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Energy Transition Is Not The Same Thing As Sustainability (but it could be).

Updated: Jan 4

In 1987, the United Nations Brundtland Commission defined sustainability as:


"meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs."


The question I would like to pose is:


Are current policies for energy transition sustainable?


To answer that question, I will start with a history lesson.


Along with sustainability, "energy transition" is the phrase on every politician, CEO's and energy blogger's lips. But energy transition is not a new thing. I lived and experienced the consequences of an energy transition in the 1980s.


I grew up in a mining town in the North Nottinghamshire coalfields in the 1980s. My most vivid memory is of the coal miner's strike in 1984 when many of the two-hundred and thirty-seven thousand people working in the coal industry went on strike to protest against the closure of mines in the UK [1]. I remember the picket lines, the violent pitched battles between police and miners, and also the bitter animosity between miners on strike and miners not on strike. The attempt to keep the mines open failed. In 1980 there were 237 thousand people working in the coal industry, by 1990 this had fallen to 47 thousand, and by 2018 it was only one thousand people [2]. The result was the social and economic devastation of mining communities all over Britain. Communities have been blighted by mass unemployment ever since, and some communities have never recovered.


'However, coal mines were such a dominant employer in a mining communities that when a mine closed down, the economic effects were often devastating. When a town is so reliant on one major employer, the closure means that local unemployment could often be very high – 50% plus. Therefore, it was very difficult for the unemployed coal miners to find new employment. The coal miners faced significant geographical and occupational immobilities. (e.g. a miner may have no academic qualifications (not needed in mining)). After mine closure, it is hard to take jobs in the new service sector based economy. Therefore, there was understandable resistance to the closure of mines from local communities.' [3]


Do not take this observation the wrong way, I am not arguing that the transition from dirty dangerous coal to cleaner fuel was wrong, it was just that for some people working in the industry the change was anything but sustainable.


I would like to extend the UN definition of sustainability to:


"meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs or the compromise of social justice and inclusivity in the economic benefits."


Can we assume that the current 'energy transition' from carbon-based to 'renewables' is sustainable? Well, it depends on what you mean by sustainable and for whom we are talking? To answer that question, I am going to use a few examples and reference texts to demonstrate why energy transition may not be as sustainable as we think it is:



Energy Budget

When we think about renewable energy, just how much investment will it take, and from where will all this 'new energy' come? I will refer to David MacKay's excellent book 'Sustainable Energy - without the hot air' [4].


The first thing to know is that the majority of the energy is disproportionately used by a minority of countries that industrialized in the early 20th century and those countries are mostly responsible for greenhouse gas emissions. By disproportionate use, I mean energy use or greenhouse gas emissions per person (per capita). David MacKay provides an instructive plot showing energy usage by country scaled to the population [4, p13]. This plot shows that someone living in the USA emits four times more greenhouse gas per person compared to someone living in China, or that the United Kingdom emits six times more greenhouse gas than someone living in India


From David MacKay, Sustainable Energy — without the hot air [4]


Another way of looking at this is by using the World Bank data on energy usage as a function of GDP. You can conclude that the countries that are rich are so because they are also energy-rich (in reality consume the most energy).


From The World Bank


For the rich countries to mitigate climate change due to carbon emission and without compromise of lifestyle, all this energy needs to come from a carbon-free source. So how much does it take to go green? I will quote a few examples from David MacKays book:


Wind

'Then we conclude: if we covered Consumption Production of a Car at 40 kWh/d with Wind at 20 kWh/d: maximum plausible production from on-shore windmills in the United Kingdom is 20 kWh per day per person. the windiest 10% of the country with windmills (delivering 2 W/m2 ), we would be able to generate 20 kWh/d per person, which is half of the power used by driving an average fossil-fuel car 50 km per day.' [4]


Solar

'If a breakthrough of solar technology occurs and the cost of photovoltaics came down enough that we could deploy panels all over the countryside, what is the maximum conceivable production? Well, if we covered 5% of the UK with 10%-efficient panels, we'd have ≃ 50 kWh/day/person.'


'plan? The solar power capacity required to deliver this 50 kWh per day per person in the UK is more than 100 times all the photovoltaics in the whole world.'


'And today, electricity from solar farms would be four times as expensive as the market rate. So I feel a bit irresponsible as I include this estimate in the sustainable production stack in figure 6.9 – paving 5% of the UK with solar panels seems beyond the bounds of plausibility in so many ways.' [4]


Biomass

'The most efficient plants in Europe are about 2%-efficient at turning solar energy into carbohydrates, which would suggest that plants might deliver 2 W/m2 ; however, their efficiency drops at higher light levels, and the best performance of any energy crops in Europe is closer to 0.5 W/m2 . Let's cover 75% of the country with quality green stuff. That's 3000 m2 per person devoted to bio-energy. This is the same as the British land area. This is the same as the British land area currently devoted to agriculture.' [4]


David MacKay also points out the social inertia behind the mass adoption of renewable energy in rich countries. This inertia is partly down to 'what is sustainable and to whom?' In many cases, sustainable means 'NOT IN MY BACKYARD'. For example (from David MacKay's book):


Wind farms? "No, they're ugly noisy things."


Solar panels on roofs? "No, they would spoil the visual amenity of the street."


More forestry? "No, it ruins the countryside."


Waste incineration? "No, I'm worried about health risks, traffic congestion, dust and noise."


" Hydroelectricity? "Yes, but not big hydro – that harms the environment."


Offshore wind? " No, I'm more worried about the ugly powerlines coming ashore than I was about a Nazi invasion."


Wave or geothermal power? "No, far too expensive."


Ok, so I think you get the picture.


For the following discussion, I will assume no additional nuclear capacity. Putting to one side the question of nuclear, David's conclusion is startling: If you want a country like the UK to go green, you need to import power from countries that have a low population and resources available to produce renewable energy. For example, installing enormous solar farms in sub-Saharan Africa and exporting power (or Hydrogen) to Europe


'we get all the green electricity from a mix of four sources: from our own renewables; perhaps from "clean coal;" perhaps from nuclear; and finally, and with great politeness, from other countries' renewables. Among other countries' renewables, solar power in deserts is the most plentiful option. As long as we can build peaceful international collaborations, solar power in other people's deserts certainly has the technical potential to provide us, them, and everyone with 125 kWh per day per person.' [4]


But here is the problem, if we import that power from elsewhere, our 'sustainable' (western) lifestyle looks relatively good from where we are standing. But what about the countries who are supplying all that energy. If we are using up that power, then the population of the supplying country is not using that energy. You might say that these countries will be receiving revenue for this energy service. However, many of these potential country suppliers suffer from corruption, and much of the money generated will line the pockets of a few influential people. We only have to look at the history of oil and gas in West Africa to understand this. Also, there can be no doubt from the world bank data that countries with a high GDP consume a lot of power. Correlation is not causation, but we can safely assume that growth requires energy, and those that consume the most energy have the best chance of improving GDP. Energy poverty is a serious problem [5] and the export of energy from those who most need it will only increase the difficulty of escaping poverty. However, MacKay believes that there is enough renewable potential in these countries for both internal use and their own use. The question is how do we incentivize inward investment so we do not repeat the mistakes of the oil age where many oil-rich countries are still impoverished.


Electric Vehicles

It turns out that electric vehicles (EVs) are a pretty good solution. They are very efficient, capable of 75% efficiency well-to-wheel (by well-to-wheel we mean the efficiency of the entire energy chain from the energy source to turning the wheels of a car). The efficiency of EVs is far better than the existing internal combustion engine, which is, at best, only about 35% efficient [4].


'I’ve looked up the performance figures for lots of electric vehicles – they’re listed in this chapter’s end-notes – and they seem to be consistent with this summary: electric vehicles can deliver transport at an energy cost of roughly 15 kWh per 100 km. That’s five times better than our baseline fossil-car, and significantly better than any hybrid cars. [4]


So electric vehicles (EVs) look pretty good, they are efficient, and they are clean. However, from the perspective of sustainability, they create a few problems. First, EVs require batteries, and the production maintenance and disposal of batteries bring issues. I have already blogged about the impact of cobalt mining on communities and how battery production sustainability breaks down for some communities:


‘Cobalt is a primary ingredient in making an electric battery, and Chinese firms own 80% of the worlds cobalt refineries, and that about two-thirds of cobalt is sourced from the Congo in West Africa, where poverty wages and child labour are the norm.’[6]


The other problem is most vehicles currently run on diesel or petrol. Mass uptake of EVs will require even more electrical energy, more scale-up of renewable energy, and the requirement for massive energy import even more likely. As Schot and Steinmueller put it:


‘However, if the electric vehicle only is a substitute for the current car and we continue with a car-dominated mobility system, the low carbon and inclusive economy will still be far away’ [7].


Some have argued that social problems of cobalt are over-hyped by those vested in carbon energy, and anyway, these social problems are wholly surmountable and a lesser evil compared to carbon-based fuels. I countered my own argument by saying that cobalt mining is also an economic opportunity for the Congolese who could benefit from the wealth generated. Again we return to the theme of sustainability.


Hydrogen

Hydrogen is hot news right now, for many it is the killer app for clean energy:


‘A new dawn for gas in Europe... This is going to be a step change for the gas sector and one which we are embracing and leading.’ James Watson, Secretary-General of Eurogas, reacting to the EU Hydrogen Strategy. [8]


To understand Hydrogen, you need to understand that it is not a primary fuel, but it is an energy carrier or energy vector. Much in the same way electricity is produced from fuel or mechanical work (wind), Hydrogen is made either from methane or by electrolysis of water. Unlike oil and gas, Hydrogen does not naturally occur (or at least not in large extractable quantities). It takes (a lot) of energy to produce, compress and transport Hydrogen.


The problem is that, in the round, Hydrogen is just not very efficient. Although to be fair, it might be a better choice than the carbon-producing methane it could replace.


Here are a few instructive diagrams from David Cebon, who is associated with the ‘The Centre for Sustainable Transport’ [9], [10]. Both diagrams compare the energy efficiency of Hydrogen with other solutions. The first example is using Hydrogen to heat homes compared with heat-pumps run directly by electricity from the grid. Hydrogen is about 50% efficient with 46KWh of output from 100 KWh of input. This efficiency is worse than either an electric space heater (96%) or a heat pump (270%). I will not cover why heat pumps are so efficient. Please read David Cebon’s or David MacKays work to find out why



From David Cebon [9]


Also, Hydrogen is less efficient than using natural gas in modern condensing boilers, which are about 95% efficient, accounting for processing, compression, and transport, natural gas is somewhere between 75% and 90% efficient. The only advantage hydrogen has over natural gas is that it is carbon-free at the point of consumption. Right now the most popular way to produce Hydrogen is via Steam Methane Reformation, which uses a natural gas feedstock and emits carbon unless that carbon is captured, compressed, and stored underground. The second diagram, from David Cebon, shows the efficiency of SMR sourced Hydrogen for a method of producing Hydrogen for heating. Again the hydrogen solution is only about 50% efficient. The big plus here is thatwe get rid of carbon from the gas we are burning.



From David Cebon [9]


So what about hydrogen cars. Hydrogen in cars has a really big advantage that the vehicle has a much greater range and can be refueled quickly, much like a petrol car. However, compared to the electrification of vehicles, it is a lot less efficient. Volkswagen published a diagram comparing hydrogen cars with electric cars [11]. Bear in mind this was published by Volkswagen who is fully vested in EV’s but has eschewed Hydrogen. Hydrogen for cars, well-to-wheel is only about 30% efficient, compared to EVs at 76%. But again, horses for courses, it might be that hydrogen convenience trumps the energy budget. After all, we have been using inefficient petrol for transport for one hundred years, because of the economic benefit of convenience.



From Volkswagen [11]


So the problem with Hydrogen is that it is clean and convenient, but it is not very efficient. For both heating and transport for every unit of energy from Hydrogen, we have to consume two to three units of energy upstream in the energy chain. Assuming we go green and use electrolyzers this places even more demand for renewable energy that is barely capable of supplying our current needs.


That does not mean that Hydrogen does not have a place. Hydrogen is clean convenient, and the technology is available today. It might offer a solution for the rapid decarbonization of heavy transport in the short term. For heavy haulage long-distance transport and shipping, it might even be the only answer. I cannot discount that technology will advance so that the Hydrogen from electrolysis will be much more efficient. Also, despite Hydrogen’s inefficiency, it may be a solution for locations with an excess of renewable energy that is remote and needs a storage medium to smooth out demand where battery storage is just not very convenient or desirable. I can see a place for Hydrogen on small island communities with an excess of wind, wave, and tidal power. Some of this Hydrogen could be exported, giving a valuable source of export revenue for small communities. In this way, Hydrogen could be sustainable and even a vehicle for pulling some communities out of poverty via localisation and democratisation of energy.


So what is the sustainable solution?


In this blog, I have shown that the energy transition is not new. Whether or not energy transition is sustainable depends on how you define sustainability and from whose perspective you judge sustainability. If we go with my definition:


“meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs or the compromise of social justice and inclusivity in the economic benefits.”


The transition from coal was not sustainable for mining communities in the UK; for them, there was no social justice. I suspect that the transition from oil and gas will not be seen as sustainable by the communities that depend on oil and gas for employment, for example, Aberdeen in North Scotland.


Energy consumption is the backbone of economic growth. Countries with the highest GDP and most luxurious lifestyles consume the most energy (although there are large poverty gaps within those countries).


I have also shown, with the help of other writers, that these rich countries are unlikely to meet all their energy needs from internally generated renewable energy and will require energy import.


Countries that have resources to develop a renewable energy export may inadvertently increase energy poverty for their population. If we accept energy equals growth, then people in those countries may not experience economic benefits as they are not using the renewable energy produced. Certain green technologies have the potential to worsen the energy balance equation. A dash to Hydrogen may further increase our problems, particularly a shortage of renewable energy in developing countries. Green technology can cause other social-environmental issues, consider the poverty of the cobalt industry in West Africa, or the environmental impact of the mountains of e-waste generated by battery disposal.


For the energy transition to be sustainable, I would argue that


(1) We should consider the social impact of transition on established industrial communities and create mitigation strategies to ease the transition.


(2) The transition to clean energy needs to include social justice, to continue to lift people out of poverty and ensure people in the future are no worse off. People and countries need equal access to clean energy.


(3) Technologies must be considered in terms of energy budget and energy efficiency, not just cleanliness and convenience. Any technology with low overall efficiency might not be sustainable on a global scale, although we discover that there is a niche application for technology such as Hydrogen (i.e. heavy haulage, small islands, some energy storage, and local communities).


Clean energy is not the same thing as sustainable energy. My opinion is that for global sustainability, those countries that consume the most energy need to focus on dramatically cutting energy consumption, and not increasing the consumption of even more resources to produce clean energy to maintain the economic status quo.


References


I have drawn on many other people's hard work to create this synthesis. Please take the time to check out the references and read David MacKay’s book.


[1] Wikipedia, “UK miners’ strike (1984–85).” https://bit.ly/34oMEVV.


[2] Statista, “Employment in coal mining industry in the United Kingdom (UK) 1920-2019 Published by M. Garside, Nov 5, 2020.” https://www.statista.com/statistics/371069/employment-in-coal-mining-industry-in-the-united-kingdom-uk/.


[3] T. Pettinger, “The decline of the UK Coal Industry,” EconomicsHelp.org, 2016. https://www.economicshelp.org/blog/6498/uncategorized/the-decline-of-the-uk-coal-industry/.


[4] D. J. MacKay, Sustainable Energy — without the hot air. Cambridge: UIT, 2009. David MacKay FRS: : Contents (withouthotair.com)


[5] M. González-Eguino, “Energy poverty: An overview,” Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 2015, doi: 10.1016/j.rser.2015.03.013.


[6] S. Stromberg, “How should we incentivise the ‘Green Recovery’.,” 2020. https://www.strombergenergy.com/post/how-should-we-incentivise-a-green-recovery.


[7] J. Schot and W. E. Steinmueller, “Three frames for innovation policy: R&D, systems of innovation and transformative change,” Res. Policy, vol. 47, no. 9, pp. 1554–1567, Nov. 2018, doi: 10.1016/j.respol.2018.08.011.


[8] F. K. and E. G. Belén Balanyá, Gaëtane Charlier and J. O. and P. S. D. by E. S. Edited by Katharine Ainger, “THE HYDROGEN HYPE: GAS INDUSTRY FAIRY TALE OR CLIMATE HORROR STORY?,” 2020. [Online]. Available: https://corporateeurope.org/sites/default/files/2020-12/hydrogen-report-web-final_0.pdf.


[9] D. Cebon, “Hydrogen for Heating?” http://www.csrf.ac.uk/2020/09/hydrogen-for-heating/.


[10] D. Cebon, “Technologies for Large-Scale Electricity Storage.” https://www.csrf.ac.uk/2020/11/electricity-storage/.


[11] Volkswagen, “Electric battery or Hydrogen? We explain where the decisive advantages of the electric drive over the fuel cell currently lie. And why there is no alternative to Volkswagen’s decision to consistently promote e-mobility.” https://www.volkswagenag.com/en/news/stories/2019/08/hydrogen-or-battery--that-is-the-question.html#:~:text=This means that the Hydrogen,to 20 percent overall efficiency.

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