Demand for energy is growing

We’ve been seeing on the news that 2023 will probably go down in history as the year oil majors backtracked on their promises towards the climate transition, and continued their trajectory of emissions as the demand for fossil fuels continue to grow.

This is exactly the kind of behaviour that makes it easy for people to keep painting them as the enemy. As a matter of fact, they risk painting themselves out of the low carbon future when they allow their “core” fossil fuel business to continue cannibalising their renewables business. Yes you heard me right; in refusing to see their core business as that of providing the world with sustainable energy, they are rapidly destroying a market they want to be part of.

Instead of seeing it as demand for fossil fuels, the oil majors need to recognise that there’s demand for energy – and it is growing. The opportunity to convert their customers to green users, energy users of the future rather than keeping them in the past. Their behaviour will at some point push the authorities to act even more aggressively against fossil fuels. The trouble right now is that they think the world needs them to go on spinning.

Who is the enemy?

Is it fossil fuels or the fossil fuel companies?

Biomethane (or upgraded biogas) has a challenging reputation in some markets. It is chemically indistinguishable from natural gas which is a fossil fuel. It burns identically and emits carbon dioxide when combusted. However, it is considered a low-carbon fuel because the carbon content from biomethane is actually the short-cycle carbon dioxide. It is great because you can combust and generate power or heat using a conventional gas turbine or other gas appliances with it without having to retool or change the equipment.

Biomethane is a clear pathway to support decarbonisation of gas and yet it is being shunned by critics. Part of the reason is that the fossil fuel companies are getting involved and could extend the lifespan of their fossil fuel assets and infrastructure using it. And some people are unhappy that they even receive low-carbon funding for the gas infrastructure.

When we see fossil fuel companies as enemies, then anything they do will be wrong and things that continues driving their asset base even tangentially related to fossil gas seem like a problem.

But if the enemy is carbon emissions, then those companies need to be given a chance. We need to demarcate some boundaries: for example, they could set a profit margin cap on themselves and commit all the funds above that towards clean energy investments. Or even better, they could funnel those funds into a ring-fenced facility which then dole out the resources towards anything proven to be low-carbon.

Story of methane

I thought of writing about methane. It is a curious molecule consisting of a single carbon atom surrounded by four hydrogen atoms around it which pretty strong bonds with the carbon atom. The entire molecule is relatively small and exists in gaseous form at room temperatures. It is naturally occurring and comes out of natural processes that involves anaerobic bacteria actions. It is a fuel that can be combusted to produce carbon dioxide and water vapour.

It also happens to be a greenhouse gas. Each methane molecule is thought to have 25 times more global warming potential than carbon dioxide. Natural gas is largely made up of it; hence it is a greenhouse gas by itself though combusting it will also produce carbon dioxide which itself is a greenhouse gas though with lower potential.

The focus on carbon emissions is a result of the recognition that we have spewed so much of this particular greenhouse into the atmosphere that it is having extreme effects on the global climate due to the warming potential. The world needs to move towards low-carbon and that means having activities that are emitting less carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In general, fossil fuel based carbon holds the largest responsibility in anthropogenic carbon emissions.

Interestingly, you could produce methane through anaerobic biological process. And cows are known to release methane into the air because of the bacteria actions in their stomach. The dairy industry therefore becomes a rather larger emitter of greenhouse gas for this reason. That is where stuff gets a bit fuzzy when you’re counting global warming potential, anthropogenic emissions and so on.

So biomethane is the methane produced through anaerobic digestion of organic matter can be captured and used as a fuel. When combusted it likewise produces carbon dioxide and water. But this carbon dioxide belongs to the short carbon cycle due to its organic/plant heritage and hence is excused from what typical constitutes carbon emissions. Yet when biomethane leaks or is released into the air, the methane’s global warming potential is counted and the carbon-equivalent emissions actually forms part of the emissions from processes whenever biomethane is used. This ‘short cycle’ argument doesn’t seem to apply.

This may not seem very consistent and can potentially create a lot of confusion around the truly ‘green’ identity of biomethane. One could see how biomethane, or renewable natural gas as it is known in the US, is going to suffer from being conflated with fossil fuel natural gas.

Cheap renewables and surging bills

Even as we see the levellised cost of solar coming down, and increasing penetration of renewable energy, the electricity coming to us in our grids are increasing in prices. At least it seems to be so in Australia. There’s a lot of cost associated with the transmission and distribution infrastructure that needs to be recovered – partly because the growth of intermittent renewables mean that the grid infrastructure will have to be expanded.

But it is not just that; there’s also more padding required in the margins of electricity retailers because the intermittency results in even more volatile electricity prices in the wholesale market. That means that if the retailers are still providing fixed price tariffs and long contracts to customers, they will have to manage their risks by putting higher profit margins into the retail packages.

There is a huge price to pay by the society to eventually enjoy more renewable energy. If we don’t adapt to the intermittency through more adding more flexible generation leveraging on demand response and integrating EV recharging networks into the network operation optimisation (ie. Vehicle-to-Grid systems), we can only expect higher bills. We had better accelerate the transition or we’re soon losing the patience of energy consumers.

Labels and bullshit

I think that schools and parents should spend a lot more time teaching kids to read labels and discern marketing from science and verified statements. One of the problematic trends that emerged from our market economy or highly marketised, monetised society is the rise of wildfire marketing. You’d think that lies or wrong claims would be quickly discovered but often, verification takes time and money and has the nature of a public good so no one invest in them.

Yet the interest of the marketing departments and companies to make claims that can get them customers is so much more. So there is no prize for guessing who would put more resources into the activity and who emerges as winner, at least in the short term.

Question is why has our market economy created such short-termism? The people at marketing departments are measured perhaps by the short term sales figures. The management is assessed based on short term profit and loss or worse, share prices. No one within the transactions have any long term stake other than the consumers.

Besides strengthening consumer bureaus, you will have to strengthen the consumers through education. And that has to start whilst young; and these are extremely long term investments that will pay off for the broad society.

Bridge to the future

Having been based in Australia for two months now and getting a better view of the overall energy landscape, I’d say that the greatest hurdle we need to overcome is developing an alignment in commitment, plans and action to bring bioenergy especially biomethane into the system energy mix in order to decarbonise.

We are trying to build a bridge to the low-carbon energy future. And there has been many announcement, efforts and plans around hydrogen hubs, hydrogen parks. In the year 2023, the prices of electrolysers didn’t seem to come down all that much as expected, renewable electricity in the form of wind and solar, while being cheap, is bringing about a degree of intermittency that challenges grid operations to the extent that overall cost of electricity or at least access to electricity remains high. As it turns out, we were building the bridge from the destination towards us when we were working on the hydrogen projects. They were good, at some point in the future but it seems that they are not being built fast enough to reach us today. We are still unable to adopt those solutions.

This means that as the decarbonisation targets and emission reduction dreams comes back to bite us, we need to start building the bridge from our side. And biomethane is a great solution that allows us to do that. It displaces natural gas on a one-to-one basis and does not require end-users of natural gas to change their appliances. Biomethane can be spec-ed properly in the biogas upgrading process in order to achieve the quality required for gas grid injection. Moreover, the production of biogas (precursor to biomethane) can be done in conjunction with managing our organic and agricultural wastes which were either being burnt, composted openly or sent to the landfill – all of which involves some kind of carbon emission (albeit short-cycle to a certain extent) that does not achieve extra work done. And don’t get me started on the potential of biogenic carbon dioxide as a future market to build.

Lots of clear work and action. Once we get the perception right and eliminate the misinformation around bioenergy in Australia.

Government bashing

The government tends to be an easy target for most of the problems, or the lack of solution towards them. In most cases, the lack of technical solutions tend not to be the barrier towards solving the problems. It is a matter of adoption. And people look towards the government to drive the uptake of solutions. The struggle today, in the market economy where there’s a multitude of technical solutions backed by various different economic interest, there’s some kind of gridlock towards having governments select solutions.

Historically, the popular beliefs, ideas and thoughts drive the directions of democratically elected government. Influence from businesses probably will contribute to some of that. But the options are limited (automobiles or horse carriages, internal combustion engines or electric engines, AC or DC transmission, etc.) and there are certain dimensions by which governments can justify their choices and move forward.

Today, it is less clear. Should we electrify homes completely or allow them to continue using gas, albeit having to encourage the development of renewable gases? Should the government be driving the choice of technologies used in homes or industries by enabling or making difficult the development of more biomethane for grid-injection? Or should they be encouraging full electrification not just of homes but also industries, and even heavy transport, redeveloping infrastructure to be able to deliver lots of electricity, enabling battery swapping or ultra-fast charging along highways?

What are the dimensions that the government should be optimising along, should they be taking positions to propagate certain solutions or standards? Are they in the position to make those choices? Yet some of these innovations and technological adoption can only move forward with enabling policies. The issue is that being in a standstill and not enacting any policy is in itself a choice for status quo, for the carbon-intense way of life, and dooming our system. Yet making a choice can mean excluding certain options or causing certain options to be more or less expensive than they otherwise would be, hence favouring one over another.

Taking policy positions and ultimately making some kind of technological choice implicitly is inevitable. So it is just a matter of what are the priorities.

Markets and distribution

One of the things we learnt early on in economics is that allocative efficiency which the perfect competitive market seem to move towards is efficient in terms of maximising social welfare even if distributionally it is skewed. In other words, by using the ability to pay as the final arbiter for who gets the goods and services, the society moves towards high levels of efficiency about what gets produced and who gets what goods/services without questioning whether things are really ‘fair’ or if in the first place, the ability to pay is properly distributed.

This is a problem that we seem to ignore because it is convenient to think we are already in the best of worlds. The idea of Pareto optimal is powerful – that you stop moving things around as long as you cannot make someone better off without having to make someone worse off even if the one who is slightly worse off is not much more worse than the amount of betterment you can create in another. That comparison isn’t objectively possible anyways.

But by sweeping it under the carpet, economics close itself off to a lot of interesting philosophical debate that really matters and tries to consign itself to an amoral science. Yet championing for markets is not exactly amoral, it is taking the stance that the market approach is morally superior and already deferring to the market in the work of economic justice. Michael Sandel writes and lectures extensively on this and as we ponder over how we marketize various things from infrastructure to healthcare, we can go back to consider those ideas.

Extracting surpluses

I spent many years focused on infrastructure development, particularly working on getting private sector involvement into infrastructure investments, executing the projects, operating and maintaining them for government. The advantage, as we would often tout, has a lot to do with the efficiency of getting private sector with experience to do it. At the same time, it reduces need to use direct state budget for financing such projects, and reduce the need for government to get involved in the complexities of hiring specialists, working on those technical subjects that will not support other areas of government work.

We called these infrastructure projects public-private partnerships or PPPs. It has somehow unlocked lots of private sector financing into the market and supported infrastructure investments. That is all good but it made me wonder whether marketization infrastructure is necessarily a good thing. For one, collecting fees on a piece of infrastructure in order to maintain it sounds right; and that fee will somehow have to be regulated since the private sector party would try to extract all the surplus with its monopoly position. So what should the regulator allow? Average cost pricing or marginal cost pricing? There is a ‘right answer’ in economics but in practice it is always hard to really work out what is the long run marginal cost involved. Particularly if the amount of service you render in each time period varies with demand.

And who is to prevent the monopoly from trying to extract more surpluses by pushing the regulator to allow it to charge certain prices by gaming the criteria or the measurement methodologies that the public sector develops. So the cat and mouse game starts. Is this what we expect when we try to marketize infrastructure? And should we not expect it when we do go ahead to privatise infrastructure? Eventually the tax payers have to fund both the cat and the mouse – the regulator and the monopoly or the private shareholders’ profits. Does that really make sense in terms of overall economic efficiency?

And finally, can such a set up really deal with change? Especially with the energy and climate transition. A lot of infrastructure need to build in resilience, consider the climate impacts on not just their infrastructure but also their customers and the way their demand base will be evolving, whether that is going to impact existing business models. All that is not even accounting for the decarbonisation ambitions of their customers. Meanwhile, can these all become an excuse for extracting further surpluses?

Creating a market II

For some reason most people forget that energy markets were created through a combination of business activities and government regulation. There would be a push of some kind towards energy access, electrification in the beginning of any modern country’s development. There wasn’t that much public consultation around these topics – that was simply how development takes place and everyone sort of aspired towards that. Or so we thought; but systems were built to drive countries and societies towards those directions.

Today, in the struggle to set up an orderly energy transition, policy leadership from government is more important than ever. The challenge is in determining what are political choices and what are really policy-choices that is to be determined through more rigorous research and analysis. There is always the search for market-based solutions even though we might actually have seen in history that a lot of big dislocations are resolved or handled through public sector decisions and investments.

The idea of seeking the market for solutions is a new idea. And while the market appear to have been terrific in generating a whole load of choices and new options, the fundamental innovations are still pulled together by a greater sense of mission than market competition. We probably need to mature further to appreciate this.