Workshop on the Energy Transition

Reflections on the ICSC Workshop on the Energy Transition – the role for sustainable carbon, 16-18 November 2022 in Cagliari, Sardinia, Italy.
At this international meeting, experts from all continents debated the major energy and industry issues of our time: the hydrogen economy; decarbonising our power and heavy industry; the IPCC report and key contributor effects; and finally, an alternative future for coal resources.

Major initiatives on ‘blue’ and ‘green’ hydrogen are in progress supported by billions in research funding, with technologies to be selected depending on available resources.  In Europe, where there is limited gas supply, the intent is to build hydrogen valleys supported by carbon sequestration, or CO2 recycling.  The latter is currently being investigated by Sotacarbo, NEDO and others making synthetic fuels and chemical feeds. While sequestration is one answer, many nations have limited storage opportunities. Recycling CO2 offers a different solution; these synfuels could offer an alternative to ‘offsetting’ for aviation and automotive sectors.

The building of a hydrogen valley from Finland around the Baltic coast and feeding power to Estonia and based on electrolysis using renewable electricity would produce green hydrogen but requires the installation of a major infrastructure that uses substantial resources in their construction; renewable nominal capacity must be four times greater than conventional to provide similar output.  The investment required for this transition is massive and raises significant societal issues. Nevertheless, the conflict in Europe and its implications increases support for the Baltic Sea project. If it progresses and provides long term proof of durable operation, this would be valuable.  The current temporary reliance on high emission LNG and unmitigated legacy coal clearly affects environmental targets.

The hydrogen valley projects will require many large-scale wind turbines located in all Baltic nations and is the first of a series in the EU that has serious implications for the cost and supply of rare earth elements (REE) which are key to the technology.  Existing supplies of REE ores and other essential elements are largely controlled by China. The USA, recognising this issue, already has several pilot plants in operation to extract REE from specific coal resources and plans to scale up the activity. The mobile phone industry requires one third of REE production but the advent of an electrified society and hydrogen economy is forecast to raise demand 20-fold by 2050; a potential crisis.

The IEA predicts that coal use will peak in 2025, the trend is for continued closures of power stations to be replaced by renewables, nuclear and storage.  This raises questions over grid stability which must be addressed, and for countries struggling to finance renewables the issue is ‘keeping the lights on’ while the existing coal infrastructure is wound down. The issue has come to the fore following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine which has directly impacted power security.  Low-carbon coal alternatives such as biomass power with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) are in development, notably at Drax, UK.  BECCS is important as it can provide dispatchable power and negative emissions of CO2, which is increasingly important to have a chance of meeting the Paris Agreement goals, but its slow adoption is attributed partly to the high CCS cost and the lack of political support.

In Asia there is a different approach where coal for power is still being developed in the short term and a coal gasification industry is expanding rapidly for the long term.  The largest hydrogen facility making 350,000 tH2/y, mainly for ammonia for fertiliser, chemicals, and power, will release 10 MtCO2. The project is of greater scale than the entire Baltic hydrogen valley at 250,000 tH2/yIn the absence of carbon storage, the Asian coal industry will more than offset efforts in other countries to decarbonise. That said, gasification allows for lower cost capture and there are some 50 modest scale projects underway in China, and a new renewable chemical industry has been announced using ‘green’ hydrogen, currently at about 1/20th the scale of the coal hydrogen plant.

When we look to the future our view of coal solely as a CO2-emitting fuel needs a reset.  As the demand for coal falls, there is an opportunity to make cost effective carbon products derived from coal that benefit the environment. 

The use of carbon fibre has cut fuel consumption in aerospace, but adoption of coal-derived carbon fibre across automotive and construction industries would directly reduce the climatic impact of all cars including EVs, while lighter stronger construction materials would lower cement demand and save power; cement being the greatest industrial source of CO2. New coal-derived nanocarbon products offer enhanced properties that mean more durable material; graphene has the greatest potential to take materials science to a new level.

In the agriculture sector there is a general decline in soil fertility that will endanger our ability to feed our growing population; the UN has identified 2022 as one of the most difficult with many facing starvation.  Soil products from coal are one of the few tools we have of sufficient scale to address this problem, especially as exploitation of peat to improve soil is unsustainable. A new carbon industry is emerging that is of great potential benefit to all our nations, but to flourish it must overcome prejudices arising from the unabated combustion of fossil fuels for electricity.