 2014, coal capacity increased from 112 GW to nearly 160 GW. This is the equivalent of some 300 million tonnes of CO2 per annum. By contrast, a five year period from 2002 to 2007 saw only 10 GW of new coal capacity installed in that country. Although India is installing considerable solar capacity, coal fired generation is likely to continue to grow rapidly. One area of emissions growth that is not being immediately challenged by a zero emissions alternative is transport. The automobile, bus, truck and aviation fleets are all expanding rapidly in that country.

The other big uncertainty is China, where local air quality concerns are catalysing some restructuring in their energy system. Certain factories and power plants that are contributing most to the local problems around cities such as Beijing and Shanghai are being shut, but there is still huge development underway across vast swathes of the country.  Some of this is a replacement for the capacity being closed around the cities, with electricity being transported through ultra high voltage grids that now run across the country. Gas is becoming a preferred fuel in metropolitan areas, but some of that gas is being synthetically produced from coal in other regions – a very CO2 intensive process. The scale of this is limited at the moment, but if all the current plans are actually developed this could become a large industry and therefore a further signifacnt source of emissions.

As observers look towards Paris and the expectation of a global deal on climate, the current pause in emissions growth, while comforting, may be a false signal in the morass of energy system data being published. Ongoing diligence will be required.

Getting to net-zero emissions

It is looking increasingly likely, but not a given, that a reference to global net-zero emissions or even a specific goal to achieve net-zero emissions by a certain date (e.g. end of the century) will appear in the climate deal that is expected to emerge from the Paris COP at the end of this year. But like many such goals, it is both open to interpretation and raises questions as to how it might actually be achieved.

The background to this is that the issue itself implies that this outcome is necessary. The IPCC says in its 5th Assessment Report;

Cumulative emissions of CO2 largely determine global mean surface warming by the late 21st century and beyond. Limiting risks across RFCs (Reasons for Concern) would imply a limit for cumulative emissions of CO2. Such a limit would require that global net emissions of CO2 eventually decrease to zero and would constrain annual emissions over the next few decades (Figure SPM.10) (high confidence).

However, the term net-zero needs some sort of definition, although this is currently missing from the UNFCCC text. One online source offers the following;

Net phase out of GHG emissions means that anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere decrease to a level equal to or smaller than anthropogenic removals of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere.

The above effectively means stabilization of the atmospheric concentration of CO2, which also aligns with the ultimate aim of the UNFCCC Convention (stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system). This could still leave room for some level of emissions in that climate models show atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will decline if anthropogenic emissions abruptly stopped. In a 450 – 500 ppm stabilization scenario emissions could remain in the range 7-10 billion tonnes CO2 per annum without driving the atmospheric concentration higher. This is far below current levels (35 billion tonnes per annum from the energy system alone), but it isn’t zero. It can be classified as net-zero though, in that the atmospheric concentration isn’t rising.

However, such an outcome, while stabilizing the atmospheric concentration may not be sufficient to prevent dangerous interference with the climate system. In that case an even lower level of emissions may be required, such that atmospheric concentrations do begin to fall and stabilize at a lower concentration.

Another definition of net-zero may simply apply to anthropogenic emissions directly, irrespective of what the concentration in the atmosphere might be doing. In this case, any remaining emissions from anthropogenic sources (and there will be some) would have to be offset with sequestration of carbon dioxide, either via CCS or a permanent forestry solution. In the CCS case, the carbon dioxide would need to come from a bio-source, such as the combustion of biomass in a power station. This is what the IPCC have termed BECCS.

A final step which goes beyond net-zero, is to have an anthropogenic net-negative emissions situation, which is drawing down on the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere through some anthropogenic process. This would be necessary to rapidly lower the concentration of carbon dioxide in the case of a significantly elevated level that comes about in the intervening years between now and the point at which the concentration stabilizes. Very large scale deployment of BECCS or an atmospheric capture solution with CCS would be required to achieve this.

Finally, there is the consideration that needs to be given to greenhouse gases other than carbon dioxide. Methane for example, while a potent greenhouse gas, is relatively short lived (a decade) in the atmosphere so will require some thought. Even in a zero energy emissions system, methane from agriculture and cattle will doubtless remain a problem.

Both of the Shell New Lens scenarios end in a  net zero emissions outcome by the end of the century, but this is within the energy system itself and does not encompass the full range of other sources of CO2 emissions and other long lived greenhouse gases. Nevertheless, with extensive deployment of CCS the Mountains scenario heads into negative emissions territory by 2100 and the Oceans scenario soon after that (which means there is potential to offset remaining emissions from very difficult to manage sources). Oceans relies on this approach in a major way to even approach zero in the first instance

Many look to renewable energy as a quick solution to the emissions issue, but the reality is far more complex. While we can imagine a power generation system that is at near zero emissions, made up of nuclear, renewables and fossil fuels with CCS, this is far from a complete solution. Electricity currently represents only 20% of the global final energy mix (see below, click for a larger image: Source IEA).

Global final energy 2012

Solutions will need to be found for a broad range of goods and services that give rise to greenhouse gas emissions, including non-energy sources such as limestone calcination for cement and cattle rearing for dairy and direct consumption. While we can also imagine a significant amount of global light transport migrating to electricity, shipping, heavy transport and aviation will not be so simple. Aviation in particular has no immediate solution other than through a biofuel route although there is some experimentation underway using high intensity solar to provide the energy for synthesis gas manufacture (from carbon dioxide and water), which is then converted to jet fuel via the well-established Fischer–Tropsch process. There are also dozens of industrial processes that rely on furnaces and high temperatures, typically powered by fuels such as natural gas. Metal smelting currently uses coal as the reducing agent, so a carbon based fuel is intrinsic to the process. Solutions will be required for all of these.

Whether we aim for a very low level of emissions, true net-zero anthropogenic emissions or negative emissions is somewhat academic today, given the current level of emissions. All the aforementioned outcomes are going to require a radical re-engineering of the energy system in a relatively short amount of time (< 80 years).

What can really be done by 2050?

The calls for action are becoming louder and bolder as the weeks continue to countdown towards COP21 in Paris. Perhaps none have been as bold as the recent call by The B Team for governments to commit to a global goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, and to embed this in the agreement to be signed at COP21 in Paris.

The B Team is a high profile group of business and civil society leaders, counting amongst its number Richard Branson (Virgin Group of Companies), Paul Polman (CEO of Unilever) and Arianna Huffington (Huffington Post). The team is not just looking at climate change, but the even larger challenge of doing business in the 21st Century; shifting from Plan A which requires business to focus on profit alone, to Plan B which encompasses a more holistic set of objectives around financial performance, sustainability and business as a force for good to help solve challenging social and environmental goals. It is perhaps the next big step forward in what was originally termed “sustainable development”.

Without wanting to question the broader motives of The B Team, I do challenge their view that the climate issue can be resolved in just 35 years. For some this may sound like a long time, but it is the span of just one career. In fact it is the span of my career in the oil and gas industry from when I started work in Geelong Refinery in Australia in 1980. At least in one industry today, IT, everything has changed in that time, but that is not true elsewhere. In 1980 there were no personal computers in Geelong Refinery; today it probably can’t run without them, although the distillers, crackers and oil movement facilities being run by them have hardly changed and in many instances are precisely the same pieces of equipment that were running in 1980. In almost every other industry, the shift has been gradual, perhaps because of the installed base which of course wasn’t an issue for personal computing and mobile telephony. I suspect that this is true in Mr Polman’s own industry (household products) and it is certainly true in Mr Branson’s. In 1980 I flew on my first trip to London on a 747 and today I am in San Francisco, having arrived here on a 747, albeit a slightly longer, more sophisticated, efficient and larger capacity one than the 1980 model, but still a 747 burning many tons of jet fuel to get here. During his time in office which started with the election in 1980, Ronald Reagan replaced the existing Air Force One 707 with a 747 which still flies today but which Mr Obama has just announced will be replaced with a 747-8. Those planes will likely fly for some 30 years, as will all the other planes being built today, with many just entering the beginning of their production runs (787, A350, A380), rather than heading towards the end as we might be with the 747 series. There are also no serious plans for the jet engine to run on anything other than hydrocarbons for the foreseeable future (i.e. 50+ years) and even the attempts to manufacture bio-hydrocarbon jet fuels are still in their commercial infancy.

So why would we think that everything can be different in just 35 years? There is no doubt that to quickly and decisively solve the climate issue and have a better than even chance of keeping the surface temperature rise below 2°C that we need to do this, but that doesn’t mean we can. To start with, there has to be tremendous political will to do so and to be fair, this is clearly what The B Team is trying to foster by making the call. But political will isn’t enough to turn over the installed industrial capacity that we rely on today, let alone replace it with a set of technologies that in some instances don’t exist. The development and deployment of radical new technologies takes decades, with the energy industry able to make that change at about half the rate of the IT industry. Even the latter has needed nearly 50 years to invent (ARPANET in 1969) and extensively deploy the internet.

We are now seeing real progress in the sale of electric cars, but even there the numbers don’t stack up. To completely outpace conventional vehicle manufacture and replace the entire legacy stock of on-road vehicles will take about 50 years, assuming a ramp up of global electric car production of at least 20% p.a. every year until all internal combustion engine manufacturing is phased out. While this might be conceivable for personal transport, the progress on finding an alternative for heavy transport, including ships, is slow.

For medium to heavy industry that relies almost completely on hydrocarbon fuels for high temperature operations in particular, there are no easy alternatives. Electricity could be an option in some instances, but almost all operations today choose coal or natural gas. For smelting, coal is essential as it provides the carbon to act as a reducing agent for the chemical conversion of the ore into a pure metal.

Perhaps the area in which rapid progress will be seen is electricity generation, where a whole range of zero emission technologies exist. These include wind, solar, geothermal, tidal, nuclear and carbon capture and storage. But even with complete success in this one area, we shouldn’t forget that electricity is less than 20% of the current global final energy mix. This will surely rise, but it is unlikely to reach 100% in 35 years given that it has only moved from 11% to 18% the last 35 years.

Shell’s own New Lens Scenarios show that significant progress can be made between now and 2050, but not in terms of a massive reduction in emissions, although that process is clearly underway in the Mountains Scenario by then (see below). Rather, the time to 2050 is largely filled with the early deployment of a range of new energy technologies, which sets the scene for rapid reductions to net-zero emissions over the period 2050-2100. Another critical development for the near-term is a complete global policy framework for carbon pricing. Even assuming big steps are made between now and Paris in even getting this into the agreement, the time for implementation is a factor that must be recognised. With a fast start in Paris, the earliest possible date is 2020 in that this is when the global agreement kicks in, but even the EU ETS took 8 years between initial design and full operation, similarly the CDM alone took over 10 years to fully institutionalize. Expanding full carbon pricing globally in the same period is challenging to say the least.

NLS Emissions to 2100

The aspiration of the B Team is laudable, but not really practical. The Paris agreement should certainly be geared around an end-goal of net-zero emissions but the realistic, albeit still aggressive, time span for this is 80+ years, not 35 years.


A bit of thermodynamics

In conjunction with the ADP meeting in Bonn last week, the UNFCCC held a Technical Expert Meeting (TEM) on Carbon Capture and Storage. It was really good to see this critical technology finally getting some airtime at the UNFCCC and even more importantly the attendance at the meeting by the Parties was good. There was plenty of interest, lots of good questions and a real desire to understand how CCS could be further advanced and more importantly deployed. On a historical note, the meeting was held in what was the German Bundestag between 1949 and 1999. The pigeon holes used by the MPs were still there and dutifully labelled with names such as Dr. A. Merkel.

The morning session covered the technology more broadly and focussed in on some major CCS projects either in operation or under development around the world. I had been invited to speak about the Shell Quest Project in Canada. The afternoon session had a focus on the “U” in a new acronym now entering the discussion, CCUS or Carbon Capture Use and Storage.

Carbon Capture and Use sounds like a great way forward; why not capture the CO2 and put it to good use? That way there will be an economic incentive to tackle emissions and the problem will be solved. This took me back to a dinner at COP19 in Warsaw last year where one participant suggested that CO2 be commoditized such that it would be used even more widely. Unfortunately, this is where thermodynamics gets in the way.

Carbon dioxide sits at the bottom of a deep thermodynamic well.

Thermodynamic well

It is a by-product from a very energetic chemical reaction, the oxidation of a hydrocarbon molecule (i.e. combustion). This releases a tremendous amount of energy (which is why fossil fuels have such value), but leaves us with CO2, which then doesn’t have the energy to react quickly with anything. As such, it is very stable and any chemical use for CO2 which converts it into something else requires a similar amount of energy to that produced when the CO2 was created in the first place. One of the key presentations at the CCS TEM was about the manufacture of polycarbonates (and other chemicals) from CO2. This was an excellent piece of work, but the tricky subject of process energy doesn’t jump out of the presentation.

There is also another tricky subject that needs to be opened up; for the most part, the use of CO2 in chemical processes has no impact on the atmospheric CO2 balance, unless of course the chemical is eventually sequestered. Otherwise the CO2 simply returns to the atmosphere when the chemical is used or the plastic degrades. Even if sequestration is the end point, chemical processes will never operate on the scale necessary to manage global CO2 emissions from energy use.

I did a bit more searching on these subjects and found an excellent paper at the University of Bath online publication store (originating from Imperial college), but beware it is long, detailed and very technical. However, an extract from the early part of the paper highlights the above points:

The development of methods to activate and use CO2 to prepare chemicals and materials is an attractive research goal. Carbon dioxide is abundant, renewable, of low toxicity and is emitted as a waste product from a myriad of industrial processes. A longstanding goal of synthetic chemistry has been to develop catalysts and processes which consume it, however, such reactions pose significant challenges. As the most highly oxidized state of carbon, CO2 is the lowest energy state of all carbon-containing binary neutral species: indeed, CO2 and water are the end-products of most energy releasing processes, including combustion and metabolic pathways. The table below illustrates the free energy of formation of carbon based molecules: the large energy required to reduce it is the most significant obstacle. This energy can either be directly input as physical energy or indirectly via the use of reactive chemical species as reagents; it is the latter strategy which powers the copolymerisation of epoxides and CO2. Free energy of Formation

Nature is successful in transforming approximately 200 billion tonnes/year of CO2 into carbohydrates via photosynthesis. Synthetic chemistry has been less successful, so far there are only a limited range of reactions which can transform CO2 to useful products, those that yield materials with high market volumes and/or economics are even scarcer. Successful reactions include the synthesis of urea (146 Mt/y, 2008), inorganic carbonates (45 Mt/y, 2008, mostly Na2CO3 via the Solvay process), methanol (6 Mt/y), salicylic acid (60 kt/y, 2003, via the Kolbe-Schmitt process), organic carbonates (100 kt/y, 2009; the subject of recent reviews) and polycarbonates (a few kt/y). Current production volumes for aliphatic polycarbonates produced from CO2 are small, however, the polycarbonates sector as a whole is large and growing. In Asia alone the sector is forecast to grow by 8-10%, resulting in the construction of new polycarbonate plants and opportunities for new technologies. Finally, it is important to note that CO2 consumption by chemical processes (approx. worldwide ~ 100 Mt/y) cannot impact global CO2 levels, nor are they a means to address climate change (UK CO2 emissions in 2008 from power stations exceeded 200 Mt/y). However, they could be a means to add value to a portion of the CO2 from carbon sequestration and storage (CSS) processes.

The last point is critical and it is why processes such as described above and the use of CO2 for enhanced oil recovery (EOR) are so important. All of these give real value to a modest amount of CO2. This is nowhere near the scale necessary to impact atmospheric concentrations, but enough to allow carbon dioxide capture plants to be built, which in turn allows capture technology to develop and become more cost competitive. This then makes CCS a more attractive option over the longer term and gives confidence that it is commercially viable at a certain carbon price.

My new book, Putting the Genie Back, goes to some length picking apart the climate issue and then explaining why carbon capture and storage (CCS) is such a critical part of the solution set. It eventually becomes clear when you really think it about and consider three things;

  • The huge scale of the fossil fuel based energy system;
  • The way carbon dioxide accumulates in the atmosphere and;
  • The extraction economics of fossil fuels.

But few of us have the time to really think about an issue such as climate change, let alone read books on the subject or attend seminars, lectures and climate conferences (although quite a few of these don’t mention CCS at all and some barely acknowledge the need for a carbon price). Rather, in this word of social media, 140 character tweets and 24/7 News Channels, we often get just a few minutes to come to terms with a concept and form an opinion. As such, is it possible to explain the role of CCS in such a short amount of time?

With an eye on the UN Climate Summit and then the opportunities in the lead-up to COP21 in Paris, the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD) has given it a try. The media they have used is video, working with an exciting graphics company called Carbon Visuals. The challenge was to help the audience understand why CCS is important in just a few minutes, not just by being told so, but by being convinced.

Carbon Visuals focussed on two key aspects of the climate issue, that being the huge scale of fossil fuel use and the way in which CO2 from this use accumulates in the ocean / atmosphere system, with further accumulation likely due to the global fossil resource base still to be extracted to meet energy needs.

The visuals depicting scale are very attention grabbing, to help the viewer recognise that fossil fuel use is highly unlikely to diminish in the near term or even vanish in the longer term. For example, daily global coal use alone buries Midtown East Manhattan.

Coal mountain

This is then contrasted with renewable energy, which while growing very rapidly, isn’t even outpacing the growth in fossil fuel use, let alone forcing it down.

The animation steps up a notch when it comes to depicting CO2, which bursts out of Central Park and literally buries New York as it accumulates. These spheres are something of a Carbon Visuals “trademark”, first appearing in an excellent video they made about New York City emissions.

CO2 pile in NYC

Finally, the animation puts this into perspective in terms of global accumulation and the likelihood of exceeding the trillion tonnes of carbon threshold (and therefore 2°C), unless of course large scale deployment of CCS takes place to mitigate such an outcome. Of course a great deal has to happen for this scale of CCS to be built, starting with more widespread application of carbon pricing.

CCS Animation

You can watch the animation here and look in more detail at the images and thinking behind it here.

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.

Two sides to every coin

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.


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


In my previous post I responded to an article by environmentalist Paul Gilding where he argued that the rate of solar PV deployment meant it was now time to call “Game over” for the coal, oil and gas industries. There is no doubt that solar PV uptake is faster than most commentators imagined (but not Shell in our Oceans scenario) and it is clear that this is starting to change the landscape for the utility sector, but talk of “death spirals” may, in the words of Mark Twain, be an exaggeration.

In that same article, Gilding also talks about local battery storage via electric cars and the drive to distributed systems rather than centralized ones. He clearly envisages a world of micro-grids, rooftop solar PV, domestic electricity storage and the disappearance of the current utility business model. But there is much more to the energy world than what we see in central London or Paris today, or for that matter in rural Tasmania where Paul Gilding lives. It all starts with unappealing, somewhat messy but nevertheless essential processes such as sulphuric acid, ammonia, caustic soda and chlorine manufacture (to name but a few). Added together, about half a billion tonnes of these four products are produced annually. These are energy intensive production processes operating on an industrial scale, but largely hidden away from daily life. They are in or play a role in the manufacture of almost everything we use, buy, wear, eat and do. These core base chemicals also rely on various feedstocks. Sulphuric acid, for example, is made from the sulphur found in oil and gas and removed during the various refining and treatment processes. Although there are other viable sources of sulphur they have long been abandoned for economic reasons.


The ubiquitous mobile phone (which everything now seems to get compared to when we talk about deployment) and the much talked about solar PV cell are just the tip of a vast energy consuming industrial system, built on base chemicals such as chlorine, but also making products with steel, aluminium, nickel, chromium, glass and plastics (to name but a few). The production of these materials alone exceeds 2 billion tonnes annually. All of this is of course made in facilities with concrete foundations, using some of the 3.4 billion tonnes of cement produced annually. The global industry for plastics is rooted in the oil and gas industry as well, with the big six plastics (see below) all starting their lives in refineries that do things like converting naphtha from crude oil to ethylene.

The big six plastics:

  • polyethylene – including low density (PE-LD), linear low density (PE-LLD) and high density (PE-HD)
  • polypropylene (PP)
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • polystyrene solid (PS), expandable (PS-E)
  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • polyurethane (PUR)

All of these processes are also energy intensive, requiring utility scale generation, high temperature furnaces, large quantities of high pressure steam and so on. The raw materials for much of this comes from remote mines, another facet of modern life we no longer see. These in turn are powered by utility scale facilities, huge draglines for digging and vast trains for moving the extracted ores. An iron ore train in Australia might be made up of 336 cars, moving 44,500 tonnes of iron ore, is over 3 km long and utilizes six to eight locomotives including intermediate remote units. These locomotives often run on diesel fuel, although many in the world run on electric systems at high voltage, e.g. the 25 kV AC iron ore train from Russia to Finland.

The above is just the beginning of the industrial world we live in, built on a utility scale and powered by utilities burning gas and coal. These bring economies of scale to everything we do and use, whether we like it or not. Not even mentioned above is the agricultural world which feeds 7 billion people. The industrial heartland will doubtless change over the coming century, although the trend since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been for bigger more concentrated pockets of production, with little sign of a more distributed model. The advent of technologies such as 3D Printing may change the end use production step, but even the material that gets poured into the tanks feeding that 3D machine probably relied on sulphuric acid somewhere in its production chain.