Decarbonizing global energy: the route to net zero?

This 18-page report revises our roadmap for the world to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050. The average cost is still $40/ton of CO2, with an upper bound of $120/ton, but this masks material mix-shifts. New opportunities are largest in efficiency gains, under-supplied commodities, power-electronics, conventional CCUS and nature-based CO2 removals.

This note looks back across 750 of our research publications from 2019-21 and updates our most practical, lowest cost roadmap for the world to reach ‘net zero’. Our framework for decarbonizing 80GTpa of potential emissions in 2050 is outlined on pages 2-3.

Our updated roadmap is presented on pages 4-6. Most striking is the mix-shift. New technologies have been added at the bottom of the cost curve. Other crucial components have re-inflated. And we have also been able to tighten the ‘risking factors’ on earlier-stage technologies, thus an amazing 87% of our roadmap is not technically ready.

The resulting energy mix and costs for the global economy are spelled out on pages 7-8, including changes to our long-term forecasts for oil, gas, renewables and nuclear.

What has changed from our 2020 roadmap? A full attribution is given on pages 9-10. Disappointingly, global emissions will be 2GTpa higher than we had hoped mid-decade, as gas shortages perpetuate the use of coal.

A more detailed review of our roadmap is presented on pages 11-18. We focus on summarizing the key changes in our outlook in 2021, in a simple 1-2 page format: looking across renewables, nuclear, gas shortages, inflationary feedback loops, more efficiency gains, carbon capture and storage and nature-based carbon removals.

Green steel: circular reference?

Steel explains almost c10% of global CO2. Hence 2021 has seen the world’s first ‘green steel’ made using green hydrogen. Yet inflation worries us. At $7.5/kg H2, green steel would cost 2x conventional steel. In turn, doubling the global steel price would re-inflate green H2 costs by $0.5/kg. This 16-page note explores inflationary feedback loops and other options for steel-makers.

Global steel production runs at 2GTpa, comprising one of the ‘top ten’ materials made by mankind. 70% of production is from blast furnaces and basic oxygen furnaces emitting 2.4 tons of CO2 per ton of steel output. Pages 2-4 provide an overview of the industry, its production processes and their CO2 emissions.

Green hydrogen is generating excitement as an abatement option. We review pilot projects and optimistic projections from technical papers on pages 5-6.

What about the costs? We have modeled the economics of a full-scale switch to green hydrogen in a Direct Reduced Iron + Electric Arc Furnace plant configuration. We would see costs doubling, but c85-90% of the CO2 can be removed (page 7).

Inflationary feedback loops have been a recurring topic in our recent research, and steel makes an interesting case study. Steel is used in wind, solar, power distribution, batteries, hydrogen electrolysers and hydrogen storage infrastructure. So what happens to the price of green hydrogen if all of these value chain components switch to 2x more expensive green steel? We run through the results on pages 8-11, then discuss how these inflationary feedback loops might actually play on pages 12-13.

Technical challenges for the adoption of green hydrogen in the steel industry are discussed on page 14. We are skeptical of the cost-deflation promised in other studies.

Our conclusions are that there may be some niche uses for green steel, but we prefer other options for mass-scale decarbonization of the steel industry, on pages 15-16.

Is the world investing enough in energy?

Global energy investment in 2020-21 has been running 10% below the level needed on our roadmap to net zero. Under-investment is steepest for solar, wind and gas. Under-appreciated is that each $1 dis-invested from fossil fuels must be replaced with $25 in renewables, to add the same new energy supplies. Future energy capex requirements are staggering. These are the conclusion in our 14-page note.

This 14-page note compares annual energy investment in different upstream energy sources with the amounts that would be required on our roadmap to net zero. The methodology is explained on page 2.

Current investment levels in each energy source are described on pages 3-5, reviewing the trajectory for each major category: oil, gas, coal, wind and solar. A stark contrast is found in capex per MWH of new added energy supplies.

We have constructed 120 different models, in order to stress-test the capex costs per MWH of new added energy supplies, across different resource types. Conclusions and comparisons from our modelling are presented on pages 6-8.

How much would the world need to be investing, on our roadmap to net zero, or indeed on the IEA’s roadmap to net zero? We develop our numbers, category by category, on pages 9-12, to identify where the gaps are greatest.

Conclusions and controversies are laid out on pages 13-14. Disinvestment from oil and gas will tend to exacerbate future energy shortages. To avoid this, it would be ideal to replace each dis-invested $1 of oil and gas investment with around $25 of new renewables investment.

Nature based CO2 removals: theory of evolution?

Learning curves and cost deflation are widely assumed in new energies but overlooked for nature-based CO2 removals. This 15-page note finds the CO2 uptake of reforestation projects could double again from here. Support for NBS has already stepped up sharply in 2021. Beneficiaries include the supply chain and leading projects.

Nature based carbon removals are re-capped on page 2, covering their important, their costs and how they are re-shaping the energy transition.

But policy support is growing faster than expected, as outlined on pages 3-5. Now that nature-based CO2 removals are on the map, they are in competition with other new energies. Hence which technologies will ‘improve fastest’?

The historical precedent from agriculture is that yields have improved 4-7x over 50-100 years, due to learning curve effects. So will forestry practices be similar? (pages 6-7).

Thirty variables can be optimized when re-foresting a degraded eco-system. We run through the most important examples on pages 8-13.

But is optimizing nature ‘natural’? This is a philosophical question. Our own perspectives and conclusions are offered on page 14-15.

Integrated energy: a new model?

This 14-page note lays out a new model to supply fully carbon-neutral energy to a cluster of commercial and industrial consumers, via an integrated package of renewables, low-carbon gas back-ups and nature based carbon removals. This is remarkable for three reasons: low cost, high stability, and full technical readiness. The prize may be very large.

Four building blocks for a zero-carbon energy mix are outlined on pages 2-5. They include wind, solar, gas-fired CHPs and gas-fired CCGTs. Costs, CO2 intensities and key debates are reviewed for each technology.

Taking out the CO2 requires high-quality nature based carbon removals, for any truly ‘carbon neutral’ energy mix. Meeting this challenge is described on pages 5-7. There will be nay-sayers who do not like this model. To them, we ask, why do you hate nature so much?

Finding a fit requires combining the different building blocks above into an integrated energy system. We find the optimal fit is for renewables capacity to cover 110% of average grid demand. The balancing act is outlined on pages 8-10.

The gas supply chain that backs up the renewables must minimize methane leaks and use the gas as efficiently as possible. Our suggestions are laid out on pages 11-12.

The commercial benefits of this integrated model are described on pages 13-14. We think this is an excellent opportunity to provide fully carbon-neutral energy, using fully mature technologies, at costs well below 10c/kWh and highly bankable price-stability.

Heat pumps: hot and cold?

Some policymakers now aspire to ban gas boilers and ramp heat pumps 10x by 2050. In theory, the heat pump technology is superior. But in practice, there are ten challenges. Outright gas boiler bans could become a political disaster. The most likely outcome is a 0-2% pullback in European gas by 2030. We have also screened leading heat pump manufacturers in this 18-page note.

The opportunity for heat pumps in the energy transition is laid out on pages 2-3, as the IEA now advises that “bans on new fossil fuel boilers need to start being introduced globally in 2025, driving up sales of electric heat pumps”.

But are they ready for prime time? We have reviewed technical specifications, costs and consumer feedback on pages 4-13. The work suggests large heat pumps may not feasibly substitute for gas boilers in every context. There are ten crucial challenges for the industry to overcome.

Gas market impacts are quantified on pages 14-17. Our base case is that trebling heat pump capacity in Europe by 2030 will erode 2% of total gas demand. But rebound effects and under-performance could cut the net benefits to nil.

The best placed companies are explored in our detailed screening work (which we have used to select a heat pump provider for our own GSHP project in Europe). One company stands out in particular, having built-up an industry leading portfolio through acquisitions.

Border taxes: a carbon curtain has descended?

As Europe advances its decarbonization agenda, a ‘border adjustment mechanism’ has now been proposed to mitigate carbon leakage. Its initial formulation is modest. But it will snowball. And ultimately divide the global economy in two. Hence this 15-page report lays out our top five predictions for CO2 border taxes to reshape energy markets and the world.

In 1946, Winston Churchill made his famous ‘Iron Curtain’ speech, prophesizing decades of tensions between different economic systems in the West and elsewhere. The concept of a carbon curtain is similar, and is laid out on pages 2-4 of our report.

These wheels are now firmly in motion, as Europe has proposed a carbon border adjustment mechanism, in order to stem carbon leakage, as it tightens its environmental policies. For those who prefer not to read the Commission’s entire 291-page leviathan, we have summarized the key features on pages 5-6.

Expansion is inevitable. Page 7 argues for domino effects, where CBAM will be emulated by other Western economies; and then broadened, first into the manufacturing sector, then universally.

There will be five investable consequences of these escalating border taxes, which we spell out on pages 8-15. They could be extremely constructive for the gas/LNG industry, pre-existing renewables assets, and some lower carbon economies. But we also see major losers in the coal industry, higher-carbon countries and victims of inflation.

Inflation: will it de-rail the energy transition?

New energy policies will exacerbate inflation in the developed world, raising price levels by 20-30%. Or more, due to feedback loops. We find this inflation could also cause new energies costs to rise over time, not fall. As inflation concerns accelerate, policymakers may need to choose between delaying decarbonization or lower-cost transition pathways.

The importance of costs on the roadmap to net zero evokes a surprising amount of debate. We re-cap these debates, including our own roadmap on pages 2-3. Recently, organizations such as the IEA have published a roadmap, which we believe will be c10x more expensive.

The inflationary impacts of energy transition can be compared for different levels of abatement costs. Hence we discuss the concept of abatement costs, including two paradoxes, on pages 4-5.

Top-down, we calculate that each $100/ton of CO2 abatement cost would likely lead to 6% aggregate price increases in the developed world, on page 6.

Bottom-up, we model that each $100/ton of CO2 abatement cost would lead to 2-70% price increases, across a basket of twenty different goods and commodities, on pages 7-8. The impacts are regressive and basic goods and staples rise more.

An additional source of inflation comes from supply-demand dynamics, as some materials will be dramatically under-supplied in the energy transition (page 9).

What does it mean for new energies? To answer this question, we bridge the impacts of all these cost increases in our models of wind, solar, hydrogen and batteries, on pages 10-12. There are surprising feedback loops, which could amplify inflation.

No brakes? We also find that the usual mechanism to slow inflation is blunted by the need for an energy transition, on pages 13-14. Hence if inflation accelerates, it could surprise by a wide margin.

Our conclusion is that policy-makers and companies should consider costs more closely, while there are measures for investors to inflation-proof portfolios.

Biochar: burnt offerings?

Biochar is a miraculous material, improving soils, enhancing agricultural yields and avoiding 1.4kg of net CO2 emissions per kg of waste biomass (that would otherwise have decomposed). IRRs surpass 20% without CO2 prices or policy support. Hence this 18-page note outlines the opportunity, leading companies and a disruption of biofuels?

Biochar is presented as a miracle material by its proponents, improving water and nutrient retention in soils by 20% and crop yields by at least 10%. We review technical papers in support of biochar on pages 2-3.

Bio-char pricing varies broadly today, however we argue bio-char can earn its keep at a price in the thousands of dollars per ton, based on its agricultural benefits (pages 4-5).

The production process is described in detail on pages 6-8, reviewing different reactor designs, their resultant product mixes, their benefits and their drawbacks.

Economics are laid out on pages 9-10, outlining how IRRs will most likely surpass 20%, on our numbers. Sensitivity analysis shows upside and downside risks.

Carbon credentials are debated on pages 11-12, using detailed carbon accounting principles. Converting each kg of dry biomass into biochar avoids 1.4kg of CO2 emissions.

We are de-risking over 2GTpa of CO2 sequestration, as the biochar market scales up by 2050. There is upside to 6GTpa, if fully de-risked, as discussed on pages 13-14.

Biofuels would be disrupted? We find much greater CO2 abatement is achieved converting biomass into biochar than converting biomass into biofuels. Hence pages 15-16 discuss an emerging competition for feedstocks.

Leading companies are profiled on pages 17-18, including names that stood our for our screening work.

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.