My day with the 'real' energy experts

My day with the ‘real’ energy experts

I was very flattered to be invited to sit on a panel at the Aurora Spring Forum in Oxford recently. This year’s conference topic was “Delivering the energy transition in a fractured world

Aurora Energy Research was founded by University of Oxford professors and is a research company with 250 experts spread around the globe.

They supply detailed analytics and data about energy systems to companies and governments around the world, so when I walked into the enormous hall I wasn’t that surprised to see 100’s of highly animated and obviously clever young men and women.

I have passed the Oxford Examination Schools where the event was held many times, but I had never previously entered. It’s where every student at this 1,000 year old establishment sits their final exams.

I’m going to repeat my little dad joke about my personal history with this famous University town. please forgive me.

“I was at Brasenose College in 1973 . . .(pause for dramatic impact) . . .when I worked in the kitchens.”

So to say I had a bit of imposter syndrome would be to gloss over my palpable inadequacy. I was expelled from school age 16 with one ‘O’ level in Art, equivalent to one GCSE. Grade 1 mind, no rubbish.

Some of the people I spoke to that day reminisced about sitting their final exams in the rooms in this hulking Victorian edifice on Oxford’s High Street, ie they didn’t get expelled aged 16, did their homework, got to Oxford and passed exams.

Anyway, moving on, due to other commitments I missed the big keynote speaker, Ben Van Beurden the CEO of Shell. I have since learned that his message was stark and uncompromising. The next winter in Europe is going to be tough. He is predicting fuel shortages and gas rationing. I don’t think he banged on about scaling back our dependence on burning fossil fuel, although Shell are investing a small percentage of their profits into renewables. Okay, the vast majority of their investment is focussed on developing new oil and gas fields, let’s not muck about.

I saw a couple of presentations and I’m now double checking I’m doing this correctly. The conference was held under Chatham House Rule, which as I understand it, go something like this:

“When a meeting is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

The reason I am allowed to mention Ben Van Beurden is because there have been dozens of reports about his speech in the press, but the first presentation I saw was delivered by someone. I spoke to that person after the presentation and they are amazing and I hope to have them as a guest on the Fully Charged Plus podcast soon.

So someone gave a fascinating overview of the global energy situation, which, unsurprisingly is still terrifyingly dependent on fossil fuel.

I suppose I knew this, but when you are confronted with very well researched and clearly presented data on the scale this person delivered, it can put a bit of a crimp on your day.
If, like me, you live in a world where every development in electric vehicles, global renewable installations, grid scale battery storage, or the development of the world’s biggest wind turbine fills your in box on an hourly basis, it’s easy to forget the world we all live in is built and powered almost exclusively, by fossil fuel.

I have long argued that it should be our priority to reduce and eventually wean ourselves off this dependency, I have known and understood what a massive impact, both positive and negative, our use of fossils has had over the last 150 years. But when you see so starkly illustrated how the majority of the world’s energy still comes from burning toxic fuel, someone with my educational prowess can easily collapse in a heap of despair. Yes, there is a growing but still very small percentage is from wind, solar and storage and it can be measured around the world, but it’s still in single digit percentages.

However, casual conversations in various coffee breaks made me a little more optimistic if only because many of the people I met used to work in oil and gas and are now working for renewable energy companies. The one talk I literally could not get into was about grid level battery technology. Standing room only, packed to the rafters.

Instead I went to another panel discussion, this one about the viability of the UK developing the capacity to supply 24 gigawatts of nuclear energy by 2030. Apparently this was stated by some fly-by-night politician a while back, that particular pronouncement had sailed by me without traction.

The panel was made up of individuals from various government departments, investment groups and energy companies involved in building or facilitating the building of new nuclear power plants.

So a very pro-nuclear panel of people completely immersed with, and cognisant of the reality of nuclear power generation. You could not find a group of more pro-nuclear and better placed proponents of this particular energy generating system.

Now I have no wish to depress the many men who contact me regularly to explain that renewables are virtue signalling nonsense and nuclear is the answer, but the people on this panel made it obvious there’s really not much hope of a carbon zero nuclear future.

Too expensive, too slow, too many bureaucratic hurdles, too much concrete, too many technical difficulties. They didn’t list it like that, they would all start by saying we must press on, we will complete Hinkley Point C at some future date.

After being questioned by the panel chair, they acknowledged that the other two power plants being built (in France and Finland) using the same design as Hinkley are now 8 years overdue and many tens of billions over budget and they still haven’t been turned on.

The staggering cost of generating a relatively small but constantly available zero carbon electricity supply is eye watering. The ‘strike price’ for new nuclear is now 4 times greater than new offshore wind, and new offshore wind is more expensive to build now than a year ago, but it’s still so much cheaper per megawatt hour.

And experience shows us that wind is now, in 2022, supplying over 22% of our electricity on average over a year and this is set to be well over 50% in the next 18 months. In comparison to new nuclear, new wind is fast to install. And if new onshore wind is every allowed again in the UK, that is much cheaper and even faster to build out.

However this talk didn’t cheer me up, I’m no anti nuclear activist, I want it to work. It’s not burning wretched imported fossil fuel and anything that does that is a good thing, even with all the awkward side issues, oh, and the waste storage problem we are leaving our great x 150 times grandchildren. I’ve got to be honest, I came out of that panel session more sceptical about nuclear power then when I went in. It just sounded hopeless and horribly expensive.

But I wasn’t just wandering around this conference getting depressed, I was there to speak on a panel about whether or not people were ready to transition to electric cars.

Sigh. Yes they are. Anyway, we all sat in our seats on the small stage and the chair asked us questions like any normal conference panel.

I think I was supposed to argue against someone who is a very keen proponent of hydrogen fuel cell cars and I am a genuine admirer of his work, so we didn’t have a big ding dong as I suspect the organisers had hoped for. In just the same way as nuclear doesn’t require burning fossil fuel, hydrogen fuel cells don’t necessarily require the consumption of fossil fuel.

Although currently about 97% of all commercially available hydrogen comes from natural gas, okay and it does release CO2, and so far, despite endless fossil funded headlines, you cannot ‘capture and store it.’ I know people are supposedly developing this technology but I stated then and I repeat it now, this is a fossil funded con job, it will never work and it’s a massive waste of all our money.

Don’t burn the wretched fossil fuel in the first place and you won’t have to pretend to ‘extract the carbon.’

But all that aside, we still didn’t have a row about battery verses fuel cell as it’s such a pointless argument. Plus my supposed adversary made very well thought through, pertinent arguments in favour of hydrogen fuel cell cars.

I made the immature and stupid error of using a couple of swear words when I spoke, totally unnecessary and I regret it, but I was trying to make a critical point. I failed to make that point and I put this down to a lack of education.

If I had sat for my final Oxford exams in that massive building, I might have been able to formulate an argument on the spot. As it is, it’s taken me 3 days and numerous long walks arguing with myself (the locals are used to seeing me rant away as I walk past their houses) to come to a conclusion.

The technology of using ground transport that doesn’t burn fossil fuel is sorted. We know exactly how to do it. It’s just better technology, in 20 years time we will talk of combustion engines in the same we we now discuss steam. It was amazing, it changed the world, we’ve moved on.

But electric ground transport is the low hanging fruit of the massive forest of problems facing us. Converting the ground transport fleet to electric power is a done deal, it’s happening and it’s become mundane.

Weaning pretty much everything else we do from burning fossil fuel has barely started, we are in the very early stages of developing technologies that can fill the massive energy gap that super cheap, super abundant fossil fuel has given us without a second thought for 150 years.

It’s a massive change that will directly affect everyone on the planet. But the critical thing, and it was almost the unspoken base line at this incredible conference, we do not have any choice. We have to do it and we have to do it at speed.

Robert Llewellyn