Clean Hydrogen Coal?

This is the Suiso Frontier, the first ever liquefied hydrogen transport ship sailing from Australia to Japan as we speak. Billed as being their greatest export since Novak Djokovic, the ship itself is an admirable achievement.

Hydrogen is made in different ways, usually from methane or from running electricity through water to split the hydrogen and oxygen. Confusingly, the water way is called green hydrogen and the methane is blue hydrogen. On top of this you have another type called “clean hydrogen” which is basically from carbon capture and storage of fossil fuel power plants. Confusing but basically you can electrolyse water with renewable energy and make hydrogen. It’s an elaborate but useful way of storing renewable energy It’s very clever and very worthwhile. It’s basically renewable energy battery, a way of storing excess so it doesn’t get wasted.

Making it from fossil fuels, in Australia’s case actually from coal, is neither clever nor worthwhile. Nor is it good for the environment as the Australian government claims. It’s good as a storage of energy. To burn the coal to release energy (and lose some), to then change it to hydrogen and export it on a ship is bizarre. It would be like starting a bonfire to create light to charge a solar panel.

Now the people behind this say they won’t continue this unless they can capture the emissions and store them. However this costs massively more than using renewables and might not work at all. 
It is a way for Australia to carry on using coal though which is a far more likely explanation. Australia has very high coal use and the highest per person emissions in the world (2018). They actively lobby for coal use (along with Qatar incidentally) so trying to make coal clean under the hydrogen disguise works in their favour. It’s just such an unnecessary step that takes more time and costs more than renewables.

 This only even comes close to breaking even if the carbon capture and storage is done on a scale and efficiency not seen before. If it works at an unprecedented scale it is still worse than using renewables, so quite pointless. It’s clearly a way to try and justify a coal mine in a country that has vast expanses of land that could be used for renewables.

 I suspect more effort will be put on the coal mining than on the capturing of emissions.

Natural “Green” Gas?

Hello and Happy New Year!

There was news recently that the EU is going to label natural gas and nuclear power as sources of green energy which is controversial. This is draft text but is fully expected to be approved with only Germany speaking out against it so far.

It comes with caveats, Nuclear energy will be “green” if the country can dispose of waste in a way that causes ” no significant harm” which is very vague to say the least.

Gas will be green if it emits less than 270g of CO2 per kWh. This is slightly harder to understand but equally very poor.

Typically if you burn a kWh of natural gas (methane) it gives out 0.185kg of CO2. However all gas systems have leaks and losses meaning in the UK on average the figure is 0.203kg CO2 per kWh. In other words, the UK could switch to entirely gas having already met the target (I know we are not EU!). This does not include the other steps and damage like deep sea drilling, fracking etc.

The EU is arguing this is a transition fuel. The gas numbers are better than coal so we move from coal to gas, then move from gas to renewables. The problem is that not many will build a powerplant for a short term to then change or demolish it later. Those that do are putting a deadline on it’s usage or will lobby against energy measures to keep it.

On average, across the world the figure is 0.425g CO2 per kWh using all fuels combined. If a country was heavily coal reliant then moving to gas would result in a lowering of emissions. If India switched from coal to gas overnight their footprint would drop by about 60%.

However if we know renewables work, then is the transition necessary? In some cases it may be better to go via gas but most of the EU could go directly to renewables. Also most of the EU gas comes from Russia which is politically difficult as Russia can alter our fuel prices. There is definitely politics in this decision.

 As I type this the German energy grid is operating at 159g CO2 per kWh indicating it is ok. In comparison though Scotland is at 10g CO2 per kWh which is very low as we have loads of renewables. These figures are just to demonstrate that the EU figure of 270g is not a low target and switching to renewables would be far more advantageous and practical.

Fundamentally labelling burning methane as “green” is surely wrong?

Are Google Carbon Neutral?

“Carbon Neutral since 2007” it says on the Google homepage.

Google follow a standard called PAS 2060 that is like an instruction guide for businesses and carbon neutrality. You may have seen things like ISO 14001 which is another standard for environmental work. One I was trained in.

If you follow the standard and pass the assessment then you are carbon neutral according to the guidelines. I had no real issue here until I read this comment from Google

“You can still be producing carbon, be connected to a grid that is burning coal. As long as you offset that by purchasing renewable energy somewhere, you can still achieve carbon neutrality.” It’s offsetting programme does not compensate for its emissions by removing carbon from the atmosphere.

What I think Google refer to here is basically carbon credits, or a thing called renewable energy certificates (RECs) we call them in the UK.

The expectations of carbon neutrality would be emissions minus offsets as the PAS standard basically outlines. I can’t see the full rules as it is expensive to buy the standard but this looks correct.

The problem is, if you purchase 100mWh of coal energy and 100mWh of wind energy this is defined as “neutral” in the way Google describe. It clearly is not. It’s like murdering someone and not murdering someone else and saying nobody was murdered. A neutral action that emits nothing does not offset a negative.

Offsets have issues when done properly but good ones should remove what the emissions were. Any real offset is additional, i.e it did not happen without the payment from the company. Google’s renewables are already generated and they are just buying them rather than creating more or taking carbon out the atmosphere. No new renewables are generated here and the price paid is typically far to low to cause new renewables to be built.

Unless Google misspoke this is quite poor but they are following the rules so isn’t their fault. I didn’t like standards when I did ISO14001 for the reason it could be easily cheated. It was a paper trail of thought without any proven reductions being required.

Google also aim to tackle legacy emissions which means what they emitted before they were “neutral” in 2007. They say this is through high quality offsets which is hopefully true.

In many ways Google are great. Getting to fully renewable energy by 2030 is their goal which would be incredible, so this is not an attack on them. They actually have great aims and using PAS 2060 as a stepping stone of progress is great.

Rather, carbon neutrality as a concept is flawed for the simple reason if everyone was carbon neutral carbon emissions would still increase.

 That clearly isn’t neutrality.

How Bad is Bitcoin?

Bitcoin and Energy Use

There is a lot of chat about Bitcoin and electricity use at the moment with many sources quoting that Bitcoin uses “More than all the worlds solar panels create” or “more than XX country”. Whilst I am not defending bitcoin energy use (it is very high) these arguments are incorrect and unhelpful.

In 2020 the total solar power produced was 844TWh, whilst estimates for Bitcoin put it somewhere around 115-139TWh. That means Bitcoin uses the equivalent of 16% of solar energy (roughly). Very high for sure but there is no need to make up stats to make it worse, otherwise you undermine your credibility by parroting an easily disputable “fact”.

 Bitcoin generates energy as people use computers to “mine” (solve complex problems) which gains them bitcoin essentially. How this model of currency compares to the rest is unclear, the current banking system also uses masses of energy and materials (metal etc) which Bitcoin proponents often argue. This is true but this is also not a valid argument, you can’t compare Bitcoin to the global financial system, you would have to compare all the cryptocurrency footprints collectively if you are arguing this system will replace the current one. There is a valid point in here, the metal in our coins also got mined, smelted and shipped so there will be a high material and electricity cost from that and from the bank computer servers. You could easily argue that precious metal mining is worse than Bitcoin mining for sure. Really neither should exist in the form that they currently do. If it is just that Bitcoin uses more energy then maybe that is ok? Afterall, we can probably tackle energy use more easily than say exploitation and child labour in physical mining. Maybe high energy outweighs massive human rights abuses?

But is electricity use the issue?

Many argue that Bitcoin has been set up in many places to use excess energy, indeed I visited a renewable energy place in Scotland who were considering it as they had to dump vast amounts of renewable produced electricity that couldn’t be used by the grid, they just let it out as heat. It’s a tricky area to estimate, you have to look at what Bitcoin’s current output is, estimate the electricity use of the hardware, work out where it is in the world and calculate the fossil fuel/renewable energy mix in use in that country to estimate the carbon footprint.

A study by a cryptocurrency research group estimated that 73% of the energy used in Bitcoin is carbon neutral, a University of Cambridge study says 39%. More than double the US electricity grid and actually a very good number. The reason being it tends to use renewables is that poor areas like South America and Southern China mine the most and have high hydropower grids where energy is often wasted as it cannot be used. This is further complicated when you consider the poverty in these areas, it’s hard to argue with someone in poverty trying to make things better by mining Bitcoin, particularly in a pandemic.

Most Bitcoin energy comes from production and not use, so as mining slows down the overall energy drops. This means the rise will not be exponential and should drop off. It’s not a surprise that a new industry uses more energy than the one it replaced. Laptops use more than typewriters, cars more than horses and smartphones more than landlines. It comes down to whether the increase is justified or not.

Bitcoin does use a lot of electricity and competitors like Ethereum argue they use less as a way to attract customers. I’m not advocating the use of Bitcoin as I do feel the energy use is very high (unless using excess renewables that would be dumped) but misleading stats and figures make this worse.

It is extremely easy for the Bitcoin industry to disprove these arguments. The environmental industry can argue their case for lowering the footprint and pressurise those in power to act. Governments already dislike Bitcoin so it is a fairly easy argument to win meaning it’s such a needless lie to tell.

 We regularly argue against industries that lie about climate change and their emissions and I really hate to see environmental groups go down the same route. The best argument is a true argument regardless of which side you are on.

Biomass: Carbon Neutral or not?

Biomass was recently in the news with the EU reviewing it’s policy, essentially deciding whether they support it. The biomass industry is quite open that is not all good, basically saying the wood used for biomass should be scrap wood or low value wood and we should not be taking good quality forestry and cutting it down for biomass.

This was always a divisive topic with someone telling me years ago that they couldn’t understand why the UK uses high quality wood for biomass whilst others use cheaper wood. Personally, whilst I see the point, I don’t agree that is at all relevant to the carbon neutral argument. It makes no difference what the value of the wood is that you burn in terms of emissions.

Some, mainly politicians and lawmakers, define it as carbon neutral as the tree can only release as much carbon dioxide as it has absorbed in growth. Thus it has taken in X amount and now releases X amount when burned. In theory you then replant and all is well. 

It’s a fair argument, but oil is made of old animal and plant matter too and “only releases what was taken in”, that doesn’t make it ok though. Anything you burn can only give out what it absorbed, that is not valid argument. Neutrality depends on timescale as ultimately everything is a cycle. If we went to biomass on a large scale our carbon emissions would increase dramatically thus it is inaccurate to say it is neutral. Is a forest fire carbon neutral? Unless you actually define what “carbon neutral” means it has no meaning at all.

Timescales really matter here, it’s like offsetting. If a tree takes 70 years to grow and you burn it in 7 minutes that cannot be considered equal just because you replant it. You would need to plan hundreds of trees for each felled tree to compensate and even then you have issues of damage, failure to grow, forest fires etc.

Also, you have air pollution and biodiversity damage that exacerbates the issue. A lot of this is political with scientists saying it is not neutral and politicians saying it is. Burning trees looks cheaper than investing in energy but it really isn’t, not with solar reaching an all time price low. A low that no one predicted incidentally.

Personally I really struggle to see where biomass fits in a low carbon energy system. We burned trees for fuel thousands of years ago, to do it now and call it progress seems a very tenuous argument.

What do people think, is biomass a good thing to support or should we look at other options?

If you found this useful and would like to donate to the running costs of this page please click below:

Click to Donate
%d bloggers like this: