Energy transition: let’s opt for a combined approach
Despite the rapid progress in solar and wind energy, a completely clean energy supply remains a huge challenge. Heavy industry, aviation, shipping and road transport are not yet able to do without carbon-based fuels. To reach the climate goals, in these industries energy consumption should be CO2 neutral. In a publication in Joule magazine, energy scientists from Leiden and Utrecht University propose a combined approach towards these goals.
Are we going to opt for the conventional, though contentious approaches of using CO2 storage, biomass and fossil-based (“blue”) hydrogen? Or should we speed up the development of synthetic fuels so as to obviate the need for the former? These are produced from CO2, which in principle makes them CO2 neutral. It's best to choose both, argue Oscar Kraan (Leiden University and Utrecht University) and Gert Jan Kramer (Utrecht University), together with members of the Shell Scenarios Team.
Techno-optimists and a strong government
‘In the debate on energy transition, there are roughly two camps,’ says Oscar Kraan. ‘On the one hand there are the techno-optimists, who believe that market forces will provide a solution. In other words, the production of synthetic fuels will be feasible at a certain moment, as a result of technological advances and an increasingly smaller price difference with existing fossil fuels. On the other hand there is the more accepted idea that the energy transition cannot be realised without a strong government that imposes CO2 levies, facilitates clean-energy systems, and ensures afforestation and CO2 storage. These kinds of measures cannot be left to market forces.’
CO2-neutral fuel production
The production of CO2-neutral fuels depends on a number of factors that may seem simple on paper but which in practice have not yet been completely developed – and certainly not for large-scale use. Kraan explains, ‘First, you need to produce hydrogen. Then, CO2 is taken from the air and converted into carbon monoxide. If you make sure you produce the proper chemical compound with this carbon monoxide and hydrogen, you then end up with the fuel you wanted. But you need a large amount of solar energy for the process, or all the environmental benefit will be lost.’ And all this will only become interesting if a barrel of synthetic fuel costs 200 US$ or less. As a comparison: in the last few years a barrel of crude oil has fluctuated in price between 50 and 100 US$. ‘Undoubtedly the process will eventually be optimised, but it can only be successful if progress is made in all the steps in the process.’
This is why Kraan and his colleagues are arguing that we should not focus exclusively on synthetic renewable fuels. ‘Continue in the direction being taken and in the meantime work on cost-effective synthetic fuels. Even if we make progress in just a few of the production stages, the now common clean technologies will benefit anyway.’
Gert Jan Kramer points to the relevance of the paper to the current debate surrounding the Dutch Klimaatakkoord (Climate Agreement). ‘Perhaps the most contentious issue is the role and the necessity of carbon capture and storage (CCS) for reaching the 2030 climate goals and the outlook beyond. This paper aims to provide a template to structure these discussions.’
Oscar Kraan, Gert Jan Kramer, Martin Haigh and Chris Laurens, ‘An Energy Transition That Relies Only on Technology Leads to a Bet on Solar Fuels’, Joule volume 3, issue 8
Source: Utrecht University, Energy transition: let’s opt for a combined approach
Oscar Kraan promoveerde in april 2019 bij het Centrum voor Milieuwetenschappen Leiden op zijn dissertatie 'On the Emergence of the Energy Transition.' Momenteel is hij werkzaam bij Deloitte als strategy consulant.