an opinion editorial written exclusively for ANZMEX 

11 September 2019
By Chris Sladen

Energy matters – The times they are a changing

It is inescapable that I was born in London. It was 1956 and it was a significant year in the world of energy. It was the year of the UK Clean Air Act. This was a UK government ban on burning coal in cities designed to eliminate smog.

For hundreds of years Britain had used coal for heating homes and power generation. At the time, no one understood the long term consequences. Smog occurred when the burning of sulphurous coal released fumes, dust & grit which mixed with atmospheric conditions to cause a lethal pea-soup fog containing sulphuric acid and carbonic acid. Tens of thousands of Londoners died, hundreds of thousands suffered life changing health issues. A major consequence of the Clean Air Act was that coal fired power stations were moved to be outside of cities though this simply moved the pollution elsewhere. Over time, coal-fired and oil-fired power plants were replaced with natural gas-fired, and homes used smokeless fuels and gas-fired central heating. (Bankside power station, an inefficient coal fired plant in the heart of London at that time nowadays houses the Tate Modern art museum, Britains most popular visitor destination).

1956 was also significant for the Suez Canal Crisis in Egypt. The fight for control over vital oil infrastructure, which temporarily closed the canal, highlighted energy security of supply issues for oil coming from the Middle East producers into European markets. Some countries introduced rationing of gasoline until the crisis was resolved. Also in 1956, the UK opened the world’s first civil nuclear power station, marking the start of a new era in power generation and a notable step towards greater global energy independence

Decades later, with the recognition of climate change, and the cumulative damage of burning hydrocarbons, now solar & wind power have become widespread, partly in an attempt to curb emissions, limit climate change and create cleaner alternatives. Today, it is all about using electricity and batteries as we enter a new era in power generation, storage and use. Running things on electricity is in vogue, and batteries are the new game changer. Electrification is the new clean solution to save our planet and put the brakes on climate change. Everything has to be electric.  Even so, lots of that electricity is still made by burning natural gas, and in many countries coal. Electric cars, trucks and buses with giant batteries are a must have. And its also about bigger more powerful batteries so that your electric car can go further on one charge.

So now there is a frantic search for lithium, cadmium, nickel, cobalt, lead, and zinc for batteries. For solar panels and wind farms, not only do they take up lots of space they also need rare earth elements especially neodymium, terbium, indium, dysprosium, and praseodymium. And, we must all have a smartphone (or two) so we need zillions more batteries. These phones use up rare earth metals such as gallium, indium, niobium, tantalum and titanium too. Then, we all need a better bigger smartphone and perhaps a power bank also, just in case your phone battery runs low. And don’t forget your calculator, camera or kids toys and other electronic devices; many of these still use batteries that contain mercury. There are billions of gadgets now out of date, stored away in people’s homes, stashed away in drawers, cupboards and in garages with no plans to recycle those batteries.

Every year the UK now sends over 20,000 tonnes of batteries to land fill, and Australia around 8,000 tonnes. Never to be used again, its just another potential source of pollution. Mexico probably has similar numbers too. The search for metals and minerals for batteries is picking up speed. In a few decades time, we will need at least 10 times more than we currently do each year. The making of an electric car battery, and the electricity it then consumes, releases as much CO2 as 5-8 years of gasoline driving. And when the capacity of an electric car battery drops below 70-80%, typically after about 10 years of use, they are no longer strong enough to power the car. 

We seem to be doing the same what we have done for centuries.  We tell ourselves we now understand things better and that today’s technology is superior, whereas the previous generation did not understand the consequences of their inefficient methods. But our hunger to have the product still far outweighs our concerns for the environmental damage caused to make it. We think that today we know how to do things better but the reality is that we don’t recognise the full impact. I’m not sure the times really are changing…

And lastly to note that in 1956, Doris Day recorded her most famous song “Que Sera, Sera”.

About the author:

Chris Sladen runs an advisory service offering insights to inform, shape a decision, policy & regulation, and guide the next steps for energy ventures, acquisitions & divestments, energy transition and climate strategies. Chris has a unique global experience having worked in over 40 countries. This is underpinned by extensive knowledge of petroleum systems and where best to find oil and gas, notably in the Gulf of Mexico & nearby areas, Europe and NE & SE Asia, as well as the development of midstream, downstream & renewables investments in many emerging economies. Chris has extensive experience acquired on the Boards of companies, subsidiaries, business chambers & organisations. Chris has a career of over 40 years in the energy sector, living in Mexico (2001-2018), Russia, Vietnam, Mongolia, China & UK. His contributions to the energy and education sectors have been recognised by the UK Government with both an MBE and CBE, and also the Aztec Eagle from the Mexican Government – the first foreigner in the energy sector to achieve this award. Chris has published extensively over five decades. Chris’ articles for Energy Matters reflect his experience and enthusiasm and are not paid for in any way.

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