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Why Is There So Much Tribalism In Alternative Fuels? There Are 39 Trillion Reasons (Part 1 Of 2)

That’s the reason why there’s all this tribalism in alternative fuels. There’s $39 trillion in future profits in the industry up for grabs.

Somebody asked me recently why there is so much argument and tribalism on alternative fuels, and it’s a reasonable question. After all, the economics, chemistry, physics, and transitional effort clearly support electrification of everything that can be electrified, biofuels for most of the rest, and hydrogen and synthetic fuels in a handful of niches. But the world is messier than the laws of thermodynamics, and so there are advocates for five major fuel pathways.

As someone who has spent an inordinate amount of time assessing, publishing on, and having expert level discussions about transportation and heating fuel pathways, I have an informed opinion.

The primary pathways people are arguing about for future energy needs for transportation, and home and industrial heat are fossil fuels with carbon capture, electricity, biofuels, hydrogen, and synthetic fuels.


Fossil Fuels

Let’s start with the incumbent, fossil fuels. That’s what we use today because nature kindly did the vast majority of the heavy lifting millions of years ago, turning matter into energy-dense substances that are convenient to use.

Obviously, the problem is the negative externalities of fossil fuels. These include:

  • CO2
  • nitrous oxide (N20) with a global warming potential 265x that of CO2
  • nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is a chemical precursor to smog
  • particulate matter
  • unburned hydrocarbons aka black carbon with global warming potentials thousands of times that of CO2
  • sulfur from both coal and bunker fuel for ships
  • mercury from coal which bioaccumulates

There are still a very large number of people and organizations asserting that these negative externalities are worth it for the benefits of fossil fuels. As future profits from the fossil fuel industry were estimated to be in the range of $39 trillion by the World Bank in 2018, they have a lot of money, a lot of influence, and a lot of people whose livelihoods depend on them, so this voice is very large, and obviously a major source of manufactured dissent and doubt.

Diagram showing scale of CO2 problem vs CCS

Diagram showing scale of CO2 problem vs CCS by author

And then there’s carbon capture, use, and sequestration (CCUS). I created this bubble diagram over a few iterations to illustrate the scale of the problem of excess CO2 vs the scale of CCUS. What isn’t shown here, as it’s buried in the invisible dot, is that more than a third of CCUS is enhanced oil recovery which produces more net CO2 than the pretense of sequestration, and that all the CO2 for that purpose is pumped up from underground in one place and pushed down in another in a shell game that draws massive governmental largesse in multiple jurisdictions.

As I wrote a couple of years ago, the direct-air capture company Carbon Engineering’s 2-kilometer walls of 20-meter high, 3-meter thick fans powered by natural gas only have one natural market, enhanced oil recovery, and indeed that’s the only place they are being deployed. They are receiving $250 per ton of CO2 that they pump underground, despite creating a third of a ton of that CO2 from the natural gas that they use in the process.

I’ve gone wide and deep on CCUS, hoping to find anything that is remotely viable, and frankly have found vastly less than nothing in most cases. The world’s 50 years of expenditures of billions would have been much better spent on wind and solar generation instead.

But the fossil fuel industry has its hands out for that governmental largesse, and billions more are being handed to it in multiple jurisdictions to continue to achieve close to nothing, and to delay governmental action.

We cannot continue to burn fossil fuels and solve the climate crisis, but that’s a hard message for people to hear, especially when there are $39 trillion in reasons not to listen.


Electricity

The second is electricity. Electricity is incredibly useful, as it turns into either mechanical energy or heat with a very high efficiency. Using it directly from its sources of generation is one of the most efficient and effective methods of delivering energy that we have. It’s higher cost than using dirt cheap fossil fuels only if we can cheaply dump all of the wastes from using fossil fuels and don’t price the negative externalities. 99.9% of stationary land-based energy consumers are easy to tie to the grid and easy to deliver sufficient energy for the purposes. Aluminum is made with electricity. Electric steel minimills run on electricity. Lithium-ion batteries are sufficiently energy-dense to provide equivalent range to internal combustion cars, etc..

Electricity can be made easily through multiple pathways, including steam cycle thermal engines, Carnot cycle engines, and Diesel cycle engines which use fossil fuels (or replacements), or more directly by harvesting renewable energy sources including water (which the atmosphere nicely lifts up to a high kinetic energy position for us), wind (which the atmosphere nicely makes strong and predictable in a lot of places) or sunlight (which is the actual power source for all fossil fuels and renewables).

And electricity made from renewable energy avoids 99.99% of the negative externalities of fossil fuels. It’s efficient, it’s effective, it’s clean, and it’s cheaper than using fossil fuels if negative externalities are appropriately costed. In the end, it will be the cheapest and best form of new fuel, and used for everything it can be made to work for, which is to say all but a handful of hard targets.

Electricity from renewables threaten the $39 trillion in future profits of the fossil fuel industry, as it is a replacement for their products in electrical generation, industrial heat, home heating, and most transportation modes. As a result, the fossil fuel industry tries to whip up as much anti-renewables and anti-EV hype as possible.


Biofuels

The third is biofuels. They take advantage of similar things to fossil fuels, in that they get nature to do most of the heavy lifting of accumulating energy in convenient forms for us to process into useful fuels. Modern biofuels use waste cellulose, that is, the stalks of corn, not the ears of corn, and the technology to ferment them into alcohol and chemical antecedents to biodiesel and the like is very well understood and mature. They substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and will become closer to carbon neutral as the entire supply, processing, and distribution chain decarbonizes.

However, they still have negative externalities, just fewer of them. That subset of fossil fuel’s negative externalities include:

  • CO2 (a lot less, but still present)
  • nitrous oxide (N20) with a global warming potential 265x that of CO2
  • nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is a chemical precursor to smog
  • particulate matter
  • unburned hydrocarbons aka black carbon with global warming potentials thousands of times that of CO2, but typically less than bunker fuel

Biofuels also require us to plant and harvest large areas with crops. As a result, they compete with our food supply for resources. Given that roughly 38% of the world’s landmass is used for various agricultural streams, with about a third of that as cropland, that’s a concern. Due to the Green Revolution, we produce more calories than the world needs from that agricultural land, but due to distribution challenges, economic problems, and wastage, there are still a lot of people going hungry. And in the past few decades, we’ve lost 21% of the gains from agricultural innovation to climate change losses.

Given the competition, obviously biofuels should only be used where direct electrification cannot be applied. Using them as a source of heat makes no sense if electricity could be used. Using them as a transportation fuel for cars makes no sense with battery electric vehicles fit for purpose, etc..

This limits biofuels to hard to electrify segments, which are still substantial. Long-haul aviation and long-haul oceanic shipping are hard targets. They both consume vast amounts of energy, and that energy has to be energy dense. Biofuels are an obvious replacement for kerosene for long-haul flights, and there have been certified biofuels for jet aircraft since 2011 or so. They aren’t used due to expense, as once again, biofuels are more expensive than fossil fuels unless negative externalities are costed. They are an obvious replacement for bunker fuel for long-haul shipping, but once again more expensive.

So there are multiple points of contention around biofuels. They don’t eliminate a bunch of negative externalities. They compete with land use for agriculture, which gets a lot of people riled up. Meanwhile, giving farmers subsidies to buy votes is a very timeworn path to rural power, one used by mostly conservative parties around the world, and corn ethanol biofuels have been huge recipients of that. A lot of farmers therefore really love biofuels, while others dislike them. And of course the fossil fuel industry dislikes biofuels because they are plug-and-play replacements for fossil fuels, so the fossil fuel industry has a long-standing PR campaign against them. Of course, engine manufacturers want to just keep on producing their engines without significant investments, and adapting to biofuels, which require engineering to ensure that they work correctly, takes money, so they tend to lobby against biofuels as well.

So for biofuels we have lots of contention in all directions from hunger alleviation organizations, agriculture businesses, the fossil fuel industry, and the people in favor of direct electrification.


So that’s the big loser — fossil fuels — and the big winners — direct electrification and biofuels. In the next article I’ll address two alternative fuels which will play only a marginal role in the future of energy, and why there’s so much energy behind them. Hint: it’s the same $39 trillion worth of reasons.


Here are some of my publications and podcasts where the subject is dissected in detail:

 
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Written By

is Board Observer and Strategist for Agora Energy Technologies a CO2-based redox flow startup, a member of the Advisory Board of ELECTRON Aviation an electric aviation startup, Chief Strategist at TFIE Strategy and co-founder of distnc technologies. He spends his time projecting scenarios for decarbonization 40-80 years into the future, and assisting executives, Boards and investors to pick wisely today. Whether it's refueling aviation, grid storage, vehicle-to-grid, or hydrogen demand, his work is based on fundamentals of physics, economics and human nature, and informed by the decarbonization requirements and innovations of multiple domains. His leadership positions in North America, Asia and Latin America enhanced his global point of view. He publishes regularly in multiple outlets on innovation, business, technology and policy. He is available for Board, strategy advisor and speaking engagements.

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