Martin Haigh on technologies for the world’s energy future

When it comes to technology and innovation, no one can predict what the future will bring. Martin Haigh’s job for Shell is looking to possible alternate futures for global energy as the 21st century progresses.

This is a special program in partnership with Shell.

When it comes to technology and innovation, no one can predict what the future will bring. Yet it’s part of Shell’s business to understand what lies ahead for the world’s energy future, and the technologies needed to get there. Martin Haigh – whose background is in mathematics and economics – led the development of what Shell calls its World Energy Model. That model helped form the foundation for the recent Shell Energy Scenarios to 2050. These scenarios are like stories about alternative possible futures. To learn more, LISTEN, WATCH, or READ: audio podcasts above, video and text below.

Martin Haigh spoke to EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar about energy technologies and choices for our energy future.

What are some of the most exciting energy innovations that you’ve seen?

What we expect to see is that there will be a greater variety and mix within the energy system in the future than we’ve seen in the past. In the past, it’s been quite dominated, since industrial times at least, by fossil energy. We expect that not to go away completely for a very long time. There are some really key advantages, particularly in certain sectors, notably transport, for fossil energy, where we might need it for a long time. But we expect a greater mix.

When you get a greater mix, you probably find that there are some niches and some applications that are better suited for some of the new energy options than others. We also find that some countries will probably have bigger advantages than others.

The United States has a lot of options available to it. But in a more crowded part of the world, such as Europe, we might have to look at playing to our national advantages – use the sun in the Mediterranean, use the sea off the coast of Britain for example. The same would apply within parts of the United States. There are countries like Japan which have fewer options, and they still might need to be importing energy, while countries like Brazil probably have more available indigenously.

I think we expect to see still quite a globalized energy market. We don’t expect things to be done entirely locally. The globalization trend is a very strong one. A lot of the technologies are helping to link us in so that we can learn more and more together about how these things work.

Some of the ambitious plans even have us importing things like equatorial sunshine via long-distance transmission wires to northern Europe from North Africa. If that all works, that will not be something for tomorrow, but for the longer term. But that will be an example of things where we expect to see greater interlinkages across the system and across countries.

How far can new technologies reduce emissions from fossil fuels?

I think there’s the obvious answer that all of the new low-CO2 technologies can reduce emissions from fossil fuels. The question I think that is worth looking at, is one in terms of time.

We know that there’s an urgency around reducing CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. The ways to do it are obviously renewables, nuclear, and carbon capture and storage. Those are the main solutions that we have on the table available to us. But in the shorter term, probably the biggest difference that we can make, certainly for the next decade or more, is substituting gas for coal. If we can do that, and manage the bringing in of gas, then we can make quite a difference to CO2 emissions.

Longer term we’ve then got to be having all of those other technologies that we have. But they’re not available at the scale we need them today.

How does technology innovation and development factor into being able to make a difference in CO2 emissions?

The reason that that’s easy to do today is because the technologies already exist, and you have an industry that is available to do it. You’re talking about quite well-established combined-cycle gas turbine power stations essentially replacing some of your old coal fleet.

However, I think for the longer term, the CCS (carbon capture and storage) story then becomes essential. And while the gas makes a big difference and helps your cumulative emissions, which is what matters for a decade or two, beyond that you then need the carbon capture and storage coming in.

So that’s where the new technology angle comes in, and that’s where it’s going to be absolutely critical that a lot of these programs take place over the next years to test out that scale – that it works, that it’s got public acceptance, and, importantly, that it’s economic, both to gas and coal with CCS.

It takes time to develop new technologies to become a material contributor to world energy contribution. Therefore we need to develop the technologies we know today. Where in your opinion do we need to focus?

That’s a very good challenge, because I’m arguing here that we do need a wide suite of technologies in order to solve a lot of the challenges that we face. But I take your point that we can’t do everything so we have to focus our efforts.

I think there are some key areas on the demand side, bringing in better vehicle standards, improving our buildings, and such like. But on the energy supply side, there are probably some key areas. These are some of the principal renewable technologies like biofuels, wind and solar, carbon capture and storage, where we can deploy things that will make a difference over the coming years. Because all of those things are going to take time before they can scale up, we can buy some time in the meantime with trying to substitute some of the most carbon-emitting energy out of the system, which of course is the coal.

We know that fossil energy dominates our energy system today. And while there might be a lot of desire to change it within a few years, we know that because of the very long lead times in changing our energy system – whether it’s the heating system in your house, or steel mills, or power stations, or even your car – these things take a very long time. It’s very expensive to actually try and change it very quickly.

For that reason, we know that we have a lot of embedded fossil energy use because of the structure of our energy system, and our economy, and our society for many years to come. It’s going to be difficult to change that quickly. And because of that, we need to sort of recognize the time frames of development in some of these alternatives. That is why then looking for things that buy time can be useful in the intervening years.

What’s the most important thing that you want people today to know about future innovations in energy?

I think probably, given the sort of debates that I often hear about the energy transition, I think one of the most important things people should recognize is the time that it takes for development. There’s a lot of experience that people have from many other sectors of the economy and many other parts of society where things have changed very quickly.

And because of the long lead times in the energy system, a lot of the technologies take a very long time to transition from their early stage to being mature and being wide-scale. So I think when people are looking at transitions to different energy futures, the most important thing is to be realistic about how quickly things can change, and then recognize that policy needs to be in for the long haul, and evolving along that pathway.

Our thanks today to Shell – encouraging dialogue on the energy challenge.

Deborah Byrd