an opinion editorial written exclusively for ANZMEX 

26 October 2020
By Chris Sladen

Energy matters – Pause for thought

Britain’s most popular radio program each morning carries a short feature, known as ‘Pause for thought’. In one format or another, the feature has been on the radio over 75 years and lasts about 3 minutes. It is meant to be a moment to reflect on life, the things people do, learn the consequences, and how to lead a fulfilling life. There are usually more than 10 million listeners each day; the overarching objective is to create a more caring society, to make the world a better place.

When people started using hydrocarbons over 150 years ago there was no pause for thought. They were deemed to be better than what came before, cleaner more efficient. Society wanted hydrocarbons. They improved the quality of life. They were good for transport, power generation, light, heating etc. They did not sit around saying ‘Is this sustainable? Will it damage the environment?’. Centuries later we eventually realised and accepted the consequences for the climate and the air we breathe.

When the super-sonic aircraft Concorde was developed in the 1960s & 1970s it was a triumph of technology and engineering. People wanted an iconic aircraft to zip back and forth across the Atlantic ocean at high speed in style. Its engine emissions and noise were of no interest.

Another good example is the refrigerator. People want a refrigerator to keep food, drink and sometimes medicines cool, and lengthen the time that things stay fresh. They don’t want to know about the physics of using energy to pump heat. They don’t want to be worrying about having a fridge that contains man-made refrigerant chemicals which have the capability to destroy the ozone layer and contribute to enlarging holes in this protective layer around planet earth.

When I lived in east Siberia over 20 years ago, and it was often minus 40C, I was not focussed on zero carbon emissions and sustainable energy sources. My only thought was how to stay warm. I was focused on staying warm irrespective of whether its burning oil, natural gas, wood, coal or using nuclear power or hydro; if you don’t stay warm when it is minus 40C, it is quite simple; you die. At other times my thoughts would focus onto whether the municipal heating system of hot water circulating from one building to the next was going to keep working through the long winters. I was not interested in how the system worked and linked all the buildings together, I was interested in the product – central heating.

Put another way, people want energy products. They don’t want to have to worry about the consequences or the ethics of how energy products are created. They expect it to be done responsibly. They don’t want to see or hear about lots of mess being produced to make those products. They don’t want to have to pay extra for a product produced more cleanly. They don’t want to read falsely construed emissions targets, then be obliged to check footnotes of energy company documents written in tiny font size for opt-out clauses, only to discover the real emissions target is about half the headline numbers. They don’t want to have to keep going out and protesting for something better; they don’t want ecoanxiety. What they do want is for energy companies to come up with better products – cleaner, environmentally friendly, faster, more efficient, safer, affordable, more reliable products, which the consumer can then have control over using.

Now we enter a new era set to be dominated by renewable, often called green, energy. All forecasts have this as the fastest growing energy source. 80% of the global electricity demand growth within the next 10 years is planned to come from renewables. The direction is clear. Our energy system has been decarbonising faster over the last 5 years than it did in the previous 25 years, with solar and wind at the forefront. The Energy Transition needs the oil majors, and they appear unable to survive without embracing it. Many oil and gas companies have decarbonisation strategies, plans for the energy transition and reaching Net Zero, and there are plenty of low carbon opportunities for them to pursue. But there is still some way to go; some larger oil companies have shown little interest in Net Zero; this includes many national oil companies, particularly in Latin America, West Africa and the Middle East. In Latin America for example, they comprise the largest energy Capex spenders. They face a battle for survival as the transition builds. They must decide to either pivot towards clean energy or whether they remain ‘last man standing’ fossil fuel companies.

There is little doubt that many oil & gas companies have great brand recognition & loyalty, a global reach as well as great expertise in continuously developing multiple giant projects, strategic partnerships and efficiently managing large supply chains. But can brand loyalty from say, gasoline, transfer over to electricity? Can they win in the power utility marketplace when it involves new consumer offers and tech-savvy nimble customers using smart meters, price comparison websites and apps?

In recent months, Governments have been hurling themselves into gigantic green promises – during October it was announced that all homes in Britain will be powered from offshore wind energy by 2030. In July, Europe suddenly thrust green hydrogen to centre-stage with production to use wind and solar for electrolysis. Despite it not yet being commercially viable, Europe’s energy sector is set to pivot to being dominated by hydrogen fuel and electrification by 2050.

In Australia, a large part of their domestic power future was planned a few years ago around significant expansion of hydro. In New Zealand, the foundations for domestic power are built upon a steady expansion and increasing the relative importance of hydro as the main platform for generation. These are huge promises; has there been pause for thought?

Now would be a good time to pause for thought, reflect upon and better understand the consequences of renewables, the so-called green energy revolution, and its life-cycle. Before the next assault on the environment rushes in. It should not be about rushing to make changes, it needs to be about making the right changes. The planet’s ecosystems have been so badly affected already that getting it wrong this time with a poorly thought through rapid expansion of renewables is a terrifying thought. Renewables, particularly wind, solar and hydro, will soon cover hundreds of thousands, eventually many millions, of square kilometres of the planet’s surface. They typically have a large ‘footprint’. They obscure the landscape.

Before we pepper hundreds of thousands of square kilometres of our oceans and sea bed with steel pilings, cables, towers, masts, jackets for substations and giant wind turbines, I hope there is a pause for thought because those seas will be changed forever. Before we use up more and more land for wind turbines sometimes standing up to 200-300m high, I hope there is pause for thought. Friction will be introduced into the atmosphere by the giant turbines; this will alter weather patterns as more and more wind farms are introduced. They will also mix natural layers of warm and cooler air that exist within the air column. This will have a long lasting cumulative effect; contract areas for wind farms are typically leased to energy firms for 60 years.

Before we plaster over our landscapes with more and more solar panels, I hope there is pause for thought because those fields, hillsides and deserts will be lost for ever beneath panels, posts, batteries, wires, cables, fences and keep-out signs. It does not make for a green and pleasant, restored, land. Those energy companies that say their solar installations improve biodiversity will need more than a few pretty pictures of wild animals to convince customers. In the USA, there are now proposals to install 500 million solar panels in the next five years!

Before we flood more valleys and dam more gorges, I hope there is pause for thought because those flooded watercourses, hills and mountain landscapes are lost and changed forever. Natural watercourses, species in decline and biodiversity are erased forever. Before we dig up vast areas of the planet to extract lithium, nickel, cadmium and cobalt to make more batteries, I hope there is pause for thought because this will create giant mines and tailings tips, remove whole mountains, scarring the earth, creating no-go areas, wastelands and toxic groundwater for decades to come. Solar and wind technologies are planning a 10-fold increase in mineral extraction. Some individual open mine pits are over 4 kilometres across, more than a kilometre deep and cover more than 2000 acres. Those scars will not heal in a lifetime. 

A pause for thought could save future generations from an even bigger ecological mess than the one we currently have. Opting for energy solutions that have large footprints will make large parts of the the planet off-limits and change those habitats and ecosystems, for ever. Is that responsible investing? Will energy customers realise the landscape transformation that is planned?


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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