In my previous post I responded to an article by environmentalist Paul Gilding where he argued that the rate of solar PV deployment meant it was now time to call “Game over” for the coal, oil and gas industries. There is no doubt that solar PV uptake is faster than most commentators imagined (but not Shell in our Oceans scenario) and it is clear that this is starting to change the landscape for the utility sector, but talk of “death spirals” may, in the words of Mark Twain, be an exaggeration.

In that same article, Gilding also talks about local battery storage via electric cars and the drive to distributed systems rather than centralized ones. He clearly envisages a world of micro-grids, rooftop solar PV, domestic electricity storage and the disappearance of the current utility business model. But there is much more to the energy world than what we see in central London or Paris today, or for that matter in rural Tasmania where Paul Gilding lives. It all starts with unappealing, somewhat messy but nevertheless essential processes such as sulphuric acid, ammonia, caustic soda and chlorine manufacture (to name but a few). Added together, about half a billion tonnes of these four products are produced annually. These are energy intensive production processes operating on an industrial scale, but largely hidden away from daily life. They are in or play a role in the manufacture of almost everything we use, buy, wear, eat and do. These core base chemicals also rely on various feedstocks. Sulphuric acid, for example, is made from the sulphur found in oil and gas and removed during the various refining and treatment processes. Although there are other viable sources of sulphur they have long been abandoned for economic reasons.


The ubiquitous mobile phone (which everything now seems to get compared to when we talk about deployment) and the much talked about solar PV cell are just the tip of a vast energy consuming industrial system, built on base chemicals such as chlorine, but also making products with steel, aluminium, nickel, chromium, glass and plastics (to name but a few). The production of these materials alone exceeds 2 billion tonnes annually. All of this is of course made in facilities with concrete foundations, using some of the 3.4 billion tonnes of cement produced annually. The global industry for plastics is rooted in the oil and gas industry as well, with the big six plastics (see below) all starting their lives in refineries that do things like converting naphtha from crude oil to ethylene.

The big six plastics:

  • polyethylene – including low density (PE-LD), linear low density (PE-LLD) and high density (PE-HD)
  • polypropylene (PP)
  • polyvinyl chloride (PVC)
  • polystyrene solid (PS), expandable (PS-E)
  • polyethylene terephthalate (PET)
  • polyurethane (PUR)

All of these processes are also energy intensive, requiring utility scale generation, high temperature furnaces, large quantities of high pressure steam and so on. The raw materials for much of this comes from remote mines, another facet of modern life we no longer see. These in turn are powered by utility scale facilities, huge draglines for digging and vast trains for moving the extracted ores. An iron ore train in Australia might be made up of 336 cars, moving 44,500 tonnes of iron ore, is over 3 km long and utilizes six to eight locomotives including intermediate remote units. These locomotives often run on diesel fuel, although many in the world run on electric systems at high voltage, e.g. the 25 kV AC iron ore train from Russia to Finland.

The above is just the beginning of the industrial world we live in, built on a utility scale and powered by utilities burning gas and coal. These bring economies of scale to everything we do and use, whether we like it or not. Not even mentioned above is the agricultural world which feeds 7 billion people. The industrial heartland will doubtless change over the coming century, although the trend since the beginning of the industrial revolution has been for bigger more concentrated pockets of production, with little sign of a more distributed model. The advent of technologies such as 3D Printing may change the end use production step, but even the material that gets poured into the tanks feeding that 3D machine probably relied on sulphuric acid somewhere in its production chain.