At this week’s World Energy Congress in Montreal, the message that fossil fuels are here to stay was front-and-center in the discussion.  World energy demand is expected to double by 2050, and abundant, cheap fossil fuels will not be cast aside.  This fossil fuel reality-check tends to sound like bad news for those of us who believe we need to rapidly de-carbonize the global energy system.  Some good news – fossil fuels don’t necessarily spell climate disaster.  As is the case with all energy production, the details matter.  A lot.  And carbon capture and storage is not, by a long shot, the only available tool to drive down fossil emissions.   

The recent “shale gas gale,” as Daniel Yergin referred to it this week, has increased the potential to rely more on natural gas, the lowest carbon intensity fossil fuel. 

One of the strongest proponents for cleaner, more efficient fossil power generation at the Congress was Dr. Michael Suess, the CEO of Fossil Power Generation at Siemens AG.  I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Suess and get the by-the-numbers explanation of how surprisingly far we could get towards climate goals with fossil power generation.  

In our interview and a roundtable discussion on Energy and Climate Change, Suess was outspoken about the potential to reduce carbon emissions through technical improvements in fossil generation.  Better yet, he thinks we can get the reductions we need with existing technology - if we replace our current power generation with state-of-the-art, super efficient natural gas generation.  Which is a very big IF, but nevertheless a useful scenario to consider. 

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The magic number for electricity emissions per unit energy to hold us below 2 degrees warming, Dr. Suess explained, is 500 g CO2/KWh.  If I understood his analysis, the 500 g/KWh target takes into account expected electricity demand through 2050.  Not every power plant needs to meet this requirement – the average is what matters for climate impacts.  (Local air pollution benefits and water impacts are important to consider as well; our discussion focused only on the carbon problem.)   

How hard is a 500 g/KWh average?  Very hard if we leave inefficient plants up and running.  A standard coal steam power plant running today emits 730-1000 g/KWh.  In sharp contrast, a new, state-of-the-art combined cycle gas power plant emits under 350 g/KWh and is over 60% efficient.  Integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC) plants can reduce emissions even further, with or without storage.

The bottom line is this - if we swapped out our current fossil generation fleet for state-of-the-art coal and gas plants, we’d get a 30% carbon emissions reduction.  Replacing existing coal generation as well as existing gas with state-of-the-art gas could get us to a 60Image% reduction in carbon emissions from electricity.

“Even in 20-30 years we cannot replace fossil fuels with solar and wind,” Suess said. “There is no way around [the need for] clean natural gas plants.”  This conclusion will be hotly debated by some renewable proponents.  Also worth considering, though, is that gas plants play well with renewables.  Unlike coal (or nuclear, I note) generation, gas can be turned on or shut down quickly to balance out the load to accommodate intermittent wind and solar.

The extent of switching from coal to natural gas will be shaped heavily by energy politics.  As Suess commented and I agreed, the coal lobby in the US will make transitioning more to natural gas and shutting down existing coal plants much harder.  Political resistance to new coal builds, on the other hand, will be helpful.   

In Europe, “there is no political appetite for coal generation,” Suess told me, but there is for natural gas. 

China and India are where Suess expects to see the most future coal generation, especially China, with very abundant coal reserves and rapidly growing energy demand.  

Siemens believes that clean natural gas plants are a foundational component of the global energy portfolio, and they made that bet several years ago, even before the recent gas glut on the market. 

The company has also invested in building toolkits for clients in different countries to select the mix of technologies that work for a given country’s energy supplies, cost sensitivity, emissions reduction goals, and other specific circumstances.

Dr. Suess likened the energy transition to an operation on the open body – we need to keep the organs of the economy humming while we reconstruct part of the underlying system.  Open-heart surgery seems to me an even more apt metaphor, with energy the pump keeping the blood flowing through the global economy.  The surgery ahead is messy, with many moving parts and risks. 

Natural gas will undoubtedly play an important role, especially near-term.  But will it be the star player?  

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Editor's Note: Siemens is a sponsor of The Energy Collective.