Energy transition: leave no man behind
As renewables advance, what happens to the existing infrastructures and workforce?
History teaches that energy transitions are not easy. For decades, whale oil was considered indispensable for a variety of applications, until it was gradually replaced by the cheaper and more efficient kerosene.
This transition led to the extinction of industrial whaling, one of the world’s first multinational businesses.
In this article Neil Ballinger, head of EMEA sales at automation equipment manufacturer EU Automation, talks us through the challenges of a different transition –one towards renewable energy sources.
Climate experts and environmental activists agree that limiting the consequences of global warming is a challenge that requires urgent attention.
To tackle the problem, in 2016 187 states signed the Paris Agreement, with the ambitious goal of keeping the increase in global temperatures below two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels.
To meet this target, the decarbonisation of the energy systems of each country will play a major role. However, the transition from fossil fuels to clean power sources is not so straightforward and involves major challenges.
Just like the shift from whale oil to kerosene, the transition to clean energy will require a long-term structural change in the way we manage our power-generating systems. In this process, it is important that no one is left behind.
What will happen to the infrastructure?
As more renewable sources are added to the grid, one of the problems facing system operators is that renewables can’t provide system inertia to the same extent as fossil fuels. Inertia is the stored rotating energy in the system and is formed as a by-product of power generation through traditional fuels.
Simply put, objects with large inertia – such as turbines in a fossil fuel power station – want to keep rotating at the same speed and need large amounts of force to slow down or stop completely.
AC power systems are designed to operate at a constant speed, which is sometimes referred to as frequency. To keep this frequency constant, it is necessary to store a certain amount of inertia.
Since renewables do not guarantee enough inertia to keep the system stable, it is necessary to use the turbines in existing infrastructures to store it.
Even if power will be generated from different sources, the existing infrastructures will still be used in the transitional phase to produce and store the by-products of power generation, such as inertia.
What will happen to the people?
Engineers and other highly skilled professionals in fossil fuel power plants might adapt their existing skillsets to the renewable energy sector. However, it might be considerably harder to rehabilitate low-skilled fossil fuel workers and their communities.
If the transition to a low carbon economy is not accompanied by retraining schemes, we risk the same high unemployment rates observed as a result of coal mine closures. Therefore, it is paramount that governments plan for a just and equal transition to clean energy.
The idea of a socially-just transition has been espoused by both the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
It was also a part of the Paris Agreement, which champions “the imperative of a just transition of the workforce and the creation of decent work and quality jobs” for fossil fuel workers.
There are several examples of successful upskilling of the fossil fuels workforce. Essen, in western Germany, has converted old coal mines into industrial heritage museums that attract millions of tourists every year.
Local coal communities have reinvented themselves to cater to tourists, with the help of the government and other stakeholders.
Liulong, in eastern China, has built a massive floating photovoltaic project on a lake covering an abandoned coal mine. Former coal miners have been retrained and are now employed in the solar project.
These examples show that sustainability and social justice can go hand in hand. As the transition to clean energy speeds up, stakeholders need to think about how to repurpose existing resources and skillsets.
By Neil Ballinger, Head of EMEA Sales, EU Automation
Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere