The Energy Transition

The World’s Energy System needs great care and responsibility

International consensus has emerged that the world’s economies must move toward a net-zero carbon emission state by 2050.  The November 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26) is calling for all countries to set more ambitious reduction targets as a result, including setting concrete midterm reduction targets.  Little understood or recognized is the fact that the both the existing Paris Climate Accord and expectations for COP 26 do not call for an elimination of natural gas consumption in the pursuit of “net zero by 2050” goal. With respect to South Africa, as an example of a developing country, substantial coal to gas switching alongside intermittent renewable support from gas plants are expected to be part of its energy transition.   This has been carefully presented in the recently published National Business Initiative “Just Transition and Climate Pathways” study [See link].

Gas may be a “fossil fuel” but it is nature’s own battery: captured sunlight stored in organic matter – a far more efficient battery than human innovation has yet devised. Coal, oil and natural gas vary greatly in carbon content, one from the other, with gas containing plenty of energy with less than half the carbon content of coal.  It is therefore misleading to lump all fossil fuels together as uniformly undesirable. 

The International Energy Agency, based in Paris, offers an authoritative – and controversial – analysis of the pathway to net zero by 2050. See: https://www.iea.org/reports/net-zero-by-2050. In that analysis, they point out that “in 2050, almost half the reductions come from technologies that are currently at the demonstration or prototype phase.” Some are likely not even conceived of today, let alone invented. Many people seem to believe that by electrifying vehicles, the fossil energy (gasoline) is pushed out of the system, whereas actually the increase in power demand is satisfied in large part by fossil energy electricity generation – the point of combustion moves from the car engine to the power plant. There is a net reduction in emissions derived, just not the complete “cleanliness” of electric vehicles that many people think is so.

As published by the American Petroleum Institute, from data derived from the IEA, in 2040 oil and natural gas will still provide almost half the world’s energy needs, even if every country satisfies its emissions reduction commitments. See the below chart: 

Screenshot 2021-09-14 at 12.27.49

Source: https://www.api.org/climate

From this, logic dictates that the more that the fossil energy system moves to gas as the transition fuel, the more decarbonization will result. Without gas, power outages will become all the more commonplace – a fact of which those of us living in South Africa are very well acquainted. An internet search on the impacts of power cuts turns up all kinds of negative metrics, whether in GDP shrinkage, unemployment, withheld investment or unnecessary expense for backup generation (which is mainly diesel). When the power supplier refers to power cuts as “load-shedding,” it uses a supplier term, but from the demand side, a power cut is a power cut that no shift in language erases.

The rescue fuel is gas. It is cheap, abundant, seeking pathways to the market, over 50% less carbon-intensive, dependable (gives power within seconds) and flexible (can be shut off as soon as demand drops). While power is the anchor use for gas in Africa, gas can do far more that is also of value. Gas works great as a transportation fuel. This has long been the case for large vehicles, and is economic for passenger cars too. A simple engine conversion pays for itself in reduced fuel costs within 3-6 months, depending on the amount of vehicle use time. Imagine if all e-Rides and Taxis ran on natural gas: their single greatest cost would be cut in half, attracting more riders, reducing the quantity of single-occupants cars on the road, leading to reductions in both emissions and congestion. Gas is also a manufacturing feedstock, is effective for cooling as well as heating, and is clean and efficient for domestic use in heating, hot water and cooking – especially when the alternative is the continued use of coal-generated electricity or wood.    

Gas is and will remain vital to the world’s energy system. Without it, there will be an incomplete energy transition.