"Carbon-less Energy Future" Still a Distant Horizon as Natural Gas in Ascendancy
Posted December 18th, 2009 in Energy
Natural gas is the fuel of the 21st century and a carbon-less energy future for the world won’t happen for a long time, says an internationally prominent researcher and author on technology and energy.
Natural gas is the fuel of the 21st century and a carbon-less energy future for the world won’t happen for a long time, says an internationally prominent researcher and author on technology and energy.The kind of transition in energy systems required to produce and consume energy that has no carbon emissions will take many years based on historical precedent, says Vaclav Smil, Distinguished Professor in the Faculty of Environment at the University of Manitoba.
Making a change in technology “seems to be a very simple thing,” Smil told a seminar hosted by the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Environment and Economy’s energy and environmental systems group at the University of Calgary. But people “don’t realize what all it takes” to make a major transition in resources for energy production, he said.
Renewable energy won’t become the world’s major energy source for many years, because such a shift in energy supplies is not just a “gadget transition” but a “system transition,” Smil said.
Smil is the author of many books, including Global Catastrophes and Trends: The Next Fifty Years; Energy in Nature and Society: General Energetics of Complex Systems; Transforming the Twentieth Century: Technical Innovations and Their Consequences; and Energy at the Crossroads: Global Perspectives and Uncertainties (FMI visit http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~vsmil/).
Drawing a bell curve onto a blackboard, he explained that economists and market strategists rely on standard adaptation curves to describe the acceptance of a new technology or product over time. For some technologies, the length of the curve is 70 years. For others, such as the Internet, “it’s 10 years.”
The refrigerator, for example, first appeared in the 1920s. CFC refrigerants were introduced in the 1930s. “Then . . . everything takes off . . . by 1965, every family (in North America) has a refrigerator.”
In China, however, making the technology shift required a change in leadership and philosophy. Communist leader “Mao Tse-tung has to die for people to get a refrigerator,” Smil said. By 1985, (the Chinese) start making refrigerators. By 1997, China becomes the most productive “producer of refrigerators in the world.”
Natural Gas Emerges
The emergence of natural gas as a widely used fuel is another example of how long it takes to make a shift in energy systems, Smil said.
The 1850s are generally seen as the start of the commercial natural gas industry in North America. However, by the 1900s, the share of natural gas in global prime energy production was still “nothing,” he said. By 1920, this percentage was still very small, “because in energy transitions, many things have to happen in proper sequence.”
With any systems transition, society “has to go through many, many steps,” Smil said. The transitions are random and unpredictable, and “strange things have to happen together.”
“We could never (have gotten) into mass production of natural gas – beyond local production – unless we got suction,” he said. Reasonably cheap steel had been made since the late 1800s, but this technology alone wasn’t enough to make the production shift for gas. “It (had) to be a steel that withstands a decent amount of pressure, because you want to pressurize the pipe” in order to push millions of cubic metres of gas into it.
Transporting pressurized gas also requires seamless pipe and reliable valves, which weren’t developed until the 1930s. So, natural gas pipeline systems weren’t established until the 1950s after the Second World War.
The cities of Paris, Venice and Prague all get their natural gas from a pipeline that starts in western Siberia more than 6,500 kilometres away. A steam engine can’t push gas this kind of distance, because the “biggest, most beastly” steam engine is only about 14 per cent efficient, Smil said.
Small and efficient jet engines are required to move gas long distances, but this technology was only invented just before the Second World War ended, by the Germans to power Messerschmitt jet fighters.
In the 1980s, the Russians wanted the small jet turbine technology for their long-distance pipelines, but the Americans refused to sell the technology to Communist Russia. So Russia approached the European subsidiary of General Electric and bought the turbines.
The overall development of mass-produced natural gas transmission was complicated, and it wouldn’t have happened without going through that sequence of events, Smil said
In terms of product penetration, one per cent share in the market is marginal. At five per cent penetration – which natural gas achieved around 1930 – the product gets noticed. However, it took until the 1970s, or more than 40 years, for gas to achieve 20 per cent global market penetration.
Energy Systems Transition
Given the time required to make a transition in energy systems, advocates of wind power who claim that 20 per cent of all electricity can be produced by wind by 2020 are misguided, Smil said.
It took even longer, going from wood to coal, for coal to ramp up through the same share of the market. And during that time, global coal consumption was about one billion tonnes. The world currently uses nearly 10 billion tonnes of coal, as well as other fossil fuels.
Any transition to a different energy system now needs to happen in a system which is orders of magnitude bigger than during the shift from wood to coal, and “that makes a big difference” in how fast the shift can happen, Smil said.
For crude oil, it took 35 years for crude to go from five to 20 per cent of world energy use, as well as global political events to drive the change.
Smil noted that as late as 1948, Japan was an “impoverished country” which relied on U.S. ships to bring it rice. Then Russian leader Joseph Stalin gave the green light to North Korea to attack South Korea.
When China entered the Korean peninsula, the pressure was on the U.S. to ramp up industrial production in Japan, to build ships and other war machines that required steel. The Japanese economy rebounded due to the Korean War, Smil said
When it came to transporting crude oil, the technology of tanker ships had been around since the 1880s, but there was no demand for “big ships.” In the 1930s, the biggest tankers were around 10,000 tons. During the Second World War, the Liberty Ships that transported crude to Europe were 16,000 tons.
In the 1950s, the U.S. had plenty of oil. “Until 1975, the U.S. was the largest producer of crude oil. Even now the U.S. is still the third-largest producer,” Smil said.
Triggered by the Korean War, Japan began building bigger tankers and, by 1964, had built a tanker of one-quarter million tons. So, essentially, the Koreans, Chinese and Japanese sped up the oil age, he said.
However, Smil predicts that oil will not capture more than 40 per cent of the global energy market, “because the main action (now) is in natural gas.” With projects popping up around the world, including in Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, China and India, he predicts natural gas will penetrate to about 30 per cent of global energy use.
In a review of two of Smil’s books, Joel Mokyr, a professor of economics and history at Northwestern University, says Smil “is unusually adept at combining his knowledge of how techniques actually work with his ability to illustrate their overall effects on society and the human condition.” (http://home.cc.umanitoba.ca/~vsmil/pdf_reviews/EH-net.pdf) EnviroLine -- Elona Malterre