A sense of scale for 2015

The year 2014 saw this blog grow to become an e-book, which looked at the huge challenge of limiting warming to a global 2 °C temperature rise. The book is available on Amazon, here (or in the USA, here).

As we head into 2015, the opening chapter of the book perhaps provides a useful backdrop to the UNFCCC deliberations to come in the lead up to Paris. In this excerpt, I discussed the enormous scale of the global energy system;

. . . . not everyone has the opportunity to witness large-scale energy production first hand, so perhaps a few examples will help. In the hour or two that you might spend with this book, a lot will happen in the world. It’s become a very busy place powered by a lot of energy. Just to keep up with current energy demand, the next two hours will see;

  • Four VLCCs (Very Large Crude Carrier) of oil loaded somewhere in the world. That’s more than enough oil to fill the Empire State Building.
  • About two million tonnes of coal extracted. Much of this moves by rail, but if it were a single train it would be about 200 miles long.
  • 800 million cubic metres of natural gas produced, which under normal atmospheric conditions would cover the area enclosed by London’s M25 to a depth of about a foot; i.e. after half a day everyone in London would be breathing natural gas.
  • 8-10 cubic kilometres of water passing through hydroelectricity stations, or enough water to more than fill Loch Ness.

Our immediate contact with this is the fuel for our cars, the electricity that lights our homes and powers our stuff and the oil or natural gas we use in our boilers. But there is more, much more. This includes the unappealing, somewhat messy but nevertheless essential chemical plants where products such as sulphuric acid, ammonia, caustic soda and chlorine are made (to name but a few). Combined, about half a billion tonnes of these four products are produced annually. Produced by energy intensive processes operating on an industrial scale, but concealed from daily life, these four products play a part in the manufacture of almost everything we use, buy, wear, eat and do. These core base chemicals rely on various feed stocks. Sulphuric acid, for example, is made from the sulphur found in oil and gas and removed during refining and treatment processes. Although there are other viable sources of sulphur, they have long been abandoned for economic reasons.

Then there is the stuff we make and buy. The ubiquitous mobile phone and the much talked about solar PV cell are just the tip of a vast energy consuming industrial system that relies on base chemicals such as chlorine, but also  materials such as steel, aluminium, nickel, chromium, glass and plastics from which the products are made. The production of these materials alone exceeds 2 billion tonnes annually. All of this is made in facilities with concrete foundations, using some of the 3 to 4 billion tonnes of cement that is produced annually.

The global industry for plastics is also rooted in the oil and gas industry. The big six plastics* all start their lives in refineries as base chemicals extracted from crude oil.

All of these processes are energy intensive, requiring gigawatt scale electricity generation, high temperature furnaces and large quantities of high pressure steam to drive big conversion reactors. The raw materials for much of this come from remote mines, another hidden key to modern life. These, in turn, are powered by utility scale facilities, huge draglines for digging and 3 kilometre long trains for moving the extracted ores. An iron ore train in Australia might be made up of 300 to 400 rail cars, moving up to 50,000 tonnes of iron ore, utilising six to eight locomotives. These locomotives 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.

This is just the beginning of the energy and industrial world we live in and largely powered by utility companies 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 that feeds 7 billion people, uses huge amounts of energy and requires its own set of petrochemical derived fertilizers and pesticides.  The advent of technologies such as 3D Printing may shift some manufacturing to small local facilities, but even the material poured into the tanks feeding that 3D machine will probably rely on sulphuric acid somewhere in the production chain.

On that note, happy New Year and enjoy the complete book. Hopefully more will follow in 2015.

* These are, polyethylene (PE), polypropylene (PP), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polystyrene solid (PS), polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and polyurethane (PUR)

Putting the Genie Back