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The Next Oil
Is the electric vehicle the way to go?

Coal was recorded way back around 4000BC with the Chinese but was probably in use long before that with lignite found on the ground and sea-coal eroded from cliffs.  It became a major source of power in the 1700s and fueled the start of the industrial revolution and steamed ahead with James Watt's invention.  It had many uses besides power as can be seen in the chart.  Coal is still used today, but for many uses has slipped behind oil.  With the growing concern over climate change, coal has become a dirty word but already had earned a black mark when the "Clean Air Act" of 1956 came in.

Oil has also been in use for a long while, but took off when America found it in Texas and used it for Henry Ford's mass produced car, and also gave rise to Dallas on the TV.  Since then it has had a roll in all the major wars as well as political and religious differences.  Oil had a boost with the discovery of off shore oil and gas, which made any other replacement energy source an uneconomic proposition, thus stiffling research.  Norway saved their oil revenues in a sovereign wealth fund and is now a rich nation less concerned about the pension crisis than the rest of us.  But we squandered our royalties on tax cuts and foreign interventions.

I don't have a chart like the coal one showing the uses of oil but Quora has an article on uses of crude.  The petro-chemical industry prospered on oil, surplanting coal in many cases and giving us plastic poluton as a byproduct.

The first industrial revolution was powered by coal.  The second industrial revolution was powered by oil.  Demand for energy (oil) is increasing.  Just as fears of running out of oil began to emerge fracking came along, turning USA from one of the biggest net importers to one of the biggest net exporters of oil.  However climate change has brought about a desire to reduce emissions and research into alternative energy is now paying off.  Renewable energy sources are getting cheaper and are competing with oil.

The diesel subsidy scandal didn't help, but now everyone looks to the electric car (EV).  The government has a target of 50% of new cars to be electric by 2030.  No subsidies this time, but encouragement, which is cheaper.

It is not all rosy though, there are some problems.  Electric cars have a limited range and take time to recharge.  Improvements are being made but take time.  So although suitable for some journeys it seems we need better batteries and faster charging before we will be able to replace all our transport needs with EVs.  If we replace a large portion of ICE vehicles with EVs then we save on emmisions from burning petrol but we will need to replace that with electricity.  But we have problems to meet the projected growth already, without the added demand from conversion from ICE to EV.  We can't build nuclear power stations in time, so to avoid burning more coal and gas to make the extra electricity we must rely on renewables.  But renewables don't always produce the energy when the demand is there, so we need better storage solutions.

There is another solution which has not got the same attention in the media as the electric vehicle.  Aberdeen is set to become a trend setter, with further cities, London, Bristol and others hot on their heels.  They have ordered 15 hydrogen powered buses.  Hydrogen?  Won't they float off, or catch fire (Hindengerg)?

They use a technique called the fuel cell, which uses hydrogen and oxygen to make electricity, invented in 1838 and used commercially in 1932.  However further research and development slowed with the availabilty of cheap oil, bolstered by the discovery of North sea oil, but now has its chance to shine.  When hydrogen is burnt the only emission is water (and heat).  So it is an ideal fuel to replace oil if we want to reduce carbon emissions.

The fuel cell requires hydrogen as its fuel which is produced by the electrolysis of water, using electricity.  Ah ha!  So we are back to needing a big increase in electricity production, how does that help?

The answer is storage, the problem we came up with in looking at EVs.  The fuel cell technology is to use electricity to make hydrogen by electrolysis then later turn hydrogen into electricity with a fuel cell.  So hydrogen is effectively a battery here.

Hydrogen can be stored like petrol, so renewables can be used when they are available and stocks drawn on when the wind drops, or overnight when the sun doesn't shine.

We have two options then.  Use the hydrogen centrally to create electricity as the demand occurs (in place of the current gas-fired peak standby power stations), or distribute the hydrogen and use fuel cells to create the electricity when and where it is needed (supplement local wind turbines, stand by emergency generators and general transport).  There may well be a mixture of all these.  EVs are already on the road, but I think in the long term the fuel cell vehicle will become dominant.  It has the potential to solve both the range and the refill problems of EVs.  We are going to need a network of refilling stations for this to work but with fuel cell buses having a need this will start a trend that Shell have already forseen.  The government are going in the wrong direction (charging points) as usual.  Shell have an energy podcast that discuses why hydrogen isn't better known.

A large contributor to our CO2 emmisions is oil or gas fired central heating.  Gas boilers can be adapted to burn hydrogen and current boilers can burn a mixture of hydrogen and natural gas.  Since we are on track to miss our emission targets, this is something the government may turn its attention to once it has stopped pussy-footing around with Brexit.  The gas grid was originally designed for hydrogen but North Sea gas came along and replaced it.

Hydrogen can also be made from natural gas which is the current commercial method, so a good solution is to replace gas powered power stations with hydrogen ones while the gas supply holds up and while renewables ramp up.

Saudi Arabia is selling a part of the state owned Aramco in an IPO this month, which is expected to raise about 25 billion dollars.  This will place a value of 17 trillian dollars on the total company.  Some of the capital raised will be needed to improve defences following the recent drone attack, but the rest may well be destined for repositioning their economy which at present is totally relient on oil.  One resource they have in abundance is sunshine, so solar power producing hydrogen shipped to the rest of the world by tankers is something they know how to do, providing they can defend the installations from sabotage.

There are three key requirements for hydrogen to become the next oil.  The price of Natural Gas to remain low for current conversion methods.  The electrolysis equipment to create hydrogen from green electricity.  And the fuel cell to turn hydrogen back into power.  Any company at the forefront of these latter two technolgies is going to do well.

6th December 2019

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