Time to Discuss
The current plan of non-fossil fuel system substitution for ICE technology is technologically viable. However, the GTK research points out clearly that the challenge now is how to produce enough of these substitute non-fossil systems to perform the same tasks as before, on a global scale.
If it turns out that each geographical region will need to become more self-sufficient, nations must still work together to achieve their goals. So, let’s start the discussion to evolve the current plan. You can use the four themes and the related report findings listed below as your guide.
Theme 1: How can we produce enough of these substitute non-fossil systems to perform the same tasks as currently, on a global scale?
Most of the planned non-fossil substitute technologies are less efficient than the fossil systems they are replacing. The challenges in front of us now are unprecedented in scale, yet we need to achieve them in a few short decades. To phase out fossil fuels and attend to tasks like cleaning up the planet environment, and then develop new markets like the space industry, requires a reliable energy source (an ERoEI ratio of something like 50:1 or even higher) that is available to most of the human population. The existing fossil fuels are not effective enough, nor appropriate. Renewable technologies in their current form are not strong enough to meet these requirements.
Note that renewable energy power stations are not as productive as fossil fuel power stations. To replace a single average sized coal fired power station would requrie many avergae sized wind trubine arrays or solar farms.
Nuclear-generated electrical power is the only existing non-fossil fuel power system that can reliably deliver large quantities of concentrated electrical power in all weather conditions, 365 days a year but the fleet cannot be expanded fast enough to be useful in delivering enough electricity to completely phase out fossil fuels.
The nuclear power plant (NPP) fleet cannot be expanded fast enough to be the primary energy source for the global industrial ecosystem. In 2018, nuclear power supplied 4.41% of global primary energy. A series of simulations were conducted to examine the potential for expansion. If the NPP fleet was left at its current profile, the current uranium resources of all kinds would last approximately 300 years. If the NPP fleet was aggressively expanded at a net rate of 25 new average sized Generation III+ reactors a year, the current uranium resources would last only 70 years, leaving a Spent Nuclear Fuel (SNF) stockpile of an equivalent quantity of current Uranium resources. That being stated, nuclear power may be the only practical way to deliver large quantities of reliable electrical power to industry. Unlike most other non-fossil fuel power systems, nuclear can operate at any geographical location in all weathers and all seasons. So nuclear will be a vital part of the future energy mix, but it needs to be managed appropriately.
Let’s discuss. How can we produce enough of these substitute non-fossil systems to perform the same tasks as currently, on a global scale? To phase out fossil fuels and attend to tasks like cleaning up the planet environment, and then develop new markets like the space industry, requires a reliable energy source (an ERoEI ratio of something like 50:1 or even higher) that is available to most of the human population. The existing fossil fuels are not effective enough, nor appropriate. Renewable technologies in their current form are not strong enough to meet these requirements.
Theme 2: The current paradigm is to focus exclusively on lithium ion battery chemistry, to the exclusion of all other possible chemical systems that could be resourced with different minerals. Is this a sustainable solution?
Global reserves may not be enough to resource the quantity of batteries required. Current focus is on lithium ion batteries to the exclusion of all other possible plans. The GTK report shows that we will not have enough lithium, cobalt or nickel to produce the needed volume of batteries, to phase out and replace the current existing ICE transport fleet and fossil fuel power generation systems.
The projected numbers for electric vehicles, batteries and H2-Cell vehicles to be manufactured is much bigger than estimated earlier. In 2019, only 0.51% of the global fleet was currently electric, which means that 99.49% of the global fleet is yet to be replaced. Preliminary calculations show that global reserves, let alone global production, may not be enough to resource the quantity of batteries required.
The above figures shows clearly that the lithium ion battery solution for power storage stations will not work. There are not enough minerals in current global reserves, and there is not enough time or capacity to explore and discover the required additional volume. This is a problem as lithium ion battery power stations were the favored solution to mitigate intermittency of renewable power generation.
Let’s discuss. Basically, the current paradigm is to focus exclusively on lithium ion battery chemistry, to the exclusion of all other possible chemical systems that could be resourced with different minerals. There are many examples of alternative systems like vanadium or sodium chemistry battery systems being presented conceptually, but when it comes to the serious development of large-scale applications, for the last 5-10 years, the focus has been Li-Ion batteries. Is this the sustainable choice or should multiple different batteries chemistries be developed in parallel?
Theme 3: Biofuel and Biomass are needed but cannot be scaled-up. Can we evaluate what can and cannot be sustainably harvested, meaning a more balanced assessment of what the biomass should be used for?
The footprint of the proposed biofuel production done at a scale large enough to substitute petroleum product consumption far exceeds the planetary environmental capability. The problem centers around the required volume of biofuel needed vs. the global arable land availability, and the global availability of freshwater.
To harvest enough biomass to produce the required volume of biofuel to match the annual consumption of petroleum products (gasoline and diesel), then a land area the equivalent of all remaining forests on the planet would be required to be harvested each year.
As can be seen in “Scenario D: Existing global water…”, the required additional fresh water for biofuels is approximately 9 times the existing global freshwater withdrawals.
However, biofuel production technologies work well on a small-scale. The issues raised only become unmanageable when examining what is required to scaleup production to replace petroleum.
Biofuels can be directly applied to existing ICE technologies with minor modifications. They are recommended to fuel a small proportion of the aviation industry. Biomass is recommended to produce bioplastics, replacing a proportion of the existing plastics industry. The question then becomes what sort of rate of harvest of biomass from the environment is genuinely sustainable?
Let’s discuss. Finland has a very strong biomass economy that is already being harvested for the forestry industry. In particular any increase in the harvest of wood biomass may not be sustainable. It is recommended that a comprehensive sustainability audit be conducted (that includes the use of petrochemical fertilizers). Once established what can and cannot be sustainably harvested, a more balanced assessment of what the biomass should be used for can be done.
Theme 4: Industrial fertilizers are manufactured with the use of among other things, gas. There is not any viable solution that can replace this action at an industrial scale yet. Could food production be reorganized to be supplied from several small scale organic farming operations?
Approximately 9 % of global gas demand is used to produce ammonia for the industrial manufacture of fertilizer, which in turn is critical for global food production. This fossil fuel consumption stream needs to be addressed in some form. At the time of writing the GTK report (2021), the author was unable to cite any viable substitute for the use of natural gas in the production of petrochemical fertilizers. This means that eventually, industrial agriculture will not be able to operate the way it does now. At this time, the only alternative is a widespread return to small scale organic farming methods to produce food. This could be a more effective way of achieving long term sustainable land stewardship.
Let’s discuss. It is recommended to consider the phasing out of large-scale industrial agriculture, with its dependency on petrochemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides. Food production could be reorganized to be supplied from several local to consumption small scale organic farming operations.
Theme 5: The logistical challenges to replace fossil fuels are enormous. It may be so much simpler to reduce demand for energy and raw materials in general. This will require a restructuring of society and its expectations, resulting in a new social contract. Is it time to restructure society and the industrial ecosystem to consume less?
For the last 200 years, the industrial ecosystem has grown at an unprecedented rate, which has been facilitated with the discovery and use of fossil fuels. Human population is also at an unprecedented size, requiring ever more natural resources each passing year. The fundamentals that allowed this to happen are dependent of finite nonrenewable natural resources (oil, gas, and coal). To transition away from fossil fuels will require the redesigning, retooling and reconstruction of the entire industrial ecosystem.
As the energy source at the foundation of the new industrial system will be different to what is used now, that industrial ecosystem will operate to a different set of limitations and capabilities.