Electrification means that final energy demand falls, without changing the value that we get from energy services.
So many people here find great problems for every solution.
I'm just not sold on the usefulness of "final energy". Why should anyone care about such a quantity? We care about cost. We care about emissions. We care about hot showers and cold beer. To the extent that we care about "energy" in the abstract, it's only because we can sometimes substitute one energy source for another. But if the substitution of one source for another involves a big efficiency gain (or loss), what's the point of adding the two sources together without taking that efficiency difference into account? All you do is confuse people and make articles like this one necessary to try to undo the confusion.
Re your note at the end, I don't see why "hydrogen" is accounted separately from electricity, as it needs electricity to produce it. It is essentially a form of energy storage. (Leaving aside that it's too expensive and hasn't been shown to work at scale)
This all sounds beautiful ! Except for a couple of glaring warnings.
What happens to the price of electricity in a monopoly or duopoly market, which is increasingly the case around the World?
What is the source of the electricity generation?
I live in a country that halted the extraction of a relatively "clean" coal and substituted it with ultra low grade coal, imported from Indonesia - (the worst coal on the global market but it's cheap). This coal fires a power station that in turn, charges EVs in our largest city.
This country also is subject to the wims of a duopoly that controls the entire electric ecosystem, from production, distribution and final retail.
Price increases are crippling and have caused at least 1 death after the client couldn't afford the ongoing price increases and died from a medical event.
This country was, until recently, headed by a Prime Minister who loudly proclaimed on the World stage that she was a leader in Climate Change mitigation.
She left the country and has decided not to live here anymore.
She's not welcome back but the point is, unless it is a fair, equitable and accessible market for that electricity, efficiency doesn't matter.
This ignores the Jevons paradox, which has been shown to be true: greater efficiency is cheaper, thereby increasing usage and erasing most of the savings. If I heat my house with gas and it costs me $200 a month while keeping the thermostat low, then spend $10000 on a heat pump that can heat it for $100 in order to get the value out of the heat pump I would be inclined to turn up the heat for comfort since it would be cheaper. Same goes for not letting my expensive EV with cheaper running costs to sit unused, I’ll drive it more. Also, people care more about cost than efficiency. When EU and UK transition to electricity the demand for fossil fuels will decrease and the price will go down, and thus usage in more practical countries will rise. It also assumes that hydrogen is a practical substitute for petroleum which is not at all true - the energy density is much lower and current infrastructure (pipelines and tanks) cannot handle hydrogen because leaks would be common and dangerous because the molecules are much smaller.
Interesting article. However, I suspect the result in the real world will depend upon how we electrify. A typical gas or coal plant has an EROEI of ~30. Gas used for space heating with boilers >90% efficient probably have an EROEI of 45-50. Petrol in cars probably less at say 15-20. For the sake of argument, let's say 30 as an average. Using Mearns' energy cliff concept, if the global EROEI is 30, we spend about 3.3% of gross energy to deliver the net energy we use or net energy is 96.7% of gross energy. Or for every 100 units of net energy, we put in 103.4 units of gross energy. With buffered renewables, the EROEI falls to around 3, depending upon the mix of solar (1.6 at North European latitudes) and wind (3.9), both figures from Weissbach 2014. Assuming 3 for sake of argument, then the net energy falls to 66.7% of gross energy. So, to produce 100 units of net energy out, we need 150 units of gross energy in.
So, for electrification to make sense then the improvement in efficiency at the end user needs to be better than 150/103.4 = 1.45. This report shows 416/247=1.68. So better, but not by much. But then consider that to deliver the electrification we will need to increase mineral extraction by 5-10x, and the grade of ore will be lower than today. So, energy consumption for the mineral extraction part of the economy will likely increase much faster than the rest of the economy, meaning there's much less net energy available for things other than mining.
Things aren't as simple as that Oxford report seems to suggest.
I'm reminded that this is what Bevan thought would happen to the NHS after its founding. Since when have humans used less of something when it becomes 'better'? There's no mention of Africa and other dirt-poor parts of the world where hundreds of millions still don't have access to mains electricity, much less the higher GDP that comes with higher usage. Let's hope that is all powered by clean energy.
ICE vs EVs has a similar thing, not just in energy but the amount of infrastructure and transport we will be losing when ICE cars die. All the ships (I saw recently half ships carry fuel??) , trucks, pipes, extraction, refining.. All that will just go away.
This is brilliant and timely and a must-read. We need a new way of counting energy
Thanks Hannah. What’s the assumption on the energy source for the production of the hydrogen? And does it include the inefficiencies in those processes?
I'm finding it challenging to discern the intent behind this article. Let's suppose you primarily depend on solar PV for your electricity, with an efficiency of 20%. It could be argued that solar energy results in an 80% loss of the original sunlight energy, which is significantly higher than the loss rate when burning fossil fuels. However, this doesn't necessarily make solar energy less appealing. If solar panels are affordable, the lost sunlight becomes something you might dismiss with a "who cares" attitude. So, I'm still not entirely clear on the purpose of this article.
All foods have a calorific value, but using that to judge the efficiency of a diet would be fraught. Similarly, different forms of energy might all have a joule value, but they have other really important attributes. Electricity is great, but it's a bugger to store ... heat isn't as nice but is much easier (cheaper) to store. The simplistic argument that we should electrifiy every thing is often "sold" with an efficiency argument, which appeals to people with zero understanding of thermodynamics ... typically politicians. There's an old saying in mathematics ... for every problem there is a simple and elegant solution which is wrong. Electrify everything is very much in that category. It is no accident that one of it's most famous advocates is a serial failed entrepreneur ... terrific at raising money for seemingly smart ideas which fail after chewing up bucket loads of money ... or perhaps work in niche areas.
Saul Griffith says a lot of industry can be electrified, and he is not as big on hydrogen
Also, isn't 40% of global shipping simply moving fossil fuels around? That will drop significantly
If dual-fluid nuclear reactors bring EROEI as high as 1000x, as advertised, see
it will allow cheaper pink hidrogen to produce syn-fuels and not change any of existing infrastructure or machinery. This by itself will bring real environmental savings by utilizing current technologies longer and not extracting minerals from earth to death.
"Electric vehicles are around four times as efficient as petrol. In a petrol car, only 20% of the energy is converted to motion. In electric cars, this is around 80%"
This is a key fact that EV detractors need to keep in mind and I am so glad you brought this up. Yes, my EV might be powered by coal, but I get nearly four times as many miles per unit of energy. It also centralizes pollution to fewer sources where it can be dealt with more effectively.
As I wrote recently, I expect LFP batteries are going to sweep the industry in the next five years and largely wipe out any advantage ICE vehicles had in the next 5-10 years.
Better insulation and heat pumps will be really helpful to decrease home energy usage.
Industry is, as you say, hard to electrify. And hidrogen is not as accesible as it should be, so hidrogen replacements will take time. We also have to keep in mind the costs, as many industries won't move to hidrogen if the equipment is more expensive than what they have, and if it's a long term investment they'll wait until their current equipment is rundown to start the transition to hidrogen.
With gas prices high as they are in Europe, I'm sure that many companies would love it if hidrogen was easy to access and transition, but unfortunately we are not there yet.