South Africa on the brink

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Two weeks into the truckers’ strike and South Africa stands on the precipice of serious societal breakdown. The Marikana massacre was undoubtedly a tragic event in its own right, although it may prove to have merely been the spark that lit the fuse.

The powder keg waiting to explode is the imminent shortage in liquid fuel supplies. Unless the country pulls itself back from the brink, we are in for a national state of emergency.

It may play out something like this.

As fuel supply lines further constrict, many motorists will understandably choose to fill up their tanks “just in case”. Filling stations will quickly run dry, supermarkets operating at the end of complex just-in-time supply chains will see their inventories deplete, exacerbated by panic buying brought on by sensationalist media coverage. Within days, severe food shortages will result, and we’ll be running a real-time nationwide experiment to test the veracity of the adage that civilisation is, at any one time, only nine meals away from anarchy.

Factories will close their doors as production lines grind to a halt, with companies unable to procure raw material supplies or shift burgeoning product inventories. More and more banks and ATMs will run out of cash; emergency services will find themselves simultaneously inundated with calls for assistance as violence and desperation spreads, yet unable to respond due to their own fuel shortages; hospitals will cancel all but the most critical operations as remote doctors and nurses struggle to reach their place of work; burials will be postponed and corpses will pile up in morgues. The country will come to a complete standstill and many of the characteristics of modern civilised society that we take for granted – trust, human decency, a lawful majority – will evaporate.

If all this sounds rather fantastical and unlikely, recall that it has already happened.

In the United Kingdom (UK), just 12 years ago last month, a protest by road hauliers against high diesel prices led to blockades of refineries and fuel terminals, and culminated in a week-long social experiment that will be remembered by anyone who experienced it. The world’s fourth largest economy (at that time) unravelled within a matter of days.

The challenge facing South Africa today is not identical, though situational differences should not lead us to a position of complacency. The UK dispute specifically targeted transport fuel supplies at source, whereas the current crisis involves the road haulage sector (which is but a critical component of the supply chain) as a whole.

However, throw in some extremely combustible kindling created by entrenched social inequalities and legitimate labour grievances – which have found their most recent violent expression in the extractives sector disputes – and we have all the conditions necessary for collapse.

The extent of our dependency on liquid transportation fuels – overwhelmingly derived from oil, more often than not from unstable parts of the world – becomes vividly apparent only when they no longer flow freely.

Until this moment, we scarcely give a moment’s thought to how pervasively oil seeps through every aspect of our lives.

Note also that absolute physical shortages are not necessary; with the human tendency to hoard in anticipation of a crisis, all that is required is for the notion to take hold that limited fuel supplies are a distinct possibility.

It becomes a case study in self-fulfilling prophecies.

Of course, none of the above is inevitable in the coming weeks. What is likely, however this plays out, is that we will recover from the crisis and return to some semblance of normality without properly facing up to – much less addressing – this pernicious dependence on liquid fuels.

To the extent that we pretend to deal with it, our “answers” will probably be found in synthetic oil substitutes – coal liquefaction and Karoo shale gas – proffered as a pathway to national energy security that insulate us from undemocratic regimes in faraway desert lands. It’s a shell game – a confidence trick designed to keep our eyes away from the real prize. It’s methadone for our collective heroin addiction.

Dear Fossil Fuel, I want a divorce!

This blog first appeared on the Mail & Guardian Thought Leader website

Dear Fossil Fuel,

There is no easy way to do this, so I’ll just say it: I want a divorce!

Writing this letter is very painful for me, but the contents will not come as a great surprise to you. Our relationship has been wondrous at times, with ups and downs like every marriage. But you’ve been abusive for too long and pushed me to the limit. It’s taken decades of counselling to build up the courage to leave you, but after 300 years together I’ve decided it is time I grew up and faced the future as a responsible adult.

Let me start by saying: I don’t think you ever had evil intentions at heart. Your character flaws are in your basic chemistry, and that’s not your fault. You’ve had a difficult life, unloved by all except me. Your parents – Sun and Earth – were ashamed of you. Having conceived and given birth to you by accident millions of years ago, they locked you away in the cupboard under the stairs, out of sight and out of mind. So full you were of harmful chemicals, they probably felt they had no choice, to give their other offspring the best possible chance to thrive.

But once I released you from your geological tomb, how you made up for lost time with your fiery character! We achieved things together that I could not have imagined before we met. Side by side, we reshaped the landscape; we built great cities and connected them with infrastructure that spanned continents; we fought and won epic wars (admit it, you were often the cause of them!); we created a vast empire that left no corner of the globe untouched. Put simply, we lived tens of thousands of lifetimes in three short centuries. I owe virtually all of my success to you, which is why I write these words with such a heavy heart.

My parents were uneasy about our union from the early days. Oh, they could see how much fun we were having together – how your intensity captivated me! – but they worried that our relationship was growing at the expense of everything else in my life. It’s easy to see it now: I was becoming dependent on you, even addicted, blind to the damages we wrought, losing sight of what was important. Because of you I lost all respect for my mother, Nature.

With you egging me on, I became lazy and conceited. I didn’t stop to worry how I was growing, only that I grew. And I grew! As time passed, I hardly noticed how overweight I had become. No, morbidly obese! I’d developed this habit of consuming unnecessary stuff in vast quantities, more wants than needs. So wasteful of mother’s inheritance – much of it gone, forever – such regret … gradually I lost all interest in my appearance, as together we created such waste! I’ll admit, at the time it was childishly good fun, but I realise now, as I spend more and more of my energy cleaning up your mess, it must stop!

Frequently – and this is my greatest shame – I also lost sight of my duty to take care of my father, Society, who has long struggled with episodes of ill-health. On the surface he appeared OK, but underneath the neglect was evident, as his recent violent outbursts testify. (In fact, I would be surprised if our relationship were not the direct cause of much his sickness, though I know you will protest your innocence!) Of course, I would not even exist were it not for mother and father. I’m determined to make up for lost time and place their needs first and foremost from now on.

I know what you’re going to say: “I can change!” I’ve heard it so many times. Yes, I know you’ve become more efficient over the years, and tried to clean up your act. But everything is relative – you too have grown so much larger (OK, it’s partly my fault) that all your efforts to improve yourself have been trumped! And you’ve become so risky lately. You used to be dependable, easy-going – I liked the sense of security that you gave me. But over the last 30 or 40 years you’ve become so volatile and unreliable. I can see the writing on the wall: you probably are going to change, but not for the better! It’s only a matter of time before you blow up again, and set me back another few years. I just can’t take it any more.

And now for my confession: I’ve met someone else. He’s not as powerful as you – not at the moment – but he’s got some really interesting ideas how we can develop together in totally different ways. He’s very smart, not all brute force like you – he thinks you’re incredibly primitive, and I’m coming to realise he’s probably right! He doesn’t smell (oh, your awful smells!), never leaves any mess lying around, refuses to draw us into debt (he doesn’t know the meaning of the word!) and he gets the job done so much more efficiently than you ever did. Granted, he’s not always there by my side (he travels the world), but he has a wonderful network of like-minded friends that are always hugely supportive.

I know this will come as a bombshell for you: he’s your younger sibling, Solar Flux. Sun and Earth are so proud! My parents love him, too – he’s got big plans how we can attend to their needs and make up for all my past misdemeanours. Mother wonders why I left him in the first place for you all those years ago. But as I keep reminding her, our marriage was not all bad. Some of the amazing things we accomplished have made me what I am today – without that, I couldn’t begin to imagine a successful future with Solar Flux. Thanks to you, I’ve learned so much. But I was a child when we met. I’ve grown up, come through a tricky adolescence, and now I’m ready to move on.

I realise this divorce is probably going to cost me, in the short-term financial sense. But in the long-term, I know that I will grow even stronger in this new relationship and lead a much more vibrant and meaningful life without you. No doubt, this will be one of the biggest challenges I’ve ever faced, but it is one I can no longer postpone. If I avoid this decision now, I may harm my relationship with my parents beyond repair, and I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

Yours no longer,

The Economy

The Story of Energy (for Grown-ups)

Among the myriad challenges facing the human species in the early years of this century there is one that shows up on every political and business agenda from Pretoria to Paris, Lusaka to London, and Windhoek to Washington: how to sustain economic growth.  So dominant is this discourse that those who dare to question it can be readily dismissed as lunatics, so far outside the mainstream as to appear out of touch with reality.  Can’t they see?  We need to create jobs!  

Yet deep down we all know that our home planet – and the non-renewable resources upon which our economies are based – is finite, meaning that nothing can grow indefinitely without violating immutable laws of nature.  This is a scary thought.  So, to insulate our preferred mental models of the world from uncomfortable physical truths, we invent oxymoronic terms like “sustainable growth” that evade all attempts to assign a coherent definition.  Most worryingly, we render ourselves unable to recognise and confront a profound blind spot: the pivotal role that energy plays in the human project. 

To comprehend why we are where we are, and what it means for our future, we must first appreciate that not a cent of economic activity happens without energy being transformed from one form into another.  Through trillions of daily conversion processes – some of which happen inside our bodies as we consume food which also required energy to produce – we benefit from a range of useful services such as heating, cooling, mobility, communications, etc.  In so doing, laws of physics dictate that we must throw some energy away as waste heat; we can (and should aim to) improve the efficiency of our conversion steps, but we can never break even. 

A deeper understanding of our predicament is revealed in the workings of our pre-industrial world.  Then, as today, our economic system was based entirely on the movement of people and things.  Prior to the Industrial Revolution, however, all of that movement was driven by solar energy, whether it was harvested as food for people, feed for draught animals – then converted into motion via muscles – or wind caught in the sails of ships and windmills, or rivers turning watermills.  For simplicity, we can think of this kinetic energy sub-system as the ‘Wheel’.  It was constrained by our ‘solar income’, which is the quantity of incident sunlight we could capture (in a relatively short timeframe) and usefully deploy. 

Sure, we had for many centuries also been making good use of stored sunlight.  By burning wood, peat and coal (the last of these in miniscule quantities by today’s standards), we were able to use the liberated heat to cook our food, warm our homes, and drive an impressive host of manufacturing processes.  We can call this thermal energy sub-system ‘Fire’, and it ran on the ‘hydrocarbon battery’ – sunlight captured by plant and animal life over millions of years before being locked away in fossil fuel deposits – to which we increasingly turned as our supplies of firewood became exhausted.  But, just as today, our ability to bring the hydrocarbon battery into service was constrained by the rate at which we could move these combustible fuels from where they were found to where they were needed. 

This year marks the 300th anniversary of an event that altered the course of human history profoundly.  In 1712, Thomas Newcomen’s first steam engine became operational in the English Midlands town of Dudley.  By converting heat into motion, it united humanity’s two most important discoveries: Fire and the Wheel.  From that moment on, our scope for mobility – in the first instance, to shift water from a flooded coal mine – was no longer bound by the limits of solar income, by human and animal muscle or sailing ships. 

Once we’d hooked ourselves up to the hydrocarbon battery, we began to mechanise our world.  Fewer draught animals were required, which liberated not only the paddocks on which they were kept, but also the large tracts of arable land which fed them.  In concert with advances in agriculture, fewer farmhands were able to produce greater quantities of food, which in turn boosted population growth.  More of us were free to swap rural for urban landscapes that were melting pots of knowledge-sharing and innovation, fostering further advances in science and medicine that allowed us to lead longer, more productive – and more consumptive – lives.  Later, steam ships and locomotives allowed us to move more things (including food) faster over greater distances, enabling ever higher levels of consumption.  For the better part of three centuries, we hardly looked back as we ascended this upward spiral, propelled by ancient solar energy released from fossil fuels. 

A crucial enhancement of the Fire/Wheel axis arrived towards the end of the 19th Century with the invention of the automobile.  If fossil fuels are the Earth’s hydrocarbon battery, then crude oil is their ultimate expression: its liquid state provides unmatched energy density and ease of transport, making oil the reference fuel for moving people and things, far superior to coal and natural gas.  Its role in underpinning our economic system cannot be overstated and it seems impossible to dislodge.  No wonder we are prepared to go to war over the stuff – we are fighting for nothing less than our ability to sustain economic growth as we know it. 

A ready supply of cheap liquid transport fuels subsequently enabled us to do all sorts of clever things, such as create globalised supply chains and just-in-time delivery systems, and we congratulate ourselves for the perceived efficiency gains that we created.  The trouble is it all unravels spectacularly when fuel becomes expensive or scarce, even fleetingly.  Keen to avoid cold-turkey convulsions on a societal scale, governments intervene by any means necessary and order is maintained.  This is precisely how South Africa ended up with the world’s single largest point source of CO2 emissions, thanks to its apartheid-era coal liquefaction programme, a response to constricted oil supplies. 

All the most prized attributes of advanced economies – proud beacons of human progress to which many developing nations aspire – are based upon the marriage of Fire and the Wheel.  That is, we achieve and maintain our pinnacle of civilisation by relentlessly digging fossil fuels out of the ground and setting them on fire in order to move people and things from place to place in motor vehicles.  High-tech, indeed!  But lurking in the dark recesses of our minds is the realisation that consuming any resource faster than its rate of formation is, by definition, unsustainable.  Fully aware that our hydrocarbon battery is draining fast and will not be re-charged in the conceivable future, that using it has a deleterious effect on the natural systems that sustain all life on Earth, and that meanwhile the economic system through which we aim to deliver societal needs is utterly dependent on it, what are we to do?  We surely can’t return to a pre-industrial existence where most people struggled on the very edge of survival.  At least, we won’t take this lying down. 

There is a glimmer of hope around which to galvanise our collective imagination.  About the time of the automotive revolution, another energy technology was born that also came to shape modern life: electricity.  Just as the steam engine created a pathway for turning heat into motion, so electricity can reverse the process.  Via electrons, we can take solar income – either directly by capturing sunlight or indirectly by harnessing wind – and transform it into every imaginable energy service of benefit to society, including the mobility which underpins all economic activity.  

Crucially, modern electrical devices – and transportation modes in particular – just happen to be supremely energy efficient, meaning that we can enjoy more services with less energy expenditure.  And electricity is unique among energy carriers because it can also convey information.  This introduces the prospect of discarding the current ‘dumb’ energy system and replacing it with one that is ‘smart’.  Since all of the energy arrives for free and its source will never expire as long as our solar system persists (if it doesn’t, human concerns will be a thing of the past!), what’s not to like?  

We are exhibiting all the symptoms of addiction, including compulsive behaviour and denial in the face of mounting evidence that we have a serious problem.  We even resort to theft in order to feed our increasingly expensive habit, either from weaker nations and communities, or from generations as yet unborn.  As civilised adults we need to confront and treat this addiction, unhook ourselves from the hydrocarbon battery, creating in its place a new economic paradigm that provides societal needs equitably within solar income constraints.  

Does this mean the end of growth, at least as the term is currently understood?  That is inevitable anyway; we cannot negotiate with hard biophysical limits.  The best we can hope for is what economists might call a ‘soft landing’.  The 21st Century project – both hugely challenging and incredibly exciting – is to create the ultimate just-in-time delivery system, powered by energy that arrives every day from the sun, not by setting fire to millions of years of ancient sunlight in the blink of an eye.  All other species on Earth manage just fine like this.  For now, we are the 0.0001% that attempt to live by rules of our own making and it is silly to imagine that we can continue as we are with impunity.  

Big Oil’s electric shock

This article first appeared on the website of Better Place

A great indicator that disruptive innovations are nearing the all-important tipping point is when powerful incumbents start peddling nonsense masquerading as facts, to sow doubt about the viability of the emerging technology or business model.  There’s nothing particularly sinister about this.  By scrambling to erect roadblocks to new market entrants that threaten their hegemony, oligopolies are only doing what comes naturally to an organism under attack by an existential threat.  And if your job is to find, extract, refine, distribute and sell liquid fuels, then electric cars certainly qualify.

I’m thoroughly heartened when I read statements from Big Oil about the “many barriers” that must be overcome before electrons can make a significant dent in a mobility sector dominated by petroleum.  Heartened because as recently as two years ago I would have been hard pressed to find any commentary at all from the oil majors about transport electrification.  Back then, the tune was all about the prospects for second generation biofuels and the supposed holy grail that is hydrogen.  But today, barely an eyebrow is raised when senior executives from the likes of ExxonMobil or Shell claim that electric cars hold genuine future promise, but not before we decarbonise the power supply.  In other words: “You EV guys are very well meaning – and we wish you well – but until the world stops burning coal, allow motor manufacturers to continue tinkering with incremental efficiency gains while we drill, baby, spill!”.

The decarbonised grid storyline is becoming the new conventional wisdom.  And like much conventional wisdom, when examined closely it turns out to be patent nonsense, though on the surface it appears reasonable.  We begin to understand why it is flawed when we examine what I call the Four Truths that we can hold to be self-evident.  They hold whenever we elect to set fire to carbon-based fuels in order to benefit from motorised kilometres:

(1) Large is better than small

Megawatt (MW) scale plants are able to run hotter, therefore more efficiently, than the kilowatt (kW) scale engines that power motor cars.  This truth has its roots firmly in the basic laws of thermodynamics, which are not subject to revision.

(2) Constant load is better than variable load

Combustion facilities have an optimal operating efficiency that is achievable more or less continuously in a power plant.  In vehicles, the engine speed is seldom constant, as it is dictated by the variable driving conditions.

(3) Stationary is better than mobile

In practical terms it is far easier to manage, collect, and process combustion emissions from stationary plants than from mobile vehicle tailpipes.

(4) Few is better than many

The greater the number of emissions sources, the harder it becomes to do anything about them.

Notice that truths (1) and (2) relate to energy efficiency, while (3) and (4) are all about emissions control – this is why (1) and (4) are not merely different ways of expressing the same point.  And what should we conclude from these truths?  It is better to burn fuel – be it coal, crude oil, natural gas, or biomass – in hundreds of large, stationary power plants running at constant speed rather than millions of small, mobile internal combustion engines running variably.  Put differently, all else being equal electricity beats liquid fuels on energy efficiency and emissions control.

The real killer for Big Oil is that for years we’ve been led to believe that petroleum was too valuable to turn into electricity.  It’s true only if your core business is shackled to the liquid transport fuel paradigm.  From an energy efficiency, energy security and environmental perspective, crude oil is far too valuable to waste in automobiles.  The same goes for coal, natural gas, and biomass.  Biofuels – the tenuous lifeline of the liquid fuel company – break against the rocks here.  Far better to convert the biomass into heat and electricity to displace dirty coal.

So back to the conventional wisdom.  Let’s imagine a world in which 100% of our primary energy comes from fossil fuels.  Electric mobility wins, hands down.  But of course, we don’t live in such a world.  The world we live in has a steadily decarbonising electricity supply, while oil majors are forced to exploit ever-more exotic and energy-intensive forms of black gold.  They’ll have a helluva job making diesel or gasoline from wind turbines and solar panels.

How Green are Electric Cars?

This article first appeared on the Energy Bulletin website

I have been reading and watching with some bemusement a number of stories appearing in the British press and on television this past week on the subject of electric cars.  The media interest is largely a reaction to the UK government’s recent announcement of plans to provide cash incentives to buyers of plug-in vehicles, designed to stimulate the market for highly efficient vehicles.  A number of articles, some of which have hot-links from the ODAC website, have ‘experts’ variously dismissing the environmental benefits of electric cars as fiction, claiming their mass adoption will cause blackouts, or accusing the government of a cheap gimmick.  Whatever the rights and wrongs of the proposed stimulus package, its lack of sophistication should not be allowed to undermine the fact that electric cars are fundamentally a good idea.  Shifting transport away from liquid hydrocarbon fuels towards electricity can make a significant contribution to the twin challenges of climate change and energy security.

Frequently repeated is the lazy sound bite that “electric cars are only as green as the electricity they run on”.  Sounds obvious, doesn’t it?  But it neglects the fact that based on today’s UK electricity mix – still heavily reliant on natural gas and coal – electric cars can cut CO2 emissions in half compared with conventional mechanical vehicles running on petroleum.  Even taking into account transmission and distribution losses, it is always more energy efficient to burn carbon-based fuels – coal, oil, gas, and biomass – in large stationary power plants running at constant load than it is to waste additional energy converting them into liquid transport fuels and then burning them in small mobile internal combustion engines running at variable speeds. 

In a Daily Telegraph article, one expert was quoted as saying that modern diesel engines can achieve 45% efficiency.  This is an extraordinarily optimistic estimate, especially considering that automotive engines are seldom running at optimal efficiency but instead are subject to cold start energy losses, frequent short journeys, stop/start urban driving conditions, idling at traffic lights and in queues, fast acceleration and hard braking, all of which combine to reduce the practical efficiency of the mechanical powertrain to around 20%.

The electric motor is a vastly more efficient – and reliable – device in principle than the internal combustion engine.  To get the picture, we need to compare two vehicles sharing the same platform but utilising different powertrains.  This way, we can eliminate variables such as vehicle size and aerodynamics which complicate comparisons from one vehicle platform to another.  I reviewed the US Department of Energy website devoted to vehicle fuel economy and found that in 2003 the electric variant of the Toyota RAV4 was 4.9 times more energy efficient over the standard test cycle than its petroleum-powered equivalent.  4.9 times!  Note also that Toyota’s aim was not to build an energy efficient vehicle per se, but to comply with California’s “Zero-Emissions Vehicle Mandate” (the RAV4-EV used nickel metal hydride batteries, which are less efficient than modern lithium batteries that will power the new generation of electric cars).  In other words, Toyota achieved this factor ~5 efficiency advantage almost by accident! 

Putting this efficiency advantage into context, we can apply the carbon intensity of any given energy source to see what the effective life-cycle emissions would be.  Imagine a run-of-the-mill pulverised coal plant generating power with approximately 1,000 gCO2/kWh.  Factor in grid losses of around 6%, and the electricity at the plug socket contains roughly 1,064 gCO2/kWh.  Meanwhile, petroleum-based fuels contain around 300 gCO2/kWh, taking into account the efficiency of a typical oil refinery.  On this basis it looks as though petrol is better for the environment than coal-fired electricity.  But when you apply the energy efficiency advantage of the RAV4-EV (i.e. 1,064 divided by 4.9), the relative carbon intensity of energy at the wheels is 28% less than the petrol version.  Diesel engines are typically around 25% more efficient than petrol engines, all else being equal.  This means the RAV4-EV charged with electricity from a run-of-the-mill pulverised coal plant would still be marginally better in terms of CO2 emissions than its diesel-powered equivalent. 

But no country, not even China, has exclusively coal-fired electricity.  In Britain, a diverse range of power generating technology means that electricity drawn at the domestic socket emits around 520 gCO2/kWh on average.  On this basis, an electric RAV4 would produce two-thirds less CO2 per mile driven than the petrol version, and half as much as a comparable diesel.

Furthermore, once all those CO2 emissions have been concentrated from millions of vehicle tailpipes into a relatively few stationary point sources, then they lend themselves to a future in which we can capture and lock away the CO2 underground.  Personally, I cannot imagine carbon capture and storage (CCS) from moving car tailpipes, but I can envisage CCS from large stationary power plants situated near suitable geological storage locations.

Further still, electric vehicles can actually help to accelerate the penetration of renewables such as wind and solar power, because one of the limits to renewable electricity generation is storage of energy from intermittent sources.  With millions of electric vehicles connected to the grid we will have created a massive distributed energy storage facility, in the form of automotive batteries.

The more important point is this: if we are to avert catastrophic climate change, then the power sector will need to steadily decarbonise because it represents the single largest source of CO2 emissions.  The good news is that we know how to decarbonise the power sector; we have a range of technologies and policy measures at our disposal and all that’s lacking is a globally inclusive international treaty to put an effective cap on emissions.  In this respect, it is sensible to take: “Power decarbonisation over time” as one of our starting assumptions.

Contrast this with the liquid fuels sector, in which the carbon intensity is heading northwards as oil companies are forced to exploit more energy-intensive forms of liquid hydrocarbon (e.g. oil sands, oil shale, coal-to-liquids, etc.).  Biofuels – even when produced sustainably with real greenhouse gas benefits – will struggle to make up the difference. Oil is going to get dirtier.  And if the worst of electricity (i.e. pulverised coal) compares favourably with the best that petroleum has to offer (i.e. conventional diesel), then over time the advantage of electric vehicles can only increase.

Finally, there is much to be done in redesigning the entire transport paradigm, e.g. through modal shift from private cars to mass transit, encouraging more walking and cycling, and improving urban planning practices to eliminate demand for transport.  Electric vehicles are not a panacea to cure all transportation ills.  However, the clear energy efficiency advantages of electric vehicles, not to mention the crucial energy diversification potential (energy security frequently trumps environmental security in policy discussions), make them a very important part of the solution as we move toward a sustainable energy future.