“I believe that we obsess about the wrong thing which is climate change.”
So declared Peter Bryant, chairman and managing director of Chicago based energy, mining and food industry consulting firm Clareo and chairman of mining consulting organisation The Development Partner Institute.
Bryant was speaking at the Climate Smart Engineering Conference hosted by Engineers Australia in late November.
Speaking from a global perspective, Bryant said efforts around energy transition should not focus exclusively on climate change but should involve a broader objective to deliver energy which is reliable, affordable and accessible to everyone and is as clean as possible.
During his presentation, Bryant challenged engineers to lead, to inspire and mentor young people to become engineers, to instigate collaboration across disciplines and to embrace the principles of a just transition and social equity.
On the last point, this involves ensuring that actions which are geared toward energy transition are co-designed in collaboration with all stakeholders. From this, a mutual vision can be formed under which impacts and benefits are well understood and are shared in an equitable manner.
This can be difficult and requires time and effort – something Bryant says explains why only two countries (New Zealand and Iceland) have formal just transition goals and policies.
Four Areas of Challenge
When making the energy transition, Bryant says four challenges must be addressed.
These should be dealt with simultaneously and sequentially and will be resolved through innovation more so than regulation.
First, there are emissions.
On this, Bryant says it is important to be clear about the location and source of these.
On location, 2019 data published by the Union of Concerned Scientists in 2020 indicates that greenhouse gas emissions from China exceed those of the US, UK and Europe combined. Meanwhile, a United Nations report presented to COP 27 showed that whilst the US and Europe will likely meet their 2050 emission reduction targets, emissions in China and India are set to continue to rise. By that time, those two countries will likely account for 60 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions.
By sector, meanwhile, 2016 data published by Climate Watch and the World Resources Institute indicated that energy accounts for almost three quarters (73.2 percent) of global greenhouse gas emissions. In turn, this occurs through energy consumption across multiple sectors such as commercial and residential buildings (17.5 percent), transport (16.2 percent) and industry/manufacturing such as iron and steel, chemical/petrochemical, food, paper, machinery and other industry.
Remaining emissions occur through agriculture/forestry & land use, waste, and industry (chemicals and cement).
This diversity of Sources, Bryant says, highlights the breadth of challenge along with the need to reduce emissions across multiple industries simultaneously.
Moreover, he says that multiple solutions are needed. These range from efficiency across several industries through to renewables/storage, nuclear power and carbon capture sequestration and use.
Speaking of the latter, Bryant acknowledges that this is not popular but stresses that it is necessary in reality as both oil and coal will continue to be used over the foreseeable future.
One area where regulators need to act is through speeding up approvals without compromising the rigour of assessments or impinging upon stakeholder rights.
In Wyoming, the permitting process to construct the state’s largest wind farm and to connect this to the California grid via a 730-mile transition line has taken ten years and is still ongoing. This is despite the fact that the project will deliver sufficient power for 1.8 million Californian homes.
Also in the US, an 850 MW solar plant covering fourteen square miles in the Mojave Desert was held up by environmentalists who were concerned by a threat to tortoises and by local residents on concerns about disruption to their views. These barriers have arisen despite the project’s remote location.
If emission reduction targets are to be met within required timeframes, Bryant says things must improve. Wait times of more than one decade cannot be tolerated.
2. Social Equity
Next, Bryant talks about the need for social equity in energy – an area where both innovation and regulation are involved.
As things stand, around one billion have no access to electricity whilst another billion have poor or insufficient access. This serves as a barrier to people escaping poverty.
Any action to impede progress of these people in receiving reliable and affordable energy is ‘morally bankrupt’, Bryant says – even if this needs to be delivered through fossil fuels.
Meanwhile, concerns about policies which increase the price of electricity in a way that exacerbates inequality are also evident in the developed world.
One example is California, where clean energy policies have led to the shutdown of gas plants and other baseload generation sources before the state had sufficient generation through renewables and storage.
On a blended basis, Bryant says the average citizen in that state pays more than two-and-a-half times the cost for their electricity compared with those in either Florida, Texas or Colorado and are paying around two dollars more per gallon in petrol. This provides difficulty for those on low incomes.
Amid shortages which occur during peak demand periods and low wind/solar generation, an advertising campaign askes the state’s residents to reduce electricity use between 4 and 9pm.
Examples such as these point to the need to for all policy ramifications to be carefully considered, Brant says.
3. Mining Supply Chains
Third, Bryant says the world is entering a mining-intensive energy system as resources needed for clean energy projects are more intensive compared with those for traditional energy forms
Take copper, for instance.
According to Bryant:
- Whereas one tonne of copper is needed to generate 1 MW of power in traditional fossil fuels, this increases to 4.8, 5.5 and 10.5 tonnes for onshore wind, solar power and offshore wind respectively.
- On automobiles, a single vehicle using an internal combustion engineer requires 34 kilograms of metals and minerals including 20 kg of copper and 4 kg of nickel. For battery/electric vehicles, this increases to 2077 kg of metals/minerals including 80 kg of copper and 46 kg of nickel.
- Worldwide, production of copper will need to increase from 21 million tonnes now to around 42 million tonnes by 2035 in order to meet demand.
To meet this demand, Bryant says an unprecedented expansion of metal and mineral production would be needed – something for which the mining industry is not currently equipped to respond.
This is all the more concerning as copper mines typically take around fifteen to twenty years after discovery to permit and develop. As a result, any mines which are not already in process are not likely to be operational by the 2035 deadline by which the doubling in productions is needed.
Most likely, this will lead to copper shortages in areas such as auto and wind-turbine manufacturing and will slow the pace of the energy transition.
These are issues which are not commonly fully appreciated but with regard to which engineers may be instrumental in devising mining industry solutions.
Finally, with processing for many critical materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel and even copper being concentrated in China, there are potential national security concerns arising out of market concentration.
This points to a need not only to increase not only mineral extraction and discovery but also to ensure the security associated with mineral processing.
Finally, Bryant talks about the need to understand the trade-offs which may be involved in the transition to clean energy.
In large offshore wind farms, for example, each blade requires 115 tonnes of balsa wood to be chopped down from Ecuador. Since plantations are not able to be grown fast enough, this requires deforestation and has generated substantial illegal logging activity.
(Balso wood is used on account of its lightness, strength and malleability.)
Whilst benefits from clean energy may well offset these impacts, Bryant says it is important to understand all consequences about energy transition measures so that informed decisions can be made.
4. China’s Addiction to Coal
Finally, Bryant talks of China’s ‘love affair’ with coal – a phenomenon which reflects that nation’s geo-political circumstances along with its energy requirement to fuel its ongoing development.
All up, Chins has 1,000 GW of coal power generation capacity. In 2020, the country brought online an additional 250 GW and approved an additional 200 GW. In addition, they have been funding coal plants worth around 200 GW in Asia and Africa annually.
This means that each year, China is adding new coal generation capacity at a level which is three times the entire grid of either California or the United Kingdom (around 85 GW of coal each).
Outside China, other nations added 18.2 GW of coal generation capacity in 2021 whilst a further 176 GW are under development. Some European nations have reopened coal plants in response to the Ukraine war and associated energy crisis.
All this, Bryant says, highlights further challenges in transitioning to a clean energy future.
Moving forward, Bryant says several technologies will play a major role.
Of these, four main ones include storage at both a grid level and a local level (residential/commercial buildings etc.) as well as within electric vehicles, carbon capture and sequestration, fusion energy/small modular nuclear reactors and energy efficiency/peak load shaving.
Others may include hydrogen/green hydrogen and renewable natural gas.
Whilst a detailed description of these technologies is beyond the scope of this article, Bryant says several will require high-precision and innovative engineering approaches in development and scaling.
“This is a challenge put out to you (engineers) not only to lead but to increase the speed of these developments,” he said.
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