Don Thurston Blog

A Time Out During The Energy Journey

To date an absolute flurry of activity on every front has had a limited influence on reducing the impact from fossil fuels on the energy journey.

On the other hand a video of the journey to date shows that the trip has lasted about three hundred years for an arrival now. Change has its own schedule and this one is particularly complicated.

An important mile stone was the realization that an ever increasing stream of carbon dioxide was accumulating in the earth’s atmosphere. Global  industrialization is responsible for a many times production increase of this gas which far exceeds the amount that was in equilibrium with carbon dioxide output versus absorption. At the same time atmospheric temperatures were increasing, soon to be correlated with the rise of “greenhouse gasses”. In short order methane became a member with others gases under study.

Now planet earth is subjected to a cavalcade of harmful climate events.

Let us take a walk to where the energy journey has taken us so far, starting with transportation.

Fossil fuel combustion generates about eighty percent of the total carbon dioxide from all sources. Transportation contributes about twenty eight percent of the eighty percent from all modes including light and heavy vehicles, trains, and aircraft.

The emergence of vehicles powered directly by electricity is creating a very unique change in the system including the source and employment. This points to a once in a life time change in the vehicle energy supply system as the internal combustion engine is replaced by an electric motor.

As in all game changing events the process is disruptive.  In this case long standing employment practices are obsolete and new skills are required. The nature and origin of the supply chains are new. Very different requirements in materials and trained employees need addressing early and extensively, major capital inflow is needed. Long standing activities are undergoing major changes….these are always disruptive but are eventually manageable.

Continuing with the transportation sector we have heavy trucks, buses, trains, ships and aircraft that all produce carbon dioxide as a byproduct of combusting fossil fuels. All manner of adopting new energy sources are underway and will, over time, have significant impact. Early results are encouraging.

Heavy trucks are a tantalizing target and are major emitters of carbon dioxide. Because of size, weight, usage, demand and schedule alternative energy sources to replace diesel have not matured enough to make a difference in the near future. Ships and trains suffer from the same problems. An energy revolution for air craft is further away. There is little risk in forecasting less intrusive energy sources; the timing remains uncertain.

We can now check three boxes… new sources, wind and sun; one new application as vehicles can be powered by electricity and a transmission system that employs high capacity, long lasting batteries. Fuel cells are now making a small presence.

Electricity is produced from fossil fuels to the tune of about forty percent of all the emissions from fossil fuels.

Coal remains a major contributor. There is a great deal of coal around the world, relatively accessible, cost effective, and used for power generation, manufacturing steel and cement. Coal’s Short comings have been well understood for generations because of particulate and carbon dioxide emissions. Mining, shipping and burning systems are very efficient. Economic expansion across the world credits coal as the catalyst.

Fortunes have been accumulated. Coal consumption is declining in the economic developed world and increasing elsewhere.

Harmful byproducts of combustion have been largely eliminated with the exception of carbon dioxide.

Where it is economically competitive, energy from coal is on the increase. So king coal remains on a throne albeit with an eroded base particularly in the economically developed countries

Natural gas is a replacement for coal and sometimes referred to as a transition energy supplier. The inference is that while combustion generates carbon dioxide it is a much lesser amount than coal.

In a small way but never the less a growing addition to organic sourcing is the production of methane from biological material.

Hydropower has long been a source of electricity. Many are legendary, reliable and for a long time. The sheer size of the damns and the related construction inflict significant territorial impacts.

Nuclear based power plants have their own positives and negatives. Items of safety and disposing of radioactive material remain.  One item stands out from all other sources in that the primary objective was to use the energy as a weapon rather than producing electricity.

Geothermal adds to the spectrum of energy systems.  Not a game changer but a useful addition none the less.

The production of steel and cement only happens because of harnessing the energy from combusting fossil fuels. Petrochemicals are derived from oil and natural gas. In this case it is not just the energy but the compounds contained in the oil and natural gas that are the building blocks for the petrochemicals themselves.

This takes us to commercial and domestic requirements for heat, cooling and light. Big items for sure…. to date provided from central electrical generating systems coupled with elaborate transmission systems.

Over three centuries all we have accomplished is to modify known energy systems, make them more efficient and distribute the kilowatt hours all across the globe.

Flowing water has been harvested to do work for centuries; burning organic compounds and their offspring have been a source of heat and light since the first campfire, steam has provided mechanical energy for three centuries, nuclear power is the outcome of a devastating weapon, the fossil fuel businesses flourish because they have provided energy sources and feedstock for petrochemicals, wind has provided the necessary energy for water transport for a very long time, Energy from the sun has been available for ever.

To be sure none of these developments have been trivial. They have required a mix of technologies, entrepreneurship, policies and capital to bring them up to current standards.

At this juncture there are reasons to imagine substantive changes will influence the journey. One is hydrogen, the second is the prospect of fusion as a generator, the third is adding transmission capacity with batteries and fuel cells and the forth is a nuclear reactor adapted for much smaller uses.

So waiting in the wings are known energy sources and systems that have the potential to upgrade the efficiency to do work, provide heating and cooling and manufacture essential building blocks all at the same restraining negative byproducts. In addition are initiatives to extract and sequester carbon dioxide at source. Transmission innovations are well on the way as storage systems gain capacity. Bringing the energy source closer to the application is gaining momentum.

Thus far we have only addressed the energy journey from a technical perspective. The journey continues to be detoured by a series of political issues that erode traditional demand and supply relationships.

For example the advent of kerosene precipitated import taxes on whale oil. While whale oil was in decline, never the less whale oil was made more expensive in the United States.

A much more transparent stimulant was the agreement between the United Kingdom and Persia for the supply of crude oil so Royal the Royal Navy could convert their very powerful fleet from coal to oil. In effect Great Britain gained control of oil supply from the Middle East. Churchill said “who controls oil will win the next war”.

OPEC surfaced in nineteen sixty. The collective power, while membership ebbs and flows, The Organization of Petroleum Exporters is considered by some as a cartel and thereby able to control export volumes and price. Perhaps not acting all the time as a cartel, the members have, at the very least, always act in a monopolistic manner.

Whenever a significant oil exporter strays away from acceptable political activities an embargo is placed on their ability to export.

Bipartisan agreements surface. Witness the Russian….Saudi agreement on oil pricing acting to discourage the rapid growth of shale oil originating from the United States.

We all know what is happening to the export of natural gas from Russia.   An act of aggression has caused countries to restrict trade….natural gas included.

Picture World War II resulting from motivations to acquire natural resources. The Japanese wanted to master control over all of South East Asia including access to oil. The Germans made a similar effort in Eastern Europe.

Update…..Venezuela is accelerating a long standing border dispute with Guyana now that oil exports are a reality.

Politics are manifested in a different form when regional and country wide differences ebb and flow. A simple example is when a region supported by a prosperous fossil fuel industry advocates for policies that are more favorable than a national government might. Because these depend on the government of the day, changes will be forthcoming when the parties move in and out of power. At the very least the time dimension will increase.

Happenstances have contributed to extraordinary opportunities for the oil industry.  One example, the internal combustion. Serendipitous or not this invention blossomed in junction with the automobile, one of the most significant developments ever. The oil industry has taken full advantage, responding with a masterful combination of technical, economic and business management. To this end integrated and duplicate systems dominate the supply of energy to all parts of the transportation industries.

No doubt the evolution of today’s global economy has only happened in lock step with the energy industry. Unfortunately we are left with a most unequal distribution.

For the first time in history, competitive forces are encroaching with new energy systems which have advantages and to which the fossil fuel industries must respond. Nothing new about this as competitive forces will force adaption by the entrenched suppliers if they wish to survive.

Examples abound. Witness photo graphics when the digital technologies swept away the traditional film based camera. A cheaper, efficient, more convenient system is now commonplace. Of course this innovation is trivial when compared to the oil and natural gas industries.

Energy sources have successfully journeyed along a route which has established hydropower, nuclear, coal, natural gas, geothermal, biomass, solar and wind. Atmospheric degradation results because of carbon dioxide emissions

New energy sources are emerging. Hydrogen is on many agendas for good reasons. This element is abundant and available everywhere as an element in water and natural gas molecules. Upon separation hydrogen is ignited yielding heat energy and water. Collectively the processes of producing, shipping and employing hydrogen are complicated and expensive. The hydrogen revolution is going to take a very long time.

Known as small modular reactors. This nuclear source will be a boiled own version of the current reactors.

Well into the future is energy from the process of fusion….duplication of how the sun is a generator.

Activities that have the greatest return are at the light switch. Doing more work with less energy has to be the most favourable outcome. The journey will continue to be very difficult.

The energy system and the nervous system have some commonalities. They both have control, they both have major influence on their respective components, they are interactive, they both are influenced by multiple factors, and nobody can survive without them.

Thanks for reading!

I would love to hear your thoughts. Drop me a line in LinkedIn or contact me directly.

While you are here why not try one of my other articles.

Don Thurston Blog
Don Thurston Blog
Don Thurston Blog
Technology Folklore
Don Thurston Blog
Don Thurston Blog
Mount Pleasant Don Thurston
Don Thurston Blog
Don Thurston Blog
Mount Pleasant Don Thurston
Don Thurston Blog
Mount Pleasant Don Thurston
Mount Pleasant Don Thurston
Don Thurston Blog
Don Thurston Blog
Mount Pleasant Don Thurston


Mount Pleasant Don Thurston