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?
I wrote about the conversation I had around biofuels and e-fuels that are produced through power-to-fuel approaches. They have rather different chemical pathways, costs and constraints. I’d really like to see someone consider the resource intensity of these different approaches. The challenge for most studies is that they consider biofuels from a standpoint of resource potential as though the agriculture activities are inert. Of course there’s the whole question of whether land should be used for cultivation of food or energy. I won’t get into that.
But I’d be curious to see if people who can organise the supply chain across the land, the supply of food alongside the supply of feedstock towards the bioenergy plants had done their analysis on resource intensity. A good comparison of the resource intensity from the water-intensity, output logistics standpoint would be really good. It doesn’t have to be a full-fledged lifecycle assessment – back of envelope calculation would be helpful.
There is a view that bioresources are limited by the amount of feedstocks available. There is only this much used cooking oils (UCO) that you can convert to hydrotreated vegetable oils (HVOs) or into biojet fuel (typically via the Hydrotreated Esters and Fatty Acids (HEFA) pathway). And that power-to-liquid is theoretically not limited in terms of resource potential. That is not exactly true because we are still limited in our green options for power generation and green power itself can eat into resources required by other sectors. The conversion process to fuel also requires carbon dioxide feedstock of suitable concentration as well as pure water to be electrolysed to produce hydrogen.
It’s strange to think that we can have unlimited power or that we can easily power the world – remember those times when people actually calculated the amount of solar panels and space on land that is needed to power all the earth? The investment to be made in terms of building lines to distribute power, and the factories to take that power and convert them into the fuel needed would multiply the complexity problem of supplying the world’s energy needs.
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.
What does additionality mean? There’s this idea that the activity needs to add on something to the existing context. This is a big matter in the case of renewable energies as people are speaking against carbon credits or renewable energy certificates that are actually not adding more renewable energy or removing carbon emissions from the atmosphere.
We are trying to create a system where incentives themselves are not blunted or abused. If for example, we introduce incentives to reduce rat infestation by rewarding those who catch rats, then you risk the abuse where people are breeding rats to be killed and submitted for incentives. The result of this unintended condition is that people are taking actions that may be contrary to what the original intent of the incentives were.
The world is trying to shift towards a low carbon world. Incentives ought to be rejigged and aligned towards reducing carbon emissions. Yet if we allow abuses and undermine the credibility of emission reductions, we’re hurting ourselves. If forest land owners are suddenly making new revenue streams for trees they are already protecting, it might be a problem that there is no additionality for the new carbon assets.
We should only be incentivising activities that will reduce the world’s carbon emissions. Or increasing its sequestration. The problem is that is hard to measure and align standards of what really counts.
It can be pretty hard for me not to think about energy. It probably has to do with my job but the topic itself is fascinating. In some sense, ‘energy’ could be a subject itself that draws on science, mathematics, economics, engineering, law and many more disciplines to help us make sense of it. While we learn a lot about it in science, most of those fundamentals just remain where they are in our minds and do not connect with the wonders of modern technology and everything that we are so immersed in.
Electricity of course is the most fascinating of it all. It is the energy form that we have been able to manipulate with great precision and even enable energy to take on so much more new roles in life that it would not have been conceived to take on centuries ago even when electricity was first discovered. Electricity of course is a form of energy manifesting and needs to have various mediums, and the best carrier of electricity remains to be chemical batteries.
There are many other energy carriers as well and typically these are fuels; they are released through combustion. That produces heat energy which then can be transformed into kinetic energy, and in turn that tends to be then transformed into electrical energy with appropriate mechanisms such as some kind of motor and generator.
Carriers of energy are themselves interesting and fascinating because there are losses that results from going through the carriers and the various different forms of them. They also come in different forms, shapes and stability, influencing their functionality. Coal is a solid fuel; oils are liquid while natural gas is gaseous. Their state allows them to be conveyed differently and also affects the cost of transporting them.
Last century, the world was afraid of running out of them. Because they are commonly known as non-renewable energy. We use them faster than we can replenish them. Fossil fuels are created through millions of years. This century however, we begin to realise we will end up changing the climate of the world even before we run out of fossil fuel so we’re in a race to phase it out as quickly as we can. Alright it isn’t actually a race because many countries, organisations, assets are stubbornly using it.
But the point of this piece here is to help us recognise that fossil fuel does not have the monopoly in carrying energy and there can be more ways for us to obtain and use energy. Ways that can lead to sustainability and circularity in the world.
What are negative prices in the market? When you don’t want something and have to pay someone to take it. But why can’t you just “dispose” it somehow? Or “leave it there”? Maybe there are regulations in place. Or maybe there isn’t a place that you can and want to “leave it”
Carbon prices are negative prices; you need to pay someone to take it away. By creating regulations to prevent people from just “leaving it there (in the atmosphere)”, you push the cost of disposal to the polluters and set out the signals and momentum necessary to rewire the system.
Free market doesn’t emerge spontaneously; it requires regulation, boundaries and legal mechanisms to enforce rules, especially explicit ones. Implicit rules are also necessary to keep things together. Question is if we are willing to create a system intellectual property and enforce rights to spark innovation, why aren’t we doing so for climate change?
What constitutes waste for you? Is it when you decide something is useless for you? Or when you throw out something? Where you dispose of them matters because it defines where it goes and it determines what happen to the materials or matter and if it is classified as waste. The overall psyche of our current populace is mostly driven by the out of sight, out of mind approach to waste.
We could change the very idea of waste so that there is better recognition of the value of the material. This helps reduce the waste and encourage reusing.
Or we can make it way easier to recycle. But recycling will have to be different from disposal. And the recycling activity needs to be valued differently.
Huge amounts of subsidies goes into fuel and energy. The companies are not necessarily being the ones subsidised to produce the fuel but rather, domestic markets of net exporters tend to be protected somewhat from international energy prices through subsidies. The notion is to help maintain internal price stability and hence cope with cost of living.
Australia is one of the few markets who are net exporters of natural gas for example and yet do not really “shield” its domestic market from international price impacts. The result is that the recent price spike in natural gas had Australians screaming in pain and for perhaps the first times in decades, businesses and households are seriously considering disconnecting from the grid and electrifying.
But there can be a middle ground. Subsidies can exist for these energy exporters to protect their domestic users given that these exporters stand to gain when the energy price increase. How can they share these windfall with their own economy and the users in local market? The government can subsidise users but make the subsidy transparent. This way, households are not paying the full prices and they are also given information about how much the government is helping to make them affordable. At the same time, it becomes more politically acceptable to pull back on such subsidies for those heavy users who are higher on income brackets and can afford it.
For far too long, we shield the markets from the proper price signals and artificially create false sense of affordability by subsidies, we reduce the resilience of our economies and contribute further to wastage and carbon emissions. Making subsidies transparent is a great first step, towards removing this political gridlock around domestic energy tariffs.
A friend in the finance industry who probably makes more than 150k annually repairs different stuff as a hobby. He volunteers to help people with repairing household appliances like electric fans, water kettle, and he also learnt how to fix bikes.
He has since fixed a few worn and old rusted bike by derusting them, replacing the broken components. And then he sells off the bike to cover the cost of replacement parts. He doesn’t get paid for his time. Yet he is satisfied because he knows he’s doing his part for the earth.
By market forces, his time would have been worth more and can be more productively spent. But he’s not valuing time the way the market does; and he is certainly not valuing the earth the way our market does. He is using the market to satisfy his needs while trying his best to “save his earth” by his individual efforts.
The market does not automatically align incentives for the best outcomes; and if the government doesn’t have the courage to do it. We have severely limited time left to be valued, if at all.
There is always this age-old question of what you’d do if you’re rich. And then you might give an answer of an outcome that is already within your reach so then wanting to be rich is more about the identity that one would like to associate with.
What if you were resource rich? Like having lots of friends, or lots of land, or lots of cars, or collectible figurines? Do you think of those resource or things in terms of money? What if they don’t easily convert to money like friends or time? Does it matter?
How do you steward the resource that you are rich in? Does it matter if you can monetise it? Or whether its benefit is depleted by some actions you undertake? How do you think about it? What does it mean to “cash out” on your resources?
We all have a common resource and that is our atmosphere’s carrying capacity for carbon dioxide before climate goes completely amok and make our planet inhabitable. Sacrificing it could give us some money and maybe some comfort to certain extent. How would we steward it?