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.

Gas in households

When corporates purchase carbon credits and try to ‘offset’ their emissions, environmental groups would accuse them of greenwashing and to a certain extent, tokenism. Yet when Victoria state government bans gas in new homes from 2024, environmental groups were pleased and herald it as some degree or progress and victory.

It is easy to pass this off as a big move. Developers of new homes may have more planning restrictions. Those buying new homes will need to stop using gas. Gas demand growth from households will slow down but gas use in homes are a really tiny fraction of 17% contribution to the state’s emissions by the gas sector.

At the system level, Victoria’s grid emission factor in 2022 is actually such that it emits 4.6 times more carbon dioxide equivalent than combusting piped gas for an equivalent amount of energy. You can easily work that out by consulting the greenhouse emission factors published each year. Of course, I’m probably ignoring some of the emissions associated with the distribution part of things and also with fugitives. The reason for this big difference is the presence of coal-fired power plants on Victoria’s grid. In any case, all renewable energy injected into the grid from wind and solar will be used. Coal-fired power plants provide the baseload and gas-fired power plants usually absorb the additional load demand. What this means is that during the times (early morning or in the evenings) when you’re using electricity for heating or cooking in households, it is quite likely you’re consuming more gas fired power than solar power (whose generation peak in the mid-day).

There are questions on the efficiency of the whole process. Burning gas at power plants and converting them to electricity will result in some energy loss, and then using the electricity to convert it back to heat will mean a bit more losses (less than at the power plant of course); so heat applications for electricity isn’t all that efficient.

And then there is the question of energy bills. Whether you are consuming gas directly in the house or indirectly through electricity in the system, you are going to bear the cost of the gas that is consumed. In Australia, a large proportion of the cost of energy isn’t really in the energy itself but the share of cost that goes into infrastructure, especially that of distribution. Going full electric in households serves to help decarbonise the system only when the renewable electricity is supplied during the times when household’s demand peak. For solar, this is unlikely to be the case unless the household installs its own battery system to charge when solar generation is peak in mid-day. Batteries, additional distribution network assets to cater to peak renewable generation, are all infrastructure that will add to the cost of electricity.

So let us be honest about it: banning gas in residential use is unlikely to move the needle much in terms of decarbonisation in the electricity system right now. At least not all that much in Victoria. It is going to push the problem upstream where it can potentially be managed better. But a lot more actions will have to be taken. Would it improve indoor air quality for homes? Maybe, if your house is not properly ventilated but I doubt it is a very serious issue. Would it really reduce energy bills across the household? Quite unlikely. What it could accomplish is some degree of tokenism to pacify the groups of people who thinks it is a good idea.

Yet it is probably a setback for decarbonisation because we are narrowing ourselves to decarbonise by using a narrow set of technologies and forgetting about the ability to decarbonise gas through biomethane.

Big Fossil has a chance

I don’t want to call them big oil or big coal, or big gas anymore. They are big on fossil, fossil fuels. And they have a chance to make the future a better place; one that we all want to be part of. They have the opportunity; enormous opportunity to create the products and services that people need and want which will be good for them, and good for everybody else, not just good for the big fossil companies.

But to take advantage of this opportunity, they need to recognise people are not demanding for fossil fuels. They are demanding for energy, for access to energy, for cheaper energy. But that form of energy is fossil fuel, big fossil might retort. It is not. Fossil fuel is not cheap. It is not cheap because we all are paying in the form of greater natural disasters, in facing once-in-a-hundred-year floods almost every decade, in having to pay even more for heating during winters and cooling during summers. Fossil fuel is not what the world is demanding for.

Big fossil can ignore the NGOs, they can ignore the activist investors or the climate activists, and even government. Heck, they could buy out those sitting on the fence. They could even subsidize all manner of appliance, infrastructure, systems that entrench fossil fuels further. But they cannot ignore climate change; they cannot ignore the fact that we are not destroying earth with carbon emissions. We are destroying ourselves. And for what? Profits? What good are profits if that’s just creating a future no one wants to be part of?