Earlier this month I had the pleasure of taking part in a debate at the Scottish Energy Forum on the topic “Energy transition: how fast can we go”. It is a great question, and has been a great debate. Here is my summary on some of the key points to consider around this topic.
Energy transition: how fast can we go
There’s no doubt we should go fast, very fast. The data shows that we are currently heading towards an increase of more than 3oC . The pledges and goals from the Paris Agreement, if implemented on time, will only take us to 2.5-2.8oC. More needs to be done to get below 2oC, and even more to stay within 1.5oC.
Having seen a 1oC increase, we are already experiencing the impacts. Extreme weather shifting unpredictably between flooding and drought is damaging many ecosystems. Unless we reverse this trend the entire terrestrial ecosystem is at risk.
The reduction in emissions we need to make is both urgent and massive. We’ll have to both mitigate our current systems and scale up negative emissions technologies, pulling CO2 out of the atmosphere, as we will most likely overshoot the carbon budget.
Act on both the demand and supply side
Net zero will need twice as much electricity in the system, and in the UK most of that will come from wind, but we know we need more than the electrification offered by renewables.
Some key industrial sectors are hard or impossible to electrify. Heating has big seasonal variations that do not align well with the limited storage capacity and intermittency of renewable electricity supply. And while the availability of electric cars is growing, shipping and air travel are not easily electrifiable because of the limited energy density and the consequential big weight of current batteries. In addition, we should not forget the consideration on their sustainability, from mining to recycling.
So, we know we need more than the electrification offered by renewables, we need fuel, and we need storage. Hydrogen offers a compelling alternative, as a sort of giant battery, storing electricity in gas or liquid form and reusing when needed.
Blue hydrogen, produced from natural gas with associated carbon capture and storage (CCS) can provide a bridge solution, while green hydrogen from electrolysis can take over as renewable option scale-ups beyond our electrification requirements.
Hydrogen is a fuel we already understand well, and one that can be more readily integrated into our current networks reusing big sections of the current infrastructure.
Re-energising the UKCS
There are reasons for optimism and excitement in the UKCS (UK Continental Shelf). There is an opportunity to leverage the existing energy industry and make it the cornerstone to build a diversified economy. This could be achieved by combining and integrating decarbonised oil & gas production, offshore renewables, hydrogen production and CCS, including removing CO2 directly from the atmosphere.
Today the oil & gas contribution to the UK economy is ten times that of offshore renewables, and Hydrogen and CCS are in very early stages. By 2050 we can achieve a more even distribution while at the same time doubling the prize, by reducing oil & gas while increasing offshore wind and starting and scaling hydrogen and CCS. In other words, a net zero North Sea is not only a moral imperative but also an economic opportunity for the country and the region.
Technology, technology, technology
Renewables, hydrogen, carbon capture, and decarbonised oil & gas, are all ultimately critical to closing the gap on our goal for 2050.
The concepts are proven and the demonstration models and low regret deployment projects, from Acorn to Teeside and others, are showing it. What we need now is the cost to significantly come down and the scale to go up. Investing in technology innovation is key to achieve these metrics, and the UK has the opportunity to lead and export both clean and affordable energy and the technology required to produce it, positioning itself for a major social, environmental, and economic opportunity.