Maths of Net Zero: Presentation to the Parliamentary Group on Energy Studies. July 2021

On July 13th 2021 I had the opportunity to make a 15 minute presentation to the Parliamentary group on Energy Studies along side Mike Larkin of Envoi and Kathryn Porter of Watt Logic. Mike did a great job of structuring and managing, I gave a macro view of issues and Kathryn presented compelling data on the UK electricity transition (read her comments here).

We called this session The Maths of Net Zero

Houston, we have a problem

Houston, we have a problem… actually we have two problems

  1. Texas has massive power outages as an “unprecedented” polar vortex hits, and
  2. we just can’t agree on what to conclude from this event.

The current unfortunate (and I assume uncomfortable) situation in Texas where over 4 million people were without electricity earlier this week, is revealing about how people view the energy debate.

  • On one extreme I have seen multiple “sharings” of a (very) old photo of a helicopter de-icing a wind turbine to “prove” how reliance on renewable energy has caused the problems.
  • On the other extreme, it is claimed that the polar vortex is yet more proof that climate change is here and now and we should demand more renewables and shut O&G (and nuclear).

Both of these are confirmation bias in action.

Unfortunately, reality is likely to be far more complex. Texas looks like a plane-crash in the sense that a lot of things have had to line up (badly) for the outages to happen.

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50% Renewables: The Good the Bad and the Average

Three facts about wind generation of electricity in the UK:

(1) Headlines exclaim that the UK has beaten its own record and produced 55% of its demand from renewables alone.

(2) Similar headlines (here and here) boast of the average contribution of renewable power over the year (2020 is likely to be a record) and demonstrate the real and laudable displacement of coal and consequent dramatic (world-leading) reductions in GHG emissions.

(3) No headlines, but very real – days when wind and solar don’t contribute and these cause significant perturbations to the grid, price spikes and CO2 emissions rise.

All of these are factually correct – but depending how they are presented (or ignored) can significantly change the narrative.

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In the Court of King Crimson: lessons from Covid – Part 2

According to the author Stephen King, the Crimson King was “the orchestrator of chaos and decay” – and so it is with many faceless corporations: Big Tobacco, Big Oil, Big Pharma and now maybe Big Tech. 

To be sure the “Big” ones have some extremely bad history, lead in petrol, brutal marketing for a known killing habit, many medical scandals (from thalidomide to opiate epidemics), and now for Big Oil the entire carbon footprint of billions of consumers. Orchestrators of chaos and decay, you bet. 

The above may be a fair representation – and is one beloved of headline writers. However, there are alternative narratives that can be equally true and yet coexist. We have to be ready to accept some uncomfortable cognitive dissonance to be able to hold conflicting but valid narratives at the same time. Or just have very short memories.

The Big Pharma Redemption

Big Pharma has a bad rap – the brilliant Ben Goldacre has provided grist with Bad Pharma and indeed Bad Science. In the US “aggressive marketing” of opioid painkillers led to “100 deaths a day” from overdoses – and huge profits for the corporations. 

Add into this, the very human reaction of “chemophobia” and you get mistrust of the whole industry. Indeed, this may even be part of the reason for the rise in the anti-vax (pre-covid) movement.  Fear of chemicals and technology with very little understanding of the science is a common problem because cutting-edge technology in any domain is way ahead of a lay-person’s understanding.

But the other side of the narrative is so huge and so important that it is largely not noticed.

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Energy and Viruses: lessons from Covid ?

PART 1 – Selfless vs Selfish

It has been fashionable to look for equivalences between the Covid pandemic and the climate crisis. These have often had the form of: Covid is a global problem, the virus doesn’t respect national borders, and coordinated multilateral response is needed, short-term pain for long-term gain etc. Then, add on the clear and present benefits – clear air, bird song and a slower pace of life and equivalence becomes clear (at least for richer people). We can solve the pandemic through mutually supportive action, through following the science and we may even have the recipe to solve climate change into the bargain. Build Back Better.

However, as the virus goes from epidemic to pandemic to endemic, so cracks in this narrative are showing. 

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Primary Energy and Exergy

TL;DR It has been common to represent global energy usage in terms of Primary Energy – that is the energy potential of the various sources. However, this can be easily criticized because not all energy is equal and what we really want to understand is the “Useful Energy” that does work on our behalf at the end of any transformation process. The conversion of energy from one form to another (thermal combustion to electricity for example) is subject to the Second Law of Thermodynamics and there are always irreversible “losses” in conversion. Thus, depending on the efficiency of the conversion process(es), much less Useful Energy is used than available Primary Energy. Viewed from end-use perspective, one can argue that much less energy is required globally if we have more efficient sources of primary energy. Solar and Wind which generate electricity directly without any thermal combustion are significantly more efficient. Ergo, we don’t need to replace all of the current Primary Energy, only a fraction of it, to have the same amount of Useful Energy. Unfortunately its not that simple, and understanding the limitations of this argument shed light on why the energy transition is far more complex than the usual sound bites beloved of headline writers.

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NATO association of Canada

The webinar focuses on what energy security means to different people and how this plays into policy. Participants will discuss the physical security and cyber-security of installations as well as the security of energy supply and the security of trade routes. Questions discussed include: how will the need for electricity infrastructure to be resilient, and for electricity itself to be affordable, affect the fate of unconventional energy, including the “oil sands”? Do Canada’s high latitude and long transmission distances exclude a good match between supply of renewable energy and demand for it? In light of the last question, what decisions will be made about nuclear power? While the webinar focuses on Canada, these issues will be addressed for other countries as well. The use of information and communication technologies, including artificial intelligence, in the energy sector will also be addressed.

Such Stuff as Dreams are Made On

It is normal to want to live in harmony with nature and the unrelenting negative news about climate and CO2 and energy speaks to this. Exciting examples of how things are being done create expectations about how the system should change but also create exasperation about how slow progress is. But the use of flagship projects should be managed with care – these are often in the news because they are the exception, not the norm.

 Gravity Sucks

A while ago, there was a widely-shared video of a huge truck carrying quarried rocks – the electric truck was painted green (of course) and to much adulation was reported to “never need charging”.   Factually correct because the specific circumstance is that the quarry is high on a hillside and its destination (a cement factory) is in the valley. The truck uses regenerative braking to charge its 600kw batteries, and the charge is sufficient to get it back up to the quarry. Magic. The nuance is of course that it carries load down and comes back up empty; thus the losses in generating and storing electricity are compensated for by the additional kinetic energy provided by gravity on the way down – the unladen truck weights 45 tons and carries 65 tons of material – so is 110 tons on the way down and 45 on the way back up.

In many ways this is not too different to counter-weight systems like funicular tramways or building elevators – only here instead of a mechanical transfer with friction losses and a “top-up” of input energy, there is an electro-chemical transfer (with associated losses but net gains).  The laws of thermodynamics still hold.

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The impact of Bullfrogs, Leopards and CO2 emissions

In the simplistic position in which all fossil-fuels are bad and that catastrophic climate-change is a few years away, gas is just another problem that has to be done away with.

However, in the real-world there are complex considerations that are lost in a binary, dogmatic world-view. The discovery of significant gas reserves offshore South Africa is a good case study.

Total and partners are currently drilling the second exploration well in the Block 11B/12B in the Outeniqua Basin offshore South Africa. The first well “Brulpadda” was drilled in 2018/19 evidencing a significant hydrocarbon accumulation.

This discovery of a large gas-condensate accumulation was correctly described as a “basin-opener” – as it significantly de-risks four additional prospects mapped across the block in a classic “string of pearls”, including the current Luiperd well.   Whilst there is always the voice in the background that says “oil would have been better”, this is still a fabulous prize, given its geographical location. Finding wet-gas 175 km offshore of Port Elizabeth and the 60 million people of South Africa, is not inconsequential, and indeed has been rapidly hailed as a “game changer” by WoodMac

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