Power to liquid fuels

I’m not sure if I’m yet in position to criticise McKinsey – but Mariana Mazzucato did and probably so did some media somewhere somehow that I feel sufficiently assured that I could.

The report they published last year about power-to-liquids for Sustainable Aviation Fuels is honestly trying to popularise something potentially risky and have questionable sustainability credentials. First, the process of producing green hydrogen and then recombining it with carbon dioxide only for the compound to be combusted to release that carbon dioxide sounds really strange given that we are trying to reduce carbon emissions.

Second, the idea of using industrial carbon dioxide for producing power-to-liquid fuel is misguided especially when that carbon dioxide is potentially anthropogenic emissions. By taking that and putting it into jet fuel, one is simply delaying the release of the carbon into the atmosphere by 1 cycle, not preventing it.

Third, using direct air capture carbon dioxide to produce fuel that would then release the carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere does not make that much sense from a thermodynamics perspective. So what exactly is McKinsey up to? Why do they insist that power-to-liquids are not constrained by feedstocks?

Building solar developments in sparsely populated, nonarable regions on just 1 to 2 percent of desert land would provide enough PtL fuel to decarbonize the entire aviation sector by 2030.

What about the pure water needed for the electrolysis of water to produce green hydrogen? Where is that going to come from? Where will the relevant carbon dioxide come from? How are the recommendations or “strategies” really helping to decarbonise the aviation sector? What is McKinsey trying to ‘solve’ or be strategic about when they consider power-to-liquids as a solution for decarbonising aviation? Are they just trying to diversify their positions to take so that they can gain more business from more people? Where is their conviction?

Unintentional greenwashing

In this whole green wave there’s lots of hype and one of the dangers that corporates put themselves is being cast as greenwashers. The challenge is that some corporates might just be doing it unintentionally, without having realised the hypocrisy surrounding their brandishing of green credentials because they did not realise how much harm their business activities have been bringing to the environment.

The initial audit of the business is important from the ESG perspective but it doesn’t stop at just reporting because if the initial audit is all it takes to establish green claims and then allow businesses to carry on, it would have been a waste of opportunity. Corporate leaders need to recognise that subjecting themselves to these audits and scrutiny should not earn them any kudos. So they should not be patting themselves on the back if those reporting metric turns out stellar. Rather, they should be thinking about what approach they have taken to their businesses that enabled that.

And then they should be considering if there are blindspots or areas of their businesses where the right philosophy hasn’t been applied. The hypocrisy can often stem from the fact that executives are too busy gaming the reporting metrics as opposed to genuinely thinking through business processes and activities. That can still be unintentional but they can start making sure that their activities to gear the company towards green can be more intentional.

Green race

The beauty of the market system emerges when there’s competition along the right dimensions just when we all need them. But competition doesn’t always require a market economy – there’s always limited resources, time and other constraints that requires us to somehow compete. There’s also reputation, attention of people and recognition that drives us to compete. In the 20th century, the space race during the cold war led to phenomenal technical and technological advances which powered the growth over the 21st century.

There was an alignment of political, and public interest. The economic interest was not entirely foreseen and only realised much later. But it seemed that entire economies of Europe, US and Soviet Union were engaged in this mission. It seemed like a conflict and perhaps competition of egos but eventually worked for the good of mankind.

Today we need to shift this mission for space to a mission for mankind on our planet. Developing a green race probably takes a good alignment of the public and political interest, as well as some kind of competitive tensions. We are beginning to observe this with first sound of the trumpet from US with its IRA focus on Clean Energy and climate transition last year; and then Canada followed with its own programme to fund indigenous clean energy projects. Australia’s announcement last week with a highly targeted programme focusing on hydrogen reflects the same sort of tension around the competition to attract the competent hydrogen players to develop required projects in their backyard.

As an energy transition consultant, I welcome this. As much as we might think the competition can result in duplicative efforts and inefficiency, it is what we need to align the incentives in the market with the interest of the overall society. Moreover, harnessing the public interest and pressure upon this topic through directing the workforce and human capital towards the low-carbon economy is much needed. The green race should hopefully create the necessary ecosystem we need to drive further changes and ensure the climate transition.

Planet, people and profits

Open dialogues with investors are needed by management of companies emitting lots of carbon dioxide. The investors are pushing for companies to decarbonise, disclose their emissions, create long term roadmaps for decarbonising their businesses. But what about making sure executive compensation is aligned with those goals?

What about the amount of returns they are willing to sacrifice in the short term to build greener supply chains? Must it be quantified in terms of reputational risks and climated-related financial risks? Are we overemphasizing the financial KPIs at the expense of the environmental values we should truly be caring about. Is our people and planet really put before profits? After all, businesses would claim that profits keep them alive to drive the goals of people and planet?

Maybe it is about agreeing on a minimum viable return or profit to keep investors there. Perhaps anything beyond that minimum viable return should be directed towards greater climate ambitions. If we truly believe that the future unit of competition is making a contribution to green rather than profits, we need to start acting as such.

Sunsetting infrastructure

At some point in my career I got involved with projects with utilities in Australia. First with electricity distribution networks, then with gas utilities as well. They are all energy networks or utilities because my role as an energy transition consultant is to help players in the economy to navigate the challenges and struggles around our transforming energy landscape. They are struggles that the players and our economy must go through in order to emerge more resilient and climate-relevant.

Electricity networks are seen as important for the energy transition – the drive to decarbonise the energy system – so much so that The Economist ran a cover in April this year that shows a man hugging a transmission tower and the cover text reads “Hug Pylons Not Trees“.

Gas networks and pipelines are on the other end of the spectrum. There’s a lot of concerns around what is going to happen and the expectations of a death spiral. Activists campaigning against the gas networks can sometimes claim that they should be written off completely while contradicting themselves that the assets should not be allowed to depreciate quickly given they still have some operating life or runway. There is a role for gas networks to actually consider the challenging question of getting renewable gas into their network and the struggle has to do perhaps with the question of which gas. Would it be hydrogen, or biomethane, or what? And on the other hand, will they need to transport carbon dioxide? Perhaps captured ones from the industry? What role can the pipelines or network play?

If we keep thinking about molecules and figuring out which molecules, we’ll be somewhat stuck. The trick it seems, is to consider potentially taking the lead. It is still fascinating that Jemena actually took the lead to initiate the Malabar biomethane injection project and saw through it to the recent operation with the first biomethane injection into a distribution network in Australia. Biomethane in most cases is the straight-forward solution – one that is tricky to pull off but can be handled just from supply-side as the end-use equipment will not have to switch from the ones that already use natural gas. Therefore, it is the logical choice for gas networks to start taking the lead on. Perhaps in the next two to three years, it would soon be a no-brainer. But for now, we do what we can to further accelerate the transition.

Way the system works

This is the way the system works. For everything you see in the wild, every specie of plant, insect, animal out there, they are the survivors. Somehow, someone, somewhere is keeping them alive. There is an ecosystem and while it is not like they could get by without doing a thing, their survival comes not from them alone. There’s a system thing going on. And overall, the system keeps all of them alive.

Why are the households running well, and companies making stuff, selling them? Why are we all with jobs or having kids growing up well and paying taxes? That’s because we are fed in a system that manages and coordinates those relationships. And keep things going. Of course, some systems are sustainable and some are not. In most cases, one could say no system is infinitely sustainable, just awaiting our discovery of the break in it.

The oil companies continue to extract and sell oil; and power plants continue to burn fuels and emit carbon dioxide because there’s a system that works with them in the place. That will always keep them surviving – at the expense of the future that we want to create. To overcome that system, we need to be able to dream up and work towards the alternative system.

Specialisation and impact

It’s becoming really hard to use experience as a way to measure people’s ability to perform certain work. The problems that our world is seeking to solve are what we have not seen before and if we know exactly what experience would help us find the solution, then we are already prescribing the solution somewhat. Moreover, a lot of innovations that are needed to deal with those problems only emerged in the last 3-5 years in a big way. The person with 10-20 years experience in wind or solar may not be adequately equipped to support a project today where one has to consider elements of energy storage and even green hydrogen production.

When we choose to specialise, and the area we enter is something growing and continually improving, we are caught in some kind of race – with the field itself and also other people who are pouring into the field. Energy and climate transition appears to be in that category and being a consultant in this space, I’m conscious that there are more consultancies who are entering this space without much credibility. It’s good to have more people championing this cause for mankind but there’s a risk that the transition gets slowed down by some of the ESG crowd that is distracting us from the true solutions by shifting the attention towards elements of compliance and reporting as opposed to real action.

In terms of recruitment and hiring, we are seeing more people trying to step up to the challenge but without the right or clear understanding what the energy or climate transition is about. I am seeing people who are intent on joining a hype train without recognizing its genuine significance in the world. The choice to specialise should not to be making more bucks but to make a greater impact than one would make merely from just doing the general. At this point when people are not going to be hiring for experience, young people have the opportunity to differentiate themselves. And this differentiation will not be just a matter of talking about passion but understanding the impact one is trying to make.

Credit matters differently

More than 10 years ago, I took a course in microfinance and then spent some time in a village in Ghana’s Central region designing a village savings scheme for the villagers to pool capital in a manner that allowed them to access the mainstream banking system and also to invest in machines that the farmers could share in, and enhance productivity. It was microfinance but applied differently, a model the team created after consulting the people in the village and concerns around creation of debt.

Microfinance was quite popular then and the common belief was that there were productive people with the opportunities to put capital into productive use but did not have access to credit to allow them to do so because traditional finance were not accessible by these folks.

What was missing from the picture was that these people had struggled to save as well because they did not have places to safekeep cash or other asset instruments they had. This could be why the pre-paid mobile credits were popular and important economic enablers in some of these environments. Credit and savings are different sides of a coin and the way these services are valued works differently in different cultural contexts and markets.

The next generation of retail finance will have to start examining these cultures more to develop stronger value propositions. Central banks paying attention to consumer credit and savings behaviour would be wise to appreciate these elements too.

Whose responsibility?

So Singapore’s target for net-zero is 2050, with the public sector aiming to reach the target in 2045. And with coordination being touted as one of the core strengths of the Singapore government, we have a Chief sustainability within the government to manage that. This role in businesses is still very ambiguous and it is not clear whether the person is managing the process of decarbonisation for the the company or to manage the sustainability offering of the firm.

Likewise, it is not entirely clear whether the Chief sustainability in the government of a country should be responsible only for the public sector emissions or taking charge of the reduction of emissions across the entire country. Frankly, the public sector emissions are already very significant. Part of the challenge is that almost all of the wastewater treatment and water supply plants are owned and operated by the government; at the same time, the government also own and operate incineration plants. This is probably why in the business times article, it was stated that Ministry of Sustainability & Environment is itself one of the large emitter.

But Singapore’s approach to decarbonisation is unlikely to be about the government just dealing with its own emissions and then trying to create structures to drive decarbonisation of the private sector. The fact that the Chief sustainability starts talking about costs, value and trade-offs is already a clear sign that the government is probably thinking about abatement cost at a system level. And it is true that the government in Singapore is uniquely positioned to evaluate this. We might have a shot at being able to collectively determine what are the lowest hanging fruit across the society to reduce emissions and then collective work through the curve of diminishing marginal returns. In other words, we can look at the avenues of abatement that incur the lowest costs while making the largest reductions first.

This means that while the government might be able to try to reduce energy use in the desalination plants or secure green electricity, they might not because there may be other industries that can reduce the emissions at lower costs. This sort of system level optimisation may not be possible in bigger countries; but for a small island state where our renewable resources are too scarce, that might be the only way.

Con-sulting II

The role of language in business varies from culture to culture. And as the economy goes through greater prosperity, marketing takes hold at generating more interest and demand, even for goods we don’t fundamentally “need”.

Just recently, while in a bookstore section where they sell little gifts and trinkets, my wife mentioned to me “the thing I love about bookstores is this section where they sell such beautiful things”. To which I responded “that’s exactly what I dislike because they have such nice little things that makes you feel like buying them but they are completely useless!”

We had spoken perhaps too loudly because the lady beside us let out a huge laughter and said, “Spoken like a true man!” We all had a big laugh together and I proceeded to the books section. Where I picked up The Big Con.

Part of modern capitalism is marketing and it can have the same effect as what Mariana Mazzucato is describing about big consulting firms “hollowing” out governments, creating dependencies and weakening the public sector capabilities. Modern consumerism “hollows” each of our lives out by getting us to focus on our ability to earn the most money, purchase or outsource everything else, stifling our abilities to seek and generate the very happyness we are pursuing that the economy tries to sell us.

The very thesis of Mariana can be generalised further into the other product and services markets. The question maybe is about restricting our purist economic thinking to only certain domains and not others.