Why we can't electrify everything

The faulty assumptions behind renewable enthusiasms

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By Gareth Lewis

“Assumptions are made,” remarked Albert Einstein, “and most assumptions are wrong.” He would have known.

We all make and act on assumptions, because life is experimental by nature. Assumptions underpin theories without which we couldn’t function. But assumptions need scrutiny, from time to time, and I’ve noticed that many people’s assumptions about how best to transition to low-carbon energy, in particular, are careless.

Let me start by specifying my own assumptions. I am a geoscientist who sees the climate as a marvelous, complex system of planetary feedback loops and mechanisms that act on many different timescales, from decades to millennia. I assume, having seen persuasive historical evidence, that these mechanisms are ultimately driven by the Earth’s interaction with the Sun. I assume these have dominated this planet’s climate cycles throughout its history. I assume, too, that concerns about the climate will drive energy policy, in the West, at least. I am deliberately agnostic here about whether these concerns are well-founded: I simply assume they will drive policy.

Although below I discuss only natural gas and liquified natural gas (LNG), the dominance of oil in the global energy mix causes me to assume that the world will, and must, continue to use significant volumes of oil in the coming decades—a necessity impervious to ideology of any stripe.

In pondering the inevitable energy transition, I’ve asked how best to achieve a rapid, affordable, and ultimately sustainable reduction in global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. I’ve noticed three assumptions, in particular, driving much public discourse. These assumptions often involve suppressed premises of their own. Many people, particularly those who seek a green energy transition powered solely or at least predominantly by renewables, are unaware, or at least seem unaware, of some or all of these premises. So I’ve spelled out them out below, and tried to do so as fairly as I can. I’ve also asked whether these premises are correct, and whether, when clearly spelled out, they still seem wholly rational.

Assumption 1: Transmission is king!

Proponents of electrifying everything are unalarmed by the spasmodic nature of wind and solar. They assume the right kind of electrical transmission system will buffer this intermittency.

To assume this usually requires, in turn, assuming that during times of excess generation, electricity can be stored in this vastly expanded transmission system, then moved where it’s needed, taking advantage of time zone shifts in peak demand. For example, if demand peaks in the east of the Americas between 7:00 pm and 9:00 pm, solar, wind, and hydroelectric power from the west would promptly be moved across this interconnected grid.

But seasonal changes in the length of the day and lack (or excess) of wind could challenge these assumptions. Excess that can’t be sold would just be curtailed. And even if these assumptions hold true, it would reduce, but not eliminate, the need for new energy storage solutions such as grid-scale batteries, flow batteries, pumped hydroelectricity, and (if utility and reliability are properly weighted) just-in-time solutions like natural-gas-fired power plants.

Electrify-everything advocates tend also to assume grid interconnections will work in both directions and smart grids will be deployed widely. They may not fully appreciate how much it will cost to build the transmission infrastructure we’d need to run every device that now runs on fossil fuels. What’s more, we’ll need more power to keep pace with economic growth.

The closest thing I’ve seen to a precise cost estimate is a paper, commissioned by the Canadian Gas Association, that assesses how much this transition would cost in Canada. Even this study makes many favorable assumptions about the cost and timing of electrification technology, and it still doesn’t tally the full cost of building the transmission infrastructure required for total electrification.

A quarter of the fossil-fueled industrial energy that we use now comes from gas-fired plants. The Canadian Gas Association study assumes, reasonably, that significant assets like these plants, and about 75 percent of our trucks, will be used until the end of their lifespans. Retiring them early would increase the cost of the transition.

Their estimate of the cost of Canada’s energy transition between now and 2050 depends on the scenario. In one scenario, we continue to use a hybrid of renewables, natural gas, and other fossil fuels. In another, we use only renewables. Even with the favorable inbuilt assumptions I’ve described, they reckon that the transition, in the hybrid scenario, would cost C$580 billion (US$472 billion, at today’s exchange rate). In the second scenario, it would cost C$1,370 billion (US$1,115,830).

They estimate, too, that the cost of upgrading transmissions would range from C$84 billion in the hybrid scenario to C$227 billion in the all-renewables scenario. (US$68.4 billion and US$185 billion, respectively.)

If this proposal is to work at all, four assumptions must hold true: First, power will be available, somewhere, when it’s needed, and we can get it where it’s needed most of the time. Second, the transmission infrastructure we need can be built quickly and affordably. Third, power will generally be available at a reasonable cost. And finally, consumers will be willing to adapt their power consumption habits, using power at times when enough of it is available.

None of this is quite certain.

Argument 2. Fossil fuels must go!

Many green energy advocates reject the idea that natural gas and LNG should contribute to lowering GHG emissions, even though the replacement of coal by natural gas is the major reason a number of countries’ emissions, including those of the United States, have declined since the mid-2000s.

Trans-oceanic electricity transmission is generally infeasible, although a 4,000 km “Sun Cable” from Australia to Singapore is in the works. There are only two real options for the global transport of lower-carbon energy: LNG, whose global distribution network has been built over decades, or hydrogen, probably in the form of ammonia. I would argue that the value of LNG in reducing emissions is proven, so clearly it should be part of the transition, particularly if it displaces coal in Asia. Why, then, do so many green energy advocates resist it? Here we must look, again, at their assumptions.

The first is that fossil fuels drive global CO2 emissions, directly causing global warming of unprecedented rapidity. Unless checked, the planet will experience catastrophic and possibly irreversible warming. This, they hold, is an existential crisis for humanity, avoidable only by phasing out fossil fuels globally.

Second, they assume the electrification of society, powered by renewables, can and must replace the use of fossil fuels in transport, power, heating, industry, and agriculture. They assume the transition from one to the other must be well underway by 2050 to avert disaster. They assume this means starting today. Indeed, some governments have already mandated that vehicles powered by internal combustion engines must be phased out and replaced by vehicles that run on electric batteries or hydrogen-powered fuel cells.

Finally, they assume that by promoting cleaner fossil fuels such as natural gas or LNG, we only delay the inevitable. They make the same assumptions about making hydrogen from natural gas, even if we were to couple this with carbon capture and storage.

These assumptions lead us right to the Big One.

Argument 3: Low-carbon ideology should drive global energy policy.

Underlying this is the assumption that the danger of anthropogenic global warming should cause us to reject fossil fuels of every species. Usually, the following suite of policy prescriptions go along with this assumption: We should levy aggressive carbon taxes designed to render fossil fuels uncompetitive with renewables. We should levy carbon tariffs on imported goods to ensure no one moves their carbon-intensive industries and manufacturing to countries where they won’t be taxed so heavily; failing that, consumers might decide to pay less money for goods made by the atmospherically irresponsible. Subsidies for fossil fuels should end, and governments should stop lending money to industries based on them.

I am deliberately agnostic about these assumptions, but I note that renewable technologies—solar panels and wind turbines, in particular—rely upon rare earths. China, however, has amassed about 80 percent of the global capacity to process strategic minerals. Cobalt is a critical part of lithium-ion batteries. In 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo accounted for more than 70 percent of global cobalt output, and Chinese state-owned enterprises controlled almost all of these exports.

I wonder: Would the tariffs in question apply to essential feedstock materials and finished goods from China? If not, they wouldn’t serve their purpose; if they did, they’d badly damage industry and manufacturing in countries with a carbon tax.

Another assumption I often discern is the idea that renewable-energy technologies produce zero emissions. This is not true. It takes energy from fossil fuels to mine, process, manufacture, and transport the components of renewable energy plants. (Also, hydroelectric dams drown large, forested areas and their carbon-sequestering trees.)

The term energy return means energy output minus the energy input. A source is energy positive if puts out more power than it takes to generate it. Wind power, if it runs 30 percent of the time, becomes energy positive six months to a year after it’s installed. Solar photovoltaic power takes longer—about two years, depending on the technology and where the panels are located.

It’s harder to quantify the environmental impact of wind turbines and solar panels. But it’s considerable, and will probably limit the popularity and expansion of renewables considerably.

That efficiency trumps utility is another common assumption. Undeniably, it’s more efficient to run things directly with electricity than by chemical storage and combustion. A car with an internal combustion engine converts about 20 percent of the gasoline’s energy into wheelpower; an electric car, by contrast, converts about 60 percent of its energy from the grid. The old-fashioned cars gobble up about three times more energy per kilometer.

That said, the efficiency of electric vehicles depends upon factors such as grid reliability. This suffers when a larger percentage of intermittent renewable power is added to the mix. Absent government intervention to force the pace, the speed of the penetration of the electric vehicle market will depend how well the batteries perform under extreme temperature conditions (such as the Canadian deep-freeze of February 2021), the ease of recharging and the time it takes, and the cost of the cars.

Omnibus perpensis …

The electricity-only scenario generally leaves these assumptions unexamined or glosses them over. But they are, in my view, critical and deleterious. This is why, in my view, such a transition can’t and won’t happen quickly absent significant government intervention.

Dirigiste policies at the national and international level tend to have a dramatic and deeply damaging economic impact. In this case, it may be one from which it is difficult to recover. The slide of prosperous Western nations from plentiful energy and economic abundance to less energy and comparative poverty—even as China and the developing world move in the opposite direction—poses a real and grave threat. This threat must be considered if all things are considered.

In light of this, I propose the following strategy for a low-carbon energy transition. In my opinion it is achievable, desirable, and rational.

First, we should pursue piped natural gas and LNG, because these lower-carbon energy sources may be exported globally. Natural gas is much in demand in growing Asian economies. It’s also greatly profitable in ours. In Canada alone, 115,000 km of pipelines transport natural gas and natural gas liquids. We have 450,000 km of natural gas distribution lines. Together, this is more than fifteen times the length of Canada’s highways. We could mix hydrogen into the system, beginning by adding 10 to 20 percent by volume, without significantly modifying our appliances—and this would further lower emissions.

Second, we should use hydrogen to help us deal with the intermittency of renewables. All new pipelines and utility infrastructure should be designed and built H2-capable.

Third, we should indeed focus on reducing air pollutants and greenhouse gasses such as nitrogen oxide and sulfur oxide. But we need not reduce these by focusing entirely on renewables. If we reduce them by replacing coal with LNG, or mixing hydrogen with natural gas, they’ll be reduced, and reduced is our goal—not dead broke and under China’s thumb.

Finally—and this is dear to my heart—we should ramp up research and pilot programs for nuclear fusion. That would be the true, zero-emission, game-changing technology.

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Gareth Lewis is a geologist and 30 year veteran of the oil and gas industry who owns a small technical consulting company. He has broad scientific interests that include hydrogen and nuclear fusion. He fully supports his industry, but sees the need for a new energy paradigm—one that includes hydrocarbons, hydrogen, renewables and probably nuclear.

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