Saturday, May 18, 2024

It’s time to start setting realistic goals for energy transition

Politicians and bureaucrats, pushed by demands to “do something” about climate change, are setting goals for reducing anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions based on Paris Agreement targets or some other measure of “where we must be” by mid-century. In other words, they want to reach some emissions target by a certain time not too far in the future without having given any thought about how humanity can get there.

It’s like me going to my doctor on a Friday and she says, “Whoa, buddy – you need to lose 10 kilos quickly or else you could have a big health problem,” – and my response is “OK, well not a moment to lose; I’ll have that weight off by Monday.” No thought about how to do it, no thought about whether it’s even possible (short of chopping off a limb) – but it’s my goal.

So why is my goal obviously ridiculous while “zero emissions by 2050” is not? Because everybody knows I can’t lose 10 kilos over the weekend, but very few people have thought about the insurmountable challenges in changing the world’s energy systems in 20-30 years. And this in a world in which any single large power or infrastructure project takes from five to 20-plus years to go from concept to completion.

I have engaged in lengthy social media debates on this topic, and it is clear there are many people out there, including media influencers, who just cannot grasp the very basic point: if you want to achieve a goal, you have to design a pathway to get there.

Every year for the past couple of decades, we have seen good progress toward transitioning to lower-emissions living, at least in North America and Europe. But these advances are nowhere near what would be required to get to the emissions targets, according to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) Tracking Clean Energy reports.[1] The reports tell us that we are making satisfactory progress toward reaching mid-century emissions goals in fewer than 20% of the 46 critical pathways surveyed.

What is going to change that? There are “commitments” to ban internal combustion engine (ICE) auto sales by 2030 or 2035, but, to start, that would require battery metals from mines that have not been discovered. We see very ambitious plans to develop new solar and wind generation capacity – which also rely on critical materials with totally inadequate supply chains. Even if the time from discovery to production for all new mines was cut in half (highly unlikely given the other environmental and stakeholder issues to be addressed), we cannot possibly make all the batteries or turbines or solar panels that would be needed.

This is one small example, but unless we can suddenly make batteries out of ice cubes and dirt, eliminate politics and delay tactics, and do environmental reviews in days instead of years, then zero-emission targets – even net-zero targets for which planting trees and sequestering CO2 underground are calculated as offsets – are physically unattainable by 2050.

Look at Hawaii; incredibly well endowed with some of the world’s most reliable solar, wind, hydro, and geothermal, serving only a small population and little industry. They have a 25-year plan to get to 100% non-emitting electricity, assuming a normal growth curve (i.e., not electrifying vehicles, industry, or luaus).

If it figures to take Hawaii 25 years to get partway to zero emissions, what about nearly every other jurisdiction in the world? Very few places have low-emissions electrical generation now. Exceptions are those blessed with abundant hydro that were low emitters before mainstream media fell in love with the term “climate crisis”. Tasmania, Costa Rica, Iceland, and Canadian provinces British Columbia and Quebec come to mind. Many other regions with even modest populations simply do not have the physical resources to run on low-emission alternatives, unless new nuclear power plants become acceptable. Alberta is a great example – there is some decent wind capacity and a few solar sweet spots, but very limited hydro and geothermal. The technology does not exist – even in concept – for Alberta to run without natural gas and/or nuclear-generated electricity.

I’m all for energy transition planning, because energy demand continues to grow globally, and we have to upgrade our energy mix. But energy historian Vaclav Smil’s prediction of a prolonged, gradual transition is playing out as we speak (or read). “The Future of Electric Power in the United States” by the National Academies Press paints a detailed picture of the immense challenges to be met as more intermittent renewables are added to transmission grids over the coming decades.[2]

Surely in this context, we can set realistic, attainable goals. Make them ambitious, make them a stretch, but don’t make them impossible.

By setting unattainable goals, we set the world up for constant disappointment, and for rash, panicked actions that benefit only those who profit or make political gains from the panic. In fact, a realistic scenario is that we could see huge, economy-wrecking price spikes for oil and gas as growing world demand (as forecast by the IEA and other reputable analysts) outstrips supply, and we find the cupboards are bare because new reserves have not been discovered and pipelines have not been built.

In case some have forgotten, critical resource shortages caused by poorly conceived actions are a great recipe for war and human misery. And it’s not just oil and gas; it’s all those critical metals that people try to develop too quickly, stepping on the rights and territories of others (often of different faiths and races) who may not share the urgency to build the next battery.

It has become so silly that a proposed climate action plan at the University of British Columbia envisions shutting down all mining and related engineering research, and any co-operation with the mining industry. Where do they think all the new mines required to build the batteries, turbines, and panels are going to be developed?

Politicians need to listen to people who have thought through energy transition issues, not people with a finely tuned sense of panic but little or no understanding of science and engineering. Let’s set ambitious, challenging goals to steer the ongoing energy transition along efficient pathways, respectful of the needs and rights of people around the world. The pathways to achieve these goals must be constructive. Let’s plan what we need to build better, and not destroy what sustains us now.

[1] https://www.iea.org/topics/tracking-clean-energy-progress

[2] https://www.nap.edu/catalog/25968/the-future-of-electric-power-in-the-united-states

Brad Hayes
Brad Hayes
Brad Hayes has a PhD in geology from the University of Alberta and is president of Petrel Robertson Consulting Ltd., a geoscience consulting firm addressing technical and strategic issues around oil and gas development, water resource management, helium exploration, geothermal energy, and carbon sequestration. He is an adjunct professor in the University of Alberta Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences.
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