The fifth fuel

What is the “fifth fuel”?

In the energy market there are four prime energy sources – hydrocarbons (oil and gas), coal, nuclear, and renewables.

However, there is also something, which although it doesn’t produce energy per se, is often referred to as the fifth fuel.

There are huge opportunities to help achieve the decarbonisation goals, to which we are all implicitly signed up, using energy efficiency. That is the fifth fuel.

And before you think, energy efficiency?! Yawn, I’ve got better things to read about – I’ll promise you one of the most compelling reasons for decarbonisation and energy efficiency I’ve come across in 2020 at the end of this article. A study has reached some powerful conclusions about how our energy system and coronavirus intertwine, and the numbers are quite amazing…

But first, think about our current crisis vs the climate crisis. Are we going to shut down factories, offices and transport as we have for coronavirus? Not unless we really sleepwalk into disaster. By then it would be too late anyway…

Often people focus on cars – the most obvious source of emissions in most of our lives. But even if we switch over entirely to battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, that doesn’t imply that our need for oil disappears entirely. Other sectors also use fossil fuels and emit plenty of carbon too:

Source: US Environmental Protection Agency

In my interview with Michael Liebreich for the Beyond Oil Summit, one major theme that came up was energy efficiency. Michael spoke about the benefits available from upgrading our homebuilding capabilities – “give me £30 billion and I’ll save you more carbon from energy efficiency than you can from a nuclear power plant.”

In 2007, the United Nations Foundation said that efficiency improvements constituted “the largest, the most evenly geographically distributed, and least expensive energy resource.”

In 2009, the management-consulting firm McKinsey said a national efficiency programme could eliminate “up to 1.1 gigatons of greenhouse gases annually.”

Things like making cement or steel are things we don’t often think of, which use up huge amounts of energy and not in a particularly efficient way.

A Huge opportunity in the UK

Last year I went to an energy transition summit organised by the Spectator, and I’ve written before about how from a panel of MPs, National Grid spokesmen, journalists and climate change scientists, there wasn’t a whole lot of agreement.

Only on one issue was their voice unanimous: insulation.

Roofs are responsible for 25%-30% of heat loss from houses. Better insulation, joint management and workmanship could contribute to a huge reduction in heat loss from homes.

Another 18% is lost through windows. 7% of homes in the UK still have single-glazed windows, which allow heat out at twice the rate of a double-glazed window.

At the Spectator conference, all guests unanimously agreed that a programme of retrofitting all UK houses (which don’t already have it) with double glazing and proper insulation would save enormous amounts of heat loss and emitted carbon.

Crucially though, it would also deliver great energy bill savings for those who need it most (those without double glazing and proper insulation are likely to be in a lower earnings bracket, making energy bill savings all the more important).

Also, most homes are heated by boilers fired with natural gas. Studies have pointed out that shifting from boilers to the more environmentally friendly heat pumps might be a very expensive, if necessary, step.

Others are advocating blending hydrogen into the grid instead, which can be used to power the boilers without emitting carbon, though that too is complicated and won’t be cheap either.

The ultimate solution is the CHP fuel cell, a machine which can use hydrogen to generate both power and heat (CHP stands for combined heat and power) for the house, thus solving problems of carbon emissions and heat waste, both all too prevalent in our current system.

Blue Steel

The future uses of hydrogen are myriad and complex. There is a fierce debate over the applicability of hydrogen for vehicles. Many argue that hydrogen only makes sense as a fuel for long distance or heavy goods vehicles.

While I wouldn’t challenge many of them on the science or technicalities – scientist is one of the many things I am not – I would point out, cautiously, that consumers incorporate a hell of a lot more than vehicle efficiency and cost when buying a vehicle.

How many of you would say you only bought cars based on sticker price and efficiency?

Maybe some people will like certain hydrogen models, or find the faster refuelling times and longer ranges appealing, even if battery electric vehicles might win out on a bunch of metrics.

Consumers are an odd bunch – and looking at the variety of offerings available today, I would say writing off hydrogen for vehicles might be shortsighted. Always be “short” confidence, a very smart chap once told me.

But whatever the end point of that debate (we’ll just have to wait and see), some things are clearer today. For example, hydrogen has huge potential in the decarbonisation of steel production, a process which emits a bit under 10% of all carbon worldwide each year.

Because, ironically, the steel industry’s biggest product today isn’t steel. It’s carbon.

You see, when making steel you need some chemical reagents and heat. Miraculously, hydrogen can perform both functions – reaching high enough heats to melt the iron and also to react with it chemically, to change its composition.

Oh and bless my soul, would you look at that… As if by magic, a headline appears!

Source: Recharge

It’s almost as if I knew that was coming, weird, right?

Coke Zero, Petrol Zero?

It’s a theme that will recur again and again. It’s a topic that will merit its own full piece one day. For now though, consider this conundrum, from Rob West over at Thunder Said Energy: through population increases and economic development, we are going to need perhaps 1.5x-2x as much energy in 2050 as we do today.

In order to reach net zero, there are many levers we must pull. Renewables are one. Hydrogen is another, energy efficiency too. But we must not neglect the role that some of our largest energy providers have to play.

Oil and (especially) gas will remain part of our system in many forms, but we must realise that they can be produced and used far more efficiently than they have been in the past. The challenge is broad and complex, and lowering the environmental impact of finding/producing oil and gas will form a key part of that.

The below chart outlines Thunder Said Energy’s energy transition to a net zero 2050 future:

Source: Thunder Said Energy

Decarbonising our lungs…

A Harvard study, recognising the respiratory focus of the Covid-19 pandemic, has swiftly carried out a nationwide study (in the US) on the effects of pollution levels on coronavirus mortality in an area.

Gregor Macdonald, esteemed guest of the Beyond Oil energy transition summit last month, has already covered the impact of the energy transition on children’s health in California, and reached some emphatic conclusions.

And I’ve been saying for the duration of the pandemic that many urban dwellers are finding out what truly clean air is like for the first time in years. This is especially true in Chinese industrial cities, where estimates reckon the population is having 2-4 years knocked off their life expectancy by pollution.

This Harvard study has been given a heightened relevance by the pandemic though. We are roughly aware of the data, which tells us that age and pre-existing health conditions affect mortality with the virus.

Here are some quotes from the “Abstract” (emphasis mine):

Many of the pre-existing conditions that increase the risk of death in those with COVID-19 are the same diseases that are affected by long-term exposure to air pollution. We investigated whether long-term average exposure to fine particulate matter (PM2.5) is associated with an increased risk of COVID-19 death in the US.

In the main analysis, we adjusted by 20 potential confounding factors including population size, age distribution, population density, time since the start of the outbreak, time since state issuance of the stay-at-home order, hospital beds, number of individuals tested, weather, and socioeconomic and behavioral variables such as obesity and smoking.

Results: We found that an increase of only 1 microgram/m3 in PM2.5 is associated with an 8% increase in the COVID-19 death rate. The results were statistically significant and robust to secondary and sensitivity analyses.

Conclusion: A small increase in long-term exposure to PM2.5 leads to a large increase in the COVID-19 death rate.

In a world where coronavirus is the new norm, the case for energy transition from a health perspective has never been stronger.

As cities look for alternatives to public transport, e-mobility, bikes, scooters, monocycles – whatever – green options really ought to play a significant role in all our thinking.

Have a great weekend everyone,

Kit Winder
Editor, UK Uncensored

PS On the use of face masks.

It seems to me that the consensus of people I like and respect (read: agree with) is that masks are helpful in preventing the spread of the virus and should be worn by everyone every time they go outside.

The performance of mask-wearing countries seems ample evidence of this for me.

However… having been told that, if everyone started wearing masks, what would be the impact on behaviour? Wouldn’t everyone start thinking okay, wearing a mask so, probably fine to go here, see them or do that?

One of my favourite themes is that a lower appearance of risk leads to higher risk, because of behavioural changes. You get better (fall less often) at skiing so you go faster, and maybe you stop wearing a helmet. That means a lower frequency of risk but a much higher risk of serious injury.

The risk has changed, adapted, but it is still there. I wonder how significant that would be with mask-wearing. On balance I still feel (annoyingly because I don’t want to) that ubiquitous mask-wearing would bring potentially huge national health benefits, but the behavioural approach to risk might reduce them somewhat.

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