Gas Transition

Natural gas seem to be the fossil fuel which was supposed to be a transition fuel that overstayed its welcome. In fact, it seem to have failed at its job at properly displacing coal and yet today, it is seen as a dirty fuel to be transited away from rather than towards.

That is actually a very anglo-saxon view of the energy transition and if you go around Asia, to some of the fast growing economies you’d realise that notion is somewhat deluded. Natural gas is still growing and providing more energy to more businesses, households and people not because of the gas lobby or some kind of oil & gas conspiracy but that plans laid down in the past to move towards gas are just cranking on and moving forward. Sure, things are not moving as fast as we would like them to, but it is incredibly challenging to keep trying to drive people off gas towards renewable electricity when we have not properly dealt with or created a realistic pathway out of coal power.

A premature transition out of gas, especially for currently non-electrified uses, could be expensive. And electrifying heavy industrial loads when a power system is still dominated by coal, is certainly emissions-blind.

SAF and fuel mandates

I wrote about the trickiness of cutting subsidies which raises the cost to various groups in the society. This is effectively changing the underlying dynamics of wealth transfer in the society. Another thing that could alter the dynamics is putting some kind of regulation into the system. This tends to be less controversial when people are in agreement that the regulation is necessary. For example, getting companies to increase climate disclosure or just improve packaging labels etc would raise prices for customers as companies need to bear these costs in order to comply.

One could argue the consumers benefit from those regulations so it is fair for them to pay the price. What about when passing environmental regulations? Essentially when you first pass them, it creates benefits for parties going beyond the consumers themselves. Take the case of putting pollution control regulations on a manufacturing plant; eventually the consumers of the product of that plant is paying the cost but the ones who benefit from the regulation are the ones living near the manufacturing plant. That is when you evoke the ‘polluter pays’ principle because in this case, you are regulating away a ‘cost’ that existed in the system rather than creating a new benefit.

That brings us to the issue of climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. I work in the field of energy transition and this is intimate linked to those problems. For one, my day job is focused on solving these issues. What I’m wondering, as the CORSIA regulations kick in to push aviation industry to decarbonise, is whether national governments will choose to spend time going out to set up agreement to enable carbon credit trade which involves corresponding adjustments, or put in fuel blending mandates for Sustainable Aviation Fuel (SAF) which can play a role in airlines meeting CORSIA obligations.

Setting up fuel blending mandates will cost the airlines, who will then pass on the cost to the passengers. And perhaps that will reduce the tourism to the country, or perhaps it could increase the cost of doing business and hence make it less attractive for inbound investments. All of that factor causes it to be unclear who is paying the cost for the environmentalism and whether it ends up hurting the country more. Fuel blending mandate could nevertheless bring about new manufacturing jobs and opportunities that offset the job losses. And at the same time, you might attract relevant, future ready technologies to be based in your country.

Looking at the situation now, it is unlikely for SAF or other green fuels to get into the market through a supply push. The fact is that without a proper, transparent and accepted carbon price, there is no incentive to use a greener fuel that would cost more expensive. And this are green fuel that still ends up emitting carbon dioxide albeit in the short-cycle and hence considered to have zero greenhouse warming potential. Government should take the stance that they will have to mandate the blending and then manage the impact of the costs later. In this case, the ‘polluter pays’ principle could be evoked as a foundation but then various other instruments and tools can be used to cushion the impact for various groups to continue achieving economic objectives.

Energy subsidies

I don’t really remember the last time I dealt with the topic of subsidies. There are huge transfers that takes place in the economy as a result of government interventions through a combination of taxes and subsidies. It is hard to see what the real effects are because the result is always nett of a combination of different forces and programmes. As a result, it is hard to see whether the end result was intentional or not. Often, the end result can be intentional but brought about through a combination of transfers or policies with differing stated intents.

Take for example the whole issue of fuel and energy subsidies. There are explicit and implicit subsidies and they are applied at different levels, to different parts of the value chain, captured by different parties. Of course, the result is to some extent lower cost of energy, but it is also more energy used than otherwise would be. Well, why would you favour wasting energy? Often, it’s because it can help to divert perhaps certain industrial activities that could have downstream impacts such as helping to alleviate poverty, create employment, strengthen social cohesiveness and the list goes on.

After a while, you realised that in the sphere of politics and governance, economics only holds to a certain extent. And competition often can be defined within a single dimension but actually practised over that. What this means is that if you think you’re working hard for school grades, you’d be outcompeted by someone who recognizes that his grades mean little if it is not directed towards getting to a good school or a good job. There is always a greater arena that you are actually competing within.

What this means for renewable energy is that they are not just competing with fossil fuel in terms of adoption and capital for deployment but also consumption and subsidies. Of course there is lots of subsidies going around – for example, for hydrogen. The question is whether it is worthwhile pouring subsidy into that or a more mature energy vector that has the potential to decarbonise (for example, biomethane). However, there are limitations to biomethane or bioenergy because of feedstock limitations, because of the dispersed nature of the feedstock, and the difficulties associated with deployment.

Well, there are also budget limits and land limits. It is strange how people prefer to invest in areas that have more unknowns and uncertainties rather than areas where limits are more ‘known’, but the market could still be sizable. In Australia especially, I think there is incredible upside to taking the long-term view in things because it is a market where sensibilities do tend to eventually prevail.

Originally the intent was to rant about fossil energy subsidies but look where that got me.

Single pivot point

To make a change, we need a single pivot point each time. The pivot point is where things are fixed in place and do not change, and all the other changes hinge on it. And then when we make the next change, we can have another pivot point. But with any one change, we need to select a point of invariance to ensure some kind of order for the change.

In our climate transition today, too many people are trying to change things without a pivot point, thinking that the whole world has to transform. Determining what can be kept constant first is probably a good way to use consensus to drive actions. Then you’ll begin to realise what you are trying to keep the same can have far reaching consequences. For example, if you want to keep energy demand constant and start switching out existing demand into renewables, then you’re making it difficult for economic activities to expand. If you want to keep energy cost constant, then you risk keeping things to status quo and banishing adoption of costlier but greener technologies.

Laying out the trade-offs matter but one can consider how we fix certain parameters and move others first before coming back to revisit these. Take energy costs for example; given the cost of living issues and challenges, governments might want to focus on expanding proven, existing low cost green energy sources and pushing through all manner of regulations, and coordination necessary. Capture of landfill gas to be upgraded into biomethane and upgrading the biogas produced in wastewater treatment plants are low-cost sources of renewable gas that can be plugged into the existing system to displace fossil fuels. Malabar’s biomethane injection plant has just received the Greenpower certification and is the first biomethane plant in Australia to do so, ushering in what we hope to see as an era of using market mechanisms to drive renewable gas and fuel growth as it had done so for renewable electricity in the past decade in Australia.

Some may argue that prolongs the life of fossil infrastructure but we are calling them fossil infrastructure only because they are majority driven by fossil fuels as a result of legacy. One day, those infrastructure could be 100% driving renewable fuels.

Abating the easy stuff

Electrification is often easy in many cases. It is just about changing appliances. Of course, it is also about lifestyle and way of life. I personally still prefer to cook over a gas stove. But I won’t stop cooking without one; I’ve used various electric stoves before as well and didn’t face any major issues.

I’ve lived in house that had gas heating and also one with electrical heating. Regardless, the level of thermal comfort tends to be a trade-off between use of energy and insulation rather than necessarily the equipment for heating though the efficiency of the appliances would play a part. Going on to bigger things, there’s the electrification of transport. For most part, this can be based off just taking public trains or trams instead of driving. It can also involve using electric bikes. Of course finally, there’s the transition to electric cars.

None of these really do reduce emissions in and of themselves assuming no particular changes in energy efficiency of the basic fuel used. It is the energy source that matters. Electrification must be paired with switching power generation to renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydropower and so on. It is meaningless to have electric vehicles on the road and heating of homes with heat pumps when you are generating the power. The challenge of the energy transition is that many things are taking place together and people are not able to really keep track of how much emissions are going to be or might be. Therefore, the direction and rate of change is perhaps more significant to give a sense of how much change can or will happen.

Abatement of emissions through increasing power generation through renewable energy combined with electrification remains the simplest and most effective way to decarbonise our economies. However, the complexity lies in the fact that power prices affects the economy broadly and in many countries, they are subsidised at least for some sectors of the economy. By increasing the demand for power through electrification, the plans for subsidies for certain sectors might be affected. If supply is not increasing fast enough, power prices may increase in a way that reduces the competitiveness of other sectors and the economy as a whole. At the same time, there is also a risk that renewable power supply that is coming online is much more expensive, leading the overall electricity prices to increase anyways even if the supply is keeping up with demand.

Governments are afraid of adversely affecting the power prices as it has very broad sweeping economic consequences. Additionally, power transmission and distribution investments will also have to accelerate to cope with the increased demand and supply for power. Unlike the older set of infrastructure invested over time and much longer ago, we are looking at a huge ramp-up during a short period which means the infrastructure cost will have to be passed on to customers during an intense period of change. So while electrification combined with renewable power generation is the easiest pathway to decarbonise, there are systematic and political challenges around the distribution of the cost of energy transition to consider. Overall, the players who are electrifying some of the previous energy uses actually pass on parts of their cost of transition to the overall system as their participation in the market raises the cost of power for everyone.

For the typical electricity consumer, they would expect their share of the energy transition cost to be converting their load to be drawn from renewable energy sources. However, they now have to pay a share of the heightened infrastructure cost from the increased load, as well as the increased energy cost due to competition for renewable electricity. These complexities are slowing down a process that needs to happen much more quickly.

EV charging incentives

For a long time, EV charging infrastructure has been seen as something in the domain of public goods and should be driven by the government. The challenge on the government side is the question of whether it makes sense for them to invest ahead of EV adoption. Investors are nervous about it because EV chargers seem to them like something, which can pop up pretty much anywhere, and there’s no ‘moat’ to support stable revenues even if they serve as an infrastructure practically. Without proper government-regulated structure, it is difficult for investors to put capital into infrastructure in a place where there’s going to be limited utilisation.

Contrast this with petrol kiosk franchises – they are well-established and have demonstrable cash flow, with strong support from the oil & gas companies backing them. Electricity companies are sometimes backing EV charging point networks in order to increase electricity retail but the truth is that electricity distribution works on an entirely different business model from fuel distribution. A lot of investors believe that the petrol kiosks will themselves be the best location for very fast or ultra-fast chargers (usually 10-20 minutes for a full charge). The other fast chargers (1.5-4 hours for a full charge) will likely be in destinations like shopping malls or other commercial buildings.

Yet EV charging infrastructure is so important as a basis to increase EV uptake which the energy transition desperately needs. Electrification of energy needs from transport enables an easier decarbonisation as we can focus on renewable energy in the power sector while transport and other sectors just have to focus on electrification (which of course, can be quite a pain for some sectors – that’s for another day). So how do we increase and improve EV charging infrastructure? Where can we align the incentives? What role should the government play, if at all? And what if it becomes an extremely profitable business down the line?

Pathway to Hydrogen

I keep thinking about the role hydrogen would play in the netzero energy system. It is important because most specialists in the field think it will be incredibly important. But I’m afraid some of them think of the importance not from an energy or thermodynamics perspective but from a technological, socio-economic perspective. I think that is misguided for something that is so nascent and imature.

The solar and battery learning curves cannot be used to project what happens to hydrogen because it is fundamentally a more complex type of project. A lot less plug-and-play compared to solar panels or batteries. For solar panels, the technology takes in light and transform it into power, which in essence is the flow of electrons. There is of course the issue of DC power versus AC power but the inverters will deal with that translation; and you can plug directly to existing electricity grids. Of course, when you have a lot of them the grid must start shifting but at least you get a shot at getting started. And after that you’ve got batteries coming in, again almost ready to work with the existing electrical infrastructure.

Green hydrogen production integrates with the electricity system fine as well; it takes in power, feeds the electrolyser which separates pure water into oxygen and hydrogen, storing away the gas as it is being produced. However, the most valuable output in the process, the hydrogen, needs to be properly stored and transported to where it is needed. And all of these infrastructure do not yet exists! The largest part of the revenue generation problem has not been sorted!

This is why it is so difficult to get hydrogen started, and so expensive to do so even when the technology seem more and more established. The challenge is that a lot of that infrastructure would also serve some of the current fossil gas interests. There are issues of couse with the risks of interest conflicts when the fossil industry push for hydrogen.

The fact that hydrogen is not so plug-and-play to our current system means more evolution is needed before we are ready. Instead of putting direct incentives into hydrogen production, we should be using our resources to solve the problems along the journey to the hydrogen future. A lot of these problems involves collective action, coordination of choices and displacement of swarthe of economic activities that requires proper thought about restructuring.

There is really much more work to do than administering incentives. And this is definitely not an area the government can easily rely on market incentives to accomplish.

Ordering the transition

There is some kind of rational order to the energy transition. It depends on the maturity of the system, the current technologies deployed, the infrastructure in place, and also our views on the technologies ahead. This order will not occur naturally, nor will the economics of it follow naturally. Instead, it is an approach that requires coordination across the energy system, regulatory framework, and the markets to ensure that order proceeds as it should. There is no single right answer, which means there can be some variation but by and large, there are clearly right directions to move forward on.

It is critical to sharply focus on the objective of decarbonisation and organise other matters around it first. Presently, most of the global discussions, and the market narratives are clouded by issues around cost concerns, job losses, stranded assets and lots of doom and gloom around those. Worrying about them is putting the cart before the horse because we need to properly envision a future before we decide whether the sacrifices are worth and how to deal with those secondary problems derived from them. After all, you don’t choose your destination based on the public transport time table.

If for example we want to look at the decarbonisation of power systems, there is first the displacement of fossil generation with wind and solar. So wind and solar must first be installed into the system and ‘traditional renewable power’ such as hydropower and even bioenergy boosted. As battery technologies are not rolling out as quickly, hydropower and even biogas plants can and should help with some of the smoothing of supply. Yet if they are not sufficient, batteries must be put into the system to enhance the reliability and reduce intermittency so that renewable power is able to displace fossil generation.

And only then, would the power system be able to start supporting electrification of other industries as a route to decarbonise. There is no point thinking that electrification is a route to decarbonisation if the power system itself is loaded with coal and gas plants, and increased demand is continually used to justify the continued fossil presence. And then only when the power system is properly decarbonised should we start considering and pushing for green hydrogen. Otherwise, having our renewable electricity capacities all caught up in green hydrogen production is definitely not a great idea for the industries looking at electrification to decarbonise – you’re pushing up the electricity cost on both sides, and then you end up complaining that green hydrogen is not cost-competitive.

If we believe that we want to pursue a route of hydrogen production that is based on highly efficient electrolysers then we may only be able to do so when batteries are really cheap. This is because highly efficient electrolysers can only have their costs justified through high utilisation. Yet renewable electricity is expensive when they are scarce which is probably the case for a system full of solar at night, so if you want to keep the electrolysers going 24/7, you need batteries to keep pushing electrons through them. Highly efficient electrolysers, combined with lots of batteries for maintaining high utilisation is a great formula for extremely expensive green hydrogen. Cheap but inefficient electrolysers might actually end up doing the work of pushing down cost of hydrogen earlier (see some ideas here).

Now all that only helps with the production cost of green hydrogen; there are other issues and cost barriers which needs to be overcome. More on them in my next post. But what I’m trying to show here is that there is a rational, orderly way to approach the problem of decarbonising our systems. And the way to consider it is not to load up the emissions problem with all of the other considerations upfront. Rather, we organise ourselves better by thinking first about the best route to decarbonise based on carbon intensity, then we identify the costs, figure out the trade-offs and see what is worth sacrificing.

Transition fuels III

I’ve written about hydrogen (here, here and here) before and I would like to write more about it. Hydrogen is fascinating. It is a sole proton with an electron around it. Well, that’s the element, but it typically doesn’t exist in that form. Instead, it exists primarily as 2 protons bound together by a covalent bond supported by the existence of the 2 electrons sharing their electron orbitals within the covalent bond cloud.

Many people today believe that hydrogen is one of the fuels that the world will eventually transition to in the net zero world. This is one of the main reasons people are excited about hydrogen projects and hydrogen production (‘this is the future’). Much of that is grounded on the elusive quest to find some monolithic solution for the carbon conundrum. Not that the world will universally converge upon a single solution but that all solutions that are ultimately low carbon will stem from hydrogen or find its linkages to it somewhat.

But is hydrogen the future? Sure, hydrogen cars are really quick and easy to refuel. And indeed, a lot of industrial heating process currently running on natural gas can be supported by combusting hydrogen. And even better, hydrogen combustion merely produces steam, a byproduct that can be used for other purposes. There’s something beautiful about the non-toxicity and purity of the byproduct, the elegance of the molecule and perhaps the fact hydrogen is used in different processes in petrochemical industry. Hydrogen will be part of the future, but will it be ‘the future’? I think a lot more other supporting elements needs to come in place. An orderly energy transition is about proper sequencing and targeted shifts rather than trying to leapfrog or take potshots.

Over the past decades of stability, we’ve allowed the whole idea of economic growth and making money to take centerstage in the lives of the most productive people in the world. With the climate challenge, it is getting important to channel that resource and capability towards the energy transition. I’ll write more on my vision for an orderly transition from here. And if we all can align on the mission, we can start evaluating and piecing together various different routes and work through breaking the barriers and blockers. More on that soon.

Transition fuels

When Blunomy first started out as Enea Consulting in 2007, the world was not that different. We were burning lots of fossil fuels, except a lot more coal and oil. There was also less renewables then. Solar panels were incredibly expensive and people thought wind turbines were so clunky (and expensive for the amount of power it generates) it was not possible for the world to have more wind turbines than combustion turbines.

The period of 2000s saw the mainstreaming of liquefied natural gas (LNG) and gas was broadly touted as the transition fuel as the world cross from coal towards renewables. Emissions from combustion of gas was less than half that of power generation with coal, and gas power plants could fire up faster than coal power plants. Energy transition then was about fuel switching and the metric was more around carbon intensity per unit energy. Unfortunately, there was no regulations to push for shifts in this metric and so when the economics doesn’t line up, it simply was ignored. Coal power continued propagating in the world especially in the developing countries. Even in developed countries, coal plants were continuing to operate or even refurbished to extend their lifespans. Singapore’s Tembusu Multi-utilities complex which burns a mix of coal and other fuels, was commissioned as recent as 2013.

All these meant that as energy demand increased, the mainstreaming of gas especially through LNG was only serving incremental demand and not exactly displacing coal. Today, it gets lumped as ‘bad’ with coal and there are calls for it to be eliminated from the system. In many sense, people are considering gas no longer as a transition fuel but to be leapfrogged somewhat. The leapfrogging makes sense from a carbon intensity point of view. But by most counts, gas is a superior technology even to renewable power generation as gas power can still serve as baseload and is dispatchable unlike wind and solar which do not respond to the beck and call of power demand. Batteries help to overcome this but as long as the economics of renewables-plus-batteries is not superior to coal or gas, it will be a tough sell.

The reason for expansion of LNG was because of the superiority of gas in terms of technology, the way it matches our energy use, and the falling costs in the early 2000s. Projecting the way forward, this is unlikely to be true anymore as exploration in certain jurisdiction have slowed or ceased, existing gas fields are no longer as productive, and material costs have risen to counter the competitiveness. There is also a question of the new generation of engineers bothering to enter into this space if they perceive it as declining.

This is where bioenergy comes in and becomes positioned so awkwardly that it finds itself a little stuck. More on this soon.