Age of uncertainty – energy security and transitioning to net-zero
Dr Richard M Oblath FIMMM, Chair of the IOM3 Energy Transition Group, reflects on the dual short- and long-term challenges of energy security and the transition to net-zero.
The appalling unprovoked attack launched by Vladimir Putin’s Russia on the sovereign country of Ukraine, killing innocent civilians with a concomitant impact on the global economy via retaliatory sanctions on Russia, including energy prices and supply, is rightly dominating the headlines. However, this is not a time to forget about the slower moving energy challenge of transitioning to a world with significantly fewer anthropomorphic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. This has been highlighted by the recent UN IPCC report, concluding that the speed of the reduction of GHGs must be increased if global warming is to be restricted to close to the goal of a maximum of 1.5oC.
In the short term, there is clearly a need to increase non-Russian oil and gas production to mitigate constrained energy supply and much higher pricing, but governments should also look to accelerate the major investments in the energy transition that will cause the biggest reduction in GHGs.
The goal of net-zero by 2050, endorsed by countries representing 65% of global GDP at COP26 in Glasgow, UK, becomes less and less likely unless significant actions are taken in the decade of the 20s that will positively impact the atmosphere in the 30s and beyond. The pace of this change must continuously increase.
Private industry, the financial sector, government policymakers and central banks have to work together to increase the capital available to accelerate towards an economy compatible with our planet, while continuing the drive towards eliminating poverty.
New technologies may be needed to reach the final target of capping the increase in global warming to 1.5oC or below, but much of the technical know-how is proven and available today, it just needs to be deployed.
The UK makes an interesting example to study. It was the first country to pass legislation to target net-zero by 2050 and, more recently, understanding the need to take near-term action, putting into law a 78% reduction in GHGs versus a 1990 baseline.
The UK starts with some advantages having already reduced coal for power over the past 40 years and having a multiplicity of energy sources, such as natural gas, nuclear, wind and solar. In addition, although much is local, there is a range of interconnectivity with friendly countries, especially for natural gas and electricity, mitigating energy supply shocks (although not pricing). A vivid comparison is Germany, which although an early proponent of renewable energy via significant subsidies, recently made a flawed decision to exit nuclear power and has over decades massively increased its reliance on gas from Russia.
In the past two years, the UK Government has issued a number of strategy documents, white papers and more recently funding proposals, all targeted at jump-starting the next steps in the energy transition, covering in particular such investment areas as offshore wind, hydrogen and nuclear (including small modular reactors and fusion), plus carbon capture and sequestration.
Also noteworthy are the UK-wide incentives to focus near-term investment in clusters where GHGs are the most concentrated, such as Humberside, South Wales, Teesside, Grangemouth and Merseyside. Not only will these efforts have the largest impact on UK emissions of GHGs, but it allows commercial-scale linked investments to test their effectiveness and promote newer Technology Readiness Level 9 technologies.
Most recently, reacting to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the energy market disruptions, the government has issued a strategy paper on British energy security. This is targeting speeding up and increasing the size of some of the investments proposed over the past year or so. Additionally, there will be a new licensing round for North Sea oil and gas in the autumn to promote local production, while, in parallel, continuing the GHG intensity reductions, for instance, by electrifying offshore production and other measures.
There is also a statement admitting that 25% of current gas usage from the North Sea may still be required in 2050 while meeting the net-zero goal, plus the government has publicly stated for the first time that UK-produced gas has a GHG footprint well under half of most imported gas.
An impartial technical review is due by the British Geological Society of onshore shale gas and whether exploration and production of these reserves could meet rigorous safety and environmental standards, both above ground and the sub-surface.
There are some areas where this rapidly produced strategy paper falls short, in my opinion. In particular, energy efficiency should be a co’rnerstone of government incentives as it is the largest, cheapest, safest and fastest to deploy energy option. The use of more efficient technologies and/or processes to reduce the amount of energy used per unit output is key. The UK currently wastes more than half of the energy produced because of huge inefficiencies in the transmission and distribution network and at the point of use. For instance, of the 29 million homes in the UK, at least 19 million need to be made more climate resilient thus requiring much less energy for the same comfort. As we focus on the energy transition, one should always be reminded that the cleanest energy is the energy never used.
The role of all IOM3 members, whether in materials, minerals or mining, will be instrumental in solving some of the critical challenges ahead of us. There are multiple examples where our involvement will be instrumental in finding solutions, such as:
- Hydrogen – the move to low-carbon production, storage, transport and the impact on current pipeline, storage and housing infrastructure.
- Buildings – low-carbon construction, insulation, fuel cells, heat pumps, novel heating and cooling.
- Energy efficiency – light-weighting, electrical efficiency, ultra-efficient electronics.
- Industry – zero-emissions processes, low-carbon steelmaking, aluminium smelting and cement manufacture.
- Resource efficiency and availability – circular economy, 100% recyclable plastics, new approaches to recycling neodymium, silver, lithium, cobalt and iridium.
- Transport – light-weighting, efficiency, electrification and biofuels.
- Power – increased efficiency, bigger turbine blades, more efficient photovoltaics and lower cost energy storage.
- Oil and gas – minimising GHG emissions during production and distribution including the use of carbon capture and storage.
- Mining – finding and extracting the materials we increasingly need in a responsible manner and from less political sensitive countries.
In conclusion, it is not just in the UK but globally that political, financial and business leaders need to focus not only on the short-term challenges caused by Putin’s war on Ukraine, but also the existential threat to humankind’s long-term quality of life and, for many, survival on planet Earth. GHGs negatively influencing climate change do not honour national boundaries so this is a worldwide issue.