Shifting demand: can renewables reach 50% of grids?

25% of the power grid could realistically become ‘flexible’, shifting its demand across days, even weeks. This is the lowest cost and most thermodynamically efficient route to fit more wind and solar into power grids. We are upgrading our renewables ceilings from 40% to 50%. This 22-page note outlines the growing opportunity in demand shifting.

Renewables would struggle to reach 50% penetration of today’s grids, due to their volatility. Pages 2-7 quantify the challenges, which include capacity payments for non-renewable back-ups, negative power pricing >20% of the time, >10% curtailment and 30% marginal cost re-inflation for new projects.

But a greater share of renewables would help decarbonization. This objective is explained on page 8, showing the relative costs and CO2-intensities of electricity technologies.

Renewable electricity storage is not the solution. It is costly and thermodynamically inefficient, which actually dilutes the impact of renewables. Costs and efficiency losses are quantified for batteries and for hydrogen on pages 9-11.

Demand shifting is a vastly superior solution. Pages 12-17 outline half-a-dozen demand-shifting opportunities that have been profiled in our research to-date. Companies in the smart energy supply chain are also noted and screened.

What impacts? We model that up to 25% of the grid can ultimately be demand-flexible, while this can help accommodate an additional 10pp share for renewables in the grid, before extreme volatility begins to bite (see pages 18-19).

Europe leads, and we now assume renewables can reach 50% of its power grid by 2050, with follow-through consequences for our gas and power models (page 20).

Our global renewables forecasts are not upgraded, as the bottleneck on a global basis is simply annual capacity additions, which must treble between 2020 and 2050, in our roadmap to ‘net zero’. (pages 21-22).

Industrial heat: the myth of electrify everything?

“Electrify everything then decarbonize electricity”. This mantra is popular, but dangerously incorrect for industrial heating. It raises output costs by 10-110% without any material CO2 savings. This 19-page note presents five separate case studies in the steel, cement, glass, petrochemical and paper industries, which exceed 15% of global CO2. Only a CO2 price is likely to maximize efficiency gains across multiple disparate industries.

Industrial heating comprises 20% of global CO2 emissions. We outline the market by process, by temperature range and by fuel sources on pages 2-5.

The costs and CO2 intensity of gas, coal and electricity are broken down on pages 5-7, in units of kg/kWh and c/kWh, along with workings. This analysis shows electrification can only save CO2 if it confers a step-change in exergetic efficiency. Which needs to be assessed process-by-process, industry-by-industry.

Electrification of the steel industry is discussed on pages 8-9. Over half of the emissions are chemical emissions from coking. The other half is from blast furnaces. Recycling scrap metal in electric arc furnaces is the best electrification opportunity we can find for any high-grade heating process, but it also has drawbacks.

Electrification of the cement industry is discussed on pages 10-11. Approximately half of the emissions are chemical emissions from calcining CaCO3. Because cement costs are so low, there is a risk that electrification doubles total production cost.

Electrification of the plastics industry is discussed on pages 12-13. Presently there is no commercially available electric alternative to an ethane cracker, although some interesting concepts are at early stages of technical readiness.

Electrification of the glass industry is discussed on page 14. Again, the process is challenging to electrify, and like cement, this can greatly increase production costs.

Electrification of the paper industry is discussed on page 15. Vast quantities of water and steam make this industry one of the least heat-efficient globally. Heat exchangers and heat pumps can help. But they may actually increase CO2 intensity if electricity replaces wood offcuts and other sustainable biomass, currently used as a low carbon fuel.

A comparison of the costs and CO2 intensities of different electrification technologies ties all of our work together on page 16. At best, electrification will have a neutral impact on the CO2 intensity of industrial heat, if renewable penetration ever reaches 50% of the grid. At today’s typical grid mixes, electrification may increase CO2 intensity 20-50%.

Better options are needed to decarbonize industrial heat, as outlined on pages 17-19. No simple mantra like “electrify everything” can substitute for effective process engineering, which is highly site-specific. A CO2 price could incentivize many of these initiatives. We outline attractive options and who benefits.

Vertical greenhouses: what future in the transition?

Vertical greenhouses achieve 10-400x greater yields per acre than field-growing, by stacking layers of plants indoors, and illuminating each layer with LEDs. Economics are exciting. CO2 intensity varies. But it can be carbon-negative in principle. This 17-page case study illustrates how supply chains are localizing and more renewables can be integrated into grids.

The first rationale for vertical greenhouses is to grow food closer to the consumer, which can save 0.6kg of trucking CO2 per kg of food. Eliminating freight is much simpler than decarbonizing freight (pages 2-4).

The second rationale for vertical greenhouses is that they are 10-400x more productive per unit of land, hence they can free up farmland for reforestation projects that absorb CO2 from the atmosphere (pages 5-6).

The third rationale for vertical greenhouses is that their LED lighting demands are flexible, which means they can absorb excess wind and solar, in grids that are increasingly laden with renewables. They are much more economical at achieving this feat than batteries or hydrogen electrolysers (pages 7-10).

The overall CO2 intensity of vertical greenhouses depends on the underlying grid’s CO2 intensity, but the process can in principle become carbon negative (pages 11-13).

The economics are exciting. We model 10% IRRs selling fresh produce at competitive prices, with upside to 30% IRRs if fresher produce earns a premium or operations can be powered with low-cost renewables when the grid is over-saturated (pages 14-15).

Leading companies in vertical greenhouses and in their supply chain are discussed on pages 16-17.

China: can the factory of the world decarbonize?

China now aspires to reach ‘net zero’ CO2 by 2060. But is this compatible with growing an industrial economy and attaining Western living standards? Our 16-page note finds the best middle ground to balance these objectives: Coal is phased out, oil demand plateaus at 20Mbpd, gas rises by a vast 10x to 300bcfd, and 9GTpa of gross CO2 emissions must be captured or offset. The biggest challenges are geopolitics and sourcing enough LNG.

The vastness of China’s industrial economy is outlined on pages 2-4. China’s industrial complex consumes more energy than the entire USA. China’s textile manufacturing industry alone consumes more energy than the entire power grid of Spain. We provide data by major sector and by energy source.

It is more challenging to decarbonize an industrial economy than a service-oriented economy. These are our findings on pages 5-6.

A high case scenario is laid out on pages 7-9. It is not impossible that China’s CO2 doubles by 2060, more than offsetting all decarbonization efforts in the West. This would be problematic.

A low case scenario is laid out on pages 10-12. The easiest route to reaching net zero is if China chooses slower economic growth and less economic development for its citizens. But is this remotely fair or realistic?

A middle-ground solution is given on pages 13-15. This is our base case. Full decarbonization is achieved, without materially sacrificing growth and development. But vast changes are needed in China’s energy sector.

The largest bottleneck to achieving this bottleneck is whether China can source enough gas, especially LNG, to reduce its reliance on coal, as argued on page 16. The ramp-up in renewables is also vast, but realistic, we think.

CO2-EOR: well disposed?

CO2-EOR is the most attractive option for large-scale CO2 disposal. Unlike CCS, which costs over $70/ton, additional oil revenues can cover the costs of sequestration. And the resultant oil is 50% lower carbon than usual, on a par with many biofuels; or in the best cases, carbon-neutral. The technology is fully mature and the ultimate potential exceeds 2GTpa. This 23-page report outlines the opportunity.

The rationale for CO2-EOR is to cover the costs of CO2 disposal by producing incremental oil. Whereas CCS is pure cost. These costs are broken down and discussed on pages 2-5.

An overview of the CO2-EOR industry to-date is presented on pages 6-7, drawing on data-points from technical papers.

Our economic model for CO2-EOR is outlined on pages 8-10, including a full breakdown of capex, opex, and sensitivities to oil prices and CO2 prices. Economics are generally attractive, but will vary case-by-case.

What carbon intensity for CO2-EOR oil? We answer this question on pages 11-12, including a debate on the carbon-accounting and a contrast with 20 other fuels.

The ultimate market size for CO2-EOR exceeds 2GTpa, of which half is in the United States. These numbers are outlined on pages 13-15.

Technical risks are low, as c170 past CO2-EOR projects have already taken place around the industry, but it is still important to track CO2 migration through mature reservoirs and guard against CO2 leakages, as discussed on pages 16-17.

How to source CO2? We find large scale and concentrated exhaust streams are important for economics, as quantified on pages 18-21.

Which companies are exposed to CO2-EOR? We profile two industry leaders on page 22.

What implications for reaching net zero? We have doubled our assessment of CO2-EOR’s potential in this report, helping to reduce the costs in our models of global decarbonization.

Carbon negative construction: the case for mass timber?

The construction industry accounts for 10% of global CO2, mainly due to cement and steel. But mass timber could become a dominant new material for the 21st century, lowering emissions 15-80% at no incremental costs. Debatably mass timber is carbon negative if combined with sustainable forestry. This could disrupt global construction. This 17-page note outlines the opportunity and who benefits.

CO2 emissions of the construction industry are disaggregated on pages 2-3. Some options have been proposed to lower CO2 intensity, but most are costly.

Sustainable forestry also needs an outlet, as argued on pages 4-7. Younger forests grow more quickly, whereas mature forests re-release more CO2 back into the atmosphere.

The case for cross-laminated timber (CLT) is outlined on pages 9-11, describing the material, how it is made, its benefits, its drawbacks, and its CO2 credentials.

CLT removes CO2 at no incremental cost, illustrated with specific case studies and cost-breakdowns on pages 12-13.

CLT economics are attractive. We estimate 20% IRRs are achievable for new CLT production facilities on page 14.

Leading companies are described on pages 15-16, including large listed companies, through to private-equity backed firms and growth stage firms.

Our conclusion is that CLT could disrupt concrete and steel in construction, helping to eliminate 1-5GTpa of CO2 emissions by mid-century.

Methanol: the next hydrogen?

Methanol is becoming more exciting than hydrogen as a clean fuel to help decarbonize transport. Specifically, blue methanol and bio-methanol are 65-75% less CO2-intensive than oil products, while they can already earn 10% IRRs at c$3/gallon-equivalent prices. Unlike hydrogen, it is simple to transport and integrate methanol with pre-existing vehicles. Hence this 21-page note outlines the opportunity.

The objectives and challenges of hydrogen are summarized on pages 2-3. We show that clean methanol can satisfy the objectives without incurring the challenges.

An overview of the methanol market is given on pages 4-5, to frame the opportunity, particularly in transportation fuels and cleaner chemicals.

Conventional methanol production is described on 6-8. We focus upon the chemistry, the costs, the economics and the CO2 intensity.

Bio-methanol is modelled on pages 9-10. We also focus upon the costs, economics and CO2 intensity, including an opportunity for carbon-negative fuels.

Blue methanol is outlined on pages 11-15. Converting CO2 and hydrogen into methanol is fully commercial, based on recent case studies, which we also use to model the economics and CO2 credentials.

Green methanol is more expensive for little incremental CO2 reduction, and indeed some routes to green methanol production are actually higher-CO2 (pages 16-18).

Companies in the methanol value chain are profiled on pages 19-20. We focus upon leading incumbents, technology providers and private companies commercializing clean methanol.

Our conclusion is that methanol could excite decision-makers in 2021, the way that hydrogen excited in 2020. This thesis is spelled out on page 21.

Costs of climate change: a paradox?

The unmitigated costs of climate change would likely reach $1.5trn per year after 2050, exerting an enormous toll on the world. However, the costs of the energy transition will exceed $3trn per year. This might seem to undermine the economic justification for combatting climate change. Does this paradox matter? And what does it mean?

Our lowest cost roadmap to reach ‘net zero’ CO2 by 2050 is outlined on pages 2-3, re-capping the work we published at the end of 2020 (note here). We estimated that the best route to net zero will be costing an incremental $3trn per annum by the 2040s.

Polarized perspectives on our roadmap are discussed on pages 4-6. Some decision-makers argue that costs are irrelevant when it comes to saving the planet. Others fear energy transition initiatives are overly expensive and will achieve very little.

Hence we have estimated the costs of unmitigated climate change in the latter half of the 21st century, using a framework derived from the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Our estimate for $1.5trn per annum of cost is explained on pages 7-10.

It gets worse. Climate change is not fully prevented by reaching ‘net zero’ by 2050. There are also risks of creating geopolitical imbalances. These issues are explored on pages 11-12.

What does it mean? Thunder Said Energy is a research consultancy focused upon economic opportunities that can drive the energy transition. There is still good justification for this objective. Hence we conclude the note with six possible resolutions to our paradox, discussed on pages 13-14.

Resolving the paradox? We would welcome your own opinions on our paradox in a new survey, linked here. We will share anonymized responses with all those who contribute.

Ten Themes for Energy in 2021?

This 25-page note outlines our top ten themes for 2021. We fear Energy Transition will continue building into an investment bubble. But also appearing on the horizon this year are three triggers to burst the bubble. We continue to prefer non-obvious opportunities in the transition and companies with leading technologies.

(1) Climate policies are at an increasing risk of blowing ‘investment bubbles’ (pages 2-4)

(2) Renewables’ grid volatility is also reaching new levels, creating a new opportunity to absorb excess power supplies (pages 5-7)

(3) Nature-based solutions are continuing to find favor, and may start displacing higher-cost transition technologies from the cost curve (pages 8-9).

(4) Conventional energy demand recovers post-COVID, and will lead to eventual under-supply in conventional oil and gas markets (pages 10-13).

(5) Shale productivity is likely to disappoint during the recovery, albeit temporarily (pages 14-15).

(6) Project FIDs will need to accelerate, but we think new energies projects will still outpace conventional energy projects (pages 16-17)

(7) Relativism ramps. The market will become increasingly discerning between low-CO2 and high-CO2 companies within different industrial sub-segments (pages 18-20).

(8) Geopolitical flashpoints are going to flare up around climate policies (pages 21-22).

(9) Non-obvious opportunities in the Energy Transition are most exciting, hence we re-cap most salient examples from our work to-date (page 23).

(10) Technology leaders remain best-placed, hence we outline examples (pages 24-25).

Decarbonizing global energy: the route to net zero?

This 26-page report aggregates all of our work in 2020 and presents the best route to reach ‘net zero’ CO2. The global energy system can be fully decarbonized by 2050, for an average CO2 cost of $42/ton. Remarkably, this is almost half the cost foreseen one year ago. 85Mbpd of oil and 375TCF pa of gas are still required in this 2050 energy system, together with efficiency technologies, carbon capture and offsets.

Our modelling framework for the decarbonization of global energy is explained on pages 2-6, looking across 90 thematic research reports and 270 models, which have featured in our work to-date. The aim is to find the lowest-cost route to meeting global energy demand, while removing all of the CO2.

The framework joins up with our models of supply-demand models of global energy, oil, LNG, European gas, the total US economy and the climate system. Supply shortages are noted in many of these markets on pages 7-8.

How can this be a decarbonized energy system if there is still 85Mbpd of oil and 375TCF of gas? Our bridge includes carbon capture and carbon offset, as shown on page 9.

Nature based solutions are profiled in detail on pages 10-14. This includes data into the CO uptake rates in reforestation and soil carbon projects, and quantification of the land that is available for both.

Carbon capture technologies are profiled in detail on pages 15-18. This is not simple CCS, but an array of 35GTpa potential, spanning a dozen themes, evaluated in our work.

Why not rely more on renewables in the roadmap? Our work already assumes the ascent of wind and solar will double in speed, and reach 17% of total global energy by 2050. This would be a monumental achievement. But it is challenging to do more, as outlined on pages 19-24.

The best demand-side and efficiency technologies are presented briefly on page 25, including links to detailed research reports, underlying each theme.

What has changed? The report closes by comparing our latest decarbonization roadmap, in December-2020, with the roadmap we laid out in December-2019. The outlook has improved most for nature-based solutions, efficiency technologies and backing up renewables’ volatility.