x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Climate of change may result in energy utopia

From the threshold of a new decade, it is surprising that the tumultuous 'Noughties' did not lead to more energy innovations. Prices were high, energy security and the environment were worldwide concerns, yet we drive our cars and cool our homes in much the same way as we did in 2000.

From the threshold of a new decade, it is surprising that the tumultuous "Noughties" did not lead to more energy innovations. Prices were high, energy security and the environment were worldwide concerns, yet we drive our cars and cool our homes in much the same way as we did in 2000.

Still, the past 10 years have laid the groundwork for a slow but complete transformation. Five of my personal favourites we may see soon; five will be more important to our children and grandchildren.

The first is the sudden realisation that we are not short of gas, due to breakthroughs in extracting natural gas from shale, and ever more flexible international trade. Gas can be converted to liquid fuels, as in Royal Dutch Shell's giant Pearl plant in Qatar. Cleaner and less carbon-emitting than coal, cheaper than oil or renewable energy, ours can be a gas century.

But we cannot burn vast amounts of gas, plus even larger quantities of coal, without triggering disastrous climate change. The second innovation is carbon capture and storage (CCS): locking away carbon dioxide released by power plants and industry securely underground, rather than letting it escape uncontrolled into the atmosphere.

Over the next few years, the first demonstration plants, in the US, Canada, Europe, Australia and Abu Dhabi, will show whether CCS, the only hope for fossil fuels in the 21st century, is cost-effective and safe.

The UAE is also one of the leaders of the third transformation: nuclear renaissance. The Gulf, India, China and even several African countries are looking to this low-carbon, relatively cheap, large-scale way of powering fast-growing economies. Currently, these plans rest on mature "Generation 3" designs, such as South Korea's proposal for Abu Dhabi.

But, by 2030, fourth-generation plants will be safer, much more efficient and producing far less long-lived radioactive waste. Mini-nuclear facilities such as that from the US's Hyperion Power Generation are sized to supply a single city block and are cheap and tamper-proof.

The fourth innovation is power from the sun. Though sunlight is clean and widely available, solar electricity has suffered from high production costs. But by 2015 to 2020, continuing improvements may take solar cells to "grid parity" in some regions - sunny areas with high electricity costs, such as California.

At grid parity, electricity from a householder's roof panels will cost the same as buying it from the mains supplier. At this point, solar deployment should accelerate sharply and costs will fall further through economies of scale. This is the ultimate goal for solar advocates.

Abundant, cheap, low-carbon electricity from these sources is needed for the fifth transformation: the electric car. Although still hampered by high up-front cost, limited range and recharging issues, these cars are the first radical change in consumer motoring since Henry Ford's 1908 Model T. Not since horses went out of fashion has personal transport not been reliant on oil.

The next five innovations are more speculative - not all will make it; perhaps none will. But they cast a fascinating light on possible energy worlds of 2050.

Nuclear fusion joins together light atoms of hydrogen to release energy, the same reaction that powers the sun. Intrinsically safe, producing only small amounts of short-lived radioactivity, and with an essentially limitless fuel, it seems one of the best hopes for our long-term energy future.

By 2030, international collaboration on the €15 billion (Dh70.97bn) ITER project may show the feasibility of fusion - but the path has been long and frustratingly slow, and further delays would be no surprise.

The US biologist Craig Venter, famous for his self-proclaimed invention of "artificial life", sees a future for his organisms in making fuel directly from light, water and carbon dioxide. The single-celled plants known as algae can do the same - and can grow in salty, polluted water. ExxonMobil is one oil company showing interest.

Alternatively, new catalysts can use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide from the air into the building blocks of liquid fuels. Given the convenience and familiarity of conventional fuels such as petrol and diesel, either of these methods may win out over electric cars - and they solve the conundrum of how to power aeroplanes without using conventional aviation fuel.

Burning fossil fuels has caused a dramatic build-up in atmospheric carbon dioxide, which many scientists say will severely alter future climates even if we succeed in slashing emissions. The prototype "artificial trees" created by Professor Klaus Lackner from Columbia University promise to remove carbon dioxide from the air, thus reversing decades of past pollution.

Finally, an energy surprise: agriculture, and the emerging nexus between food, water, fuels and climate. Future farming will have to cope with climate change and limited fresh water, feed a world population of 8 billion or more, supply biofuels and lock up carbon dioxide. The story of the next decade is precision agriculture - targeting fertilisers and water exactly where they are needed.

Beyond that, solar desalination for irrigation, salt-tolerant crops, and potentially crucial - but controversial - genetically modified organisms may help to satisfy the world's appetites.

The next half-century is critical: on energy; climate; water; and food. World population may peak as early as 2025. In a post-2050 future of relatively cheap, clean energy, global consumption will continue to rise despite dramatically improved efficiency, driven by a wealthier world and new, as yet unimagined, demands for energy.

But before reaching that utopia, it is likely we will be engaged in a huge effort to satisfy our needs while dealing with the worsening climate consequences of our previous emissions.

 

Robin M Mills is an energy economist based in Dubai and author of The Myth of the Oil Crisis and Capturing Carbon