Friday, July 10, 2020

Fossil Futures


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Fossil Futures

I’m Anthony Day. This is the Sustainable Futures Report for Friday 10th July.

This week I'm talking about the energy industry with James Spencer, Managing Director of Portland Fuel. Is this the oil industry’s endgame? When and why can we expect an oil price spike? Is an electric transport fleet an impossible dream, and does the future lie with hydrogen? Insights from inside the industry.

And in other news…McKinsey on carbon capture, usage and storage, California legislates on electric trucks and public doubts about the UK government's recovery strategy.

But first, the interview…

Interview with James Spencer, Managing Director of Portland Fuel 

Anthony Day: When I do interviews, what I normally like to do is some research, so I can ask some informed questions. I think in this situation I've got no idea what to ask you. 

James Spencer:   When we first met in 2013, I made that presentation and coal was generating 35% of the UK's electricity - bog standard coal.

If you'd said to me then that in seven, seven years, that 35% would under most circumstances be reversed so that, that was about 35% wind literally I would have, you know, you would have been carted out in a straight-jacket, this guy's lost his senses, 

My take has always been, the industry changed so much over the last 10 years. We're now in a position I'm loath to call it a tipping point because the tipping point would indicate that suddenly everything's changed. The reality is this tipping point has been building as oil basically becomes less and less fashionable, not only as investors, uh, you know, the appeal to investors, but also to society.

People don't want to buy  oil products. Now, underneath that there is this core of usage, which is very difficult to get away with, get away from, which is the likes of concrete and contact lenses and this plastic on this screen and your coloured shirt and all those kinds of things. But the kind of, if you want to kind of say that, that the luxury use of oil, the unnecessary use of oil, I think is set for quite a major decline.

And this crisis, probably the big 'if'  is the economic. bounce-back and that's kind of what depresses me for a whole load of reasons. But I see this crisis as the tipping point, which will actually accelerate a move away from, um, excessive use of fossil fuels. Let's, let's call it that way. And that will start a trend, which over time will end up getting rid of most fossil fuels because once the technology develops for green or let's just say sustainable replacements, then that technology explodes and it can be used in more and more things.

So once people really start to use hydrogen as a de facto usable and a realistic credible alternative, then suddenly its uses will explode wrong word, maybe not explode, but its uses will grow exponentially. The problem is at the moment, it's a fringe thing, so it can never really get a foothold in the market.

But because this, this whole event is going to push these alternative energies much higher to the fore, often through government subsidy, often through financial investment, because that's what people are investing in to invest in and through societal pressure, you'll see that growth really ramp up. So that's my kind of view.

And I said to you the last time we met, Anthony, which is, I think it's even more, I said this before COVID-19 but one of the oil majors is going to pull out of oil exploration. I am in no doubt about that. And they'll do that because it will give them market advantage. They will be the first to do that and they will generate so much kind of positive investment energy around that move that the second and the third will get less kudos and will, will benefit less. That's my view. Although that was, as you remember, Oh, you might remember that. I kind of said that back in, whenever we met . I felt  the mood music was is that one of the oil majors, you know, and this oil price thing, the crash in the oil price.

So typically, um, a low oil price is used as a way of recovering an economy. Yeah. So that would be the kind of counter argument to renewable fuels are gonna come back into gonna come into play because low price oil, low price gas will be too, too good an opportunity for governments to miss they'll want to get everybody working with construction projects and infrastructure, but I think you do have two factors here.

Number one, it will be difficult to rebound the economy if we're in a longterm depression. And the point I made in my last oil market report is that the crisis of 2008 and 2009 was very short lived. Actually we cannot, we can argue, not argue because they, most people agree that austerity was pretty tough, but in terms of at a macro level, the economy recovered relatively quickly.

It was what they call a V-shape recovery. Number one that feels difficult to see at the moment. So there  might just not be that much demand for oil going forward. Which will compound the current trend, which is everybody pulling out of oil exploration because the prices are low. And what I believe is going to happen is, is that I sent you that rig graph yesterday.

I mean, that's just staggering. So for the purposes of this interview, this time, last year, there were a thousand oil rigs in the U S. Now there are 200. I mean, that's not halving. I mean, yeah. 80% reduction. What that's going to do to our prices is at some point you're going to have a massive spike in oil prices and oil prices are going to go through the roof because even with diminishing demand, there's not going to be enough oil because all of the investment in marginal oil, so oil on the fringes, let's say Saudi Arabia.

Okay. They continue Russia, but all the rest of the oil well everybody's pulling out. That will push the prices up. And again, that doesn't really do oil, any favors because it's suddenly going to be hugely expensive. And by the time that comes on, yes, there's an argument says, Oh, well, $200 a barrel everybody  will want to invest in oil again. But with the rest of the piece that I've described, I feel the, the train will have moved on. And so I don't see a rush back into oil because investors have been scarred so many times by this crazy volatility and always in the past, they've lived with that because the underlying thing, which is oil is a good thing for the Western economies.

Oil is a good thing for democratic governments. We want oil that mood music is no longer there. 

Anthony Day: Right. So do you see hydrogen as the fuel of the future? 

James Spencer: I do. And I feel, I suppose, selfishly, um, I feel happy about that because I understand liquid energy better than I understand battery energy. So that's probably, you know, telling myself what I want to hear, but I think electric mobility, uh, we have massive problems with electric mobility ranging from the practical, which is the kind of powertrain you need for buses and trucks. Uh, they kind of also, and I think we're proving out that they do work for cars, but even with increasing technology, it's talking about weights of four or five tons for the battery alone on a truck. So there's totally practical issues about road weight limits.

So, you know, nerdish factors, 44 tonnes is the maximum limit for road weights in the UK. Take out five tons that takes out quite a lot of capacity in a difficult economy. That's pushes up prices. So there's, there's lots of practical issues. There's resale value of electric vehicles. Almost all vehicles are based on depreciation and resale value. There's not a great deal of understanding how electric vehicles will be recycled through the system as second hand and third hand sales. And then that's the kind of practical, economic reasons that we'd see in the West. The kind of, um, the societal issues are the mining of this stuff.

I mean, we just don't have enough precious metals in the world to meet the demand of the global carpool. And of course there's an argument said, well, we shouldn't be driving so much and we shouldn't be consuming so much. So, you know, good luck with that one. Eight and a half billion people is very difficult to come up with an adequate or a sustainable solution.

So the kind of mining and I went to mining, precious metals mining conference. Um, about a year ago and there was a guy there, he was in fairness, let's say he was at the kind of redneck end of the scale of the attendees there. But the point he made, which was very powerful to me is that when we talk about oil being depleted, we actually know we have geological surveys that show how much oil is in the ground.  Based on the projections that we're talking about for electric mobility, so cars going, electric trucks, buses, et cetera, et cetera, there's just not the precious metals on the earth. And every geological study going would say, there is just not enough precious metals, lithium, cobalt, all these kinds of things that go into batteries to meet the predicted demand. So it's all very well saying that electric cars and electric buses are all going to go up to this level, where's the precious metals going to come from?  And he said, you know, unless you're going to go and mine on Mars, he made light of it, but we just don't have that resource.

So oil is bountiful, precious metals are not. And I've thought for a long time, the next kind of major societal social outrage, understandably will be just the total destruction of central Africa. Uh, all of the bits that go with that through the mining of precious metals. So we can all have electric cars.

So that's a very long, yeah, the answer to why hydrogen I'm fairly sure will have a part to play in quite a major role, mainly because its power generation is very, very efficient. So, whereas getting an electric truck to pull 40 tons of cargo is a very major piece of battery technology, getting hydrogen to power that there's difficulties with supply chain there's difficulties, with safety, et cetera and there may be difficulty in producing sufficient hydrogen, but the concept of hydrogen propulsion is easy. And that applies to buses that applies to trucks that even applies to planes. So of, of all of the kind of renewables, if we can, the problem with hydrogen is at the moment, it's not renewable because it comes as a byproduct of refining oil.

Anthony Day: Other ways 

James Spencer: There are other ways. And I think the scale is the issue there. So there are definitely other ways of producing hydrogen, but it's getting it to the mass production that we require so you're back there to the argument of, well, do we want mass production? Isn't the whole point of COVID-19 that globalisation and mass production causes  this kind of over consumer over consumption. And we don't think about what we eat and we don't think about, we just fly for a weekend here. And, you know, we, we disposable fashion. We buy an item,  well I don't and I'm sure you don't, but you know, people buy a set of clothes or a tee shirt and they wear it for a day and then they throw it away.

So the whole mass consumption argument is powerful, but somewhere in the middle is a requirement to produce energy at scale, to keep us even close to the level of development that we're used to. 

Anthony Day: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. So you, it's a question of energy density. So storing hydrogen then on a vehicle is presumably going to put less weight for range than batteries would.

James Spencer: Yeah. And so it's definitely the less weight.  I think most of the evidence is fairly clear the price of alternative vehicles is coming down, but not in the world that I live in, which is the commercial end. So to put some kind of numbers on a, I mean, hydrogen buses, trucks, you know, kind of even more, but a bus, maybe your listeners will be surprised to know that a bog standard diesel bus, uh, new costs about 150,000 pounds just a bog standard bus. An electric bus is about 450,000 pounds.

And if you take, uh, you know, a classic customer of ours, a municipal bus company may be running a hundred buses a year, and that's not a big operation. Um, you know, someone like a Go Ahead have five and a half thousand buses, but if you just take a, uh, a small, small, medium sized town, well, somewhere like a York, York is run by a major group First Group, but in terms of the total buses. Probably somewhere in the region of 150, 160, buses.

So you can kind of do the maths of where 150 buses, times 150,000. If they want to go electric, 150 buses is times 450,000. So number one, nobody can buy those outright. Number two, they have to be written off over a period of time, normally between seven and 10 years. And so, and again, in terms of the transition, even if somewhere like York tomorrow said we're a hundred percent going away from diesel, then you still got 10 years of all, uh, 10 years and nine years and eight years of all the remaining diesel buses, and there's no way that any municipality can afford to pull out of that hire purchase arrangement because it just...At that kind of cost you cannot buy everything outright. Everything has to be written off over a logical depreciative period. And that typically is seven to 10 years. Some places try and run it for 15 years.

Nothing's simple and hydrogen by the way, it's more like, kind of, wow. I mean, there's, there's just not enough hydrogen buses to have a real proper market value. I mean, there are plenty of electric buses kicking around now, but hydrogen is kinda more up to the 750,000 for a hydrogen bus. Yeah. But again, that's maybe not that helpful 

as a figure because prices come down when you make things in scale, we're back to the mass productions things, but, uh, there's enough kind of scale in electric vehicles. I mean, you've got someone like BYD in China, uh, who are, I mean that their hometown, which is somewhere I think it's Chengdu but I, I don't know that for sure.

But. Um, Cantonese city on the mainland. Their whole city of 10 million people is one hundred percent electric bus. There are a lot of electric buses kicking around so those prices come down. There's just not enough Hydrogen buses being made to generate any economies of scale to bring the price down.


Anthony Day: Well, of course, in some places, people are going back to trams and even to trolley buses, and then you don't actually have to carry around your energy store. Um, there's one system and I can't remember what it is. I think it's buses, um, where the bus has a battery, but it stops very precisely at the bus stop and an arm comes down to the bottom of the bus and gives it a boost for only about 15 seconds while the passengers are getting on or off. And that's enough to keep the thing running throughout its route because, and that must mean that the batteries must be a lot cheaper because they're not nearly as big.

James Spencer: Yeah. Um, well, so it was two things on the size of batteries. I mean, that's the model with Tesla. Which is, you know, so Tesla has about a hundred batteries in a Tesla car. So all the batteries are kind of throughout the whole fabric of the car, rather than in one engine that is a better distribution of weight and is a problem for disposal, of course, because then you've got to dispose of a hundred small batteries rather than one large.

Um, so that, that idea of smaller batteries is actually increasingly seen as a more efficient way of doing things. Um, the second thing in Milton Keynes, a bit similar to your model that you've just described there in Milton Keynes, they actually have magnetic coils under - one route has magnetic coils under the ground.

Um, and, uh, as at each bus stop. So as the bus stops, then it takes a charge, just a kind of momentary charge from these magnetic coils and that tops up the battery. Um, and each time it stops it gets a top up and that keeps it going for longer, et cetera, et cetera. So there are clearly there's quite frankly, there's ingenious stuff going on in that whole sector.

Um, the bus sector has always been particularly innovative. Uh, probably because it's always been up against it as a, you know, as, as private cars have dominated to survive bus companies and bus infrastructures actually have to be, you know, people don't would never think it because it's not really seen as a very rock and roll kind of world, but  bus innovation is really up there amongst the best, but all of these things as ever are hugely costly. And from Milton Keynes it works. If you think about Milton Keynes, the geography of Milton Keynes, it's wide roads it's designed for the modern age, where we live, Anthony, you know, putting underground magnetic coils in York could be tricky. 

Anthony Day: Yes. Yes. It could, couldn't it?. Yes. Okay. So we started off by talking about oil . Oil is your business. In view of what you've said about oil, where do you go from here? 

James Spencer: Our business or, uh, oil in general? 

Anthony Day: Well, both, but, uh, yeah. 

James Spencer: Um, well, I think, I think the first thing for us, I mean, I've, I've done this for 25 years. I used to work for BP. Um, I joined BP when climate change was not really a known thing.

I dare say conspiracy theorists would probably tell us it was, but it was known, but it was on the fringes, let's say. Um, I've seen the industry change a lot. Um, for me there's a transition that is really has already taken place, I guess, with our business in terms of going from oil to energy. Liquid energy is probably what interests me most because of the nature of what we do and our customer base.

But of course we're as a business we're traders and we buy and sell energy. Um, and we have no real vested interest in product in the ground. So I have no interest in oil, crude oil itself. Um, you know, if the oil comes up, comes up from used cooking oil and is made into diesel, or it comes from hydrogen.

Uh we'll you know, we just buy the product and we sell it to our customers be they bus companies, public transport, trucking. ships, whatever. And I think probably that's the main issue that the likes of BP, Exxon, Shell, they all have this problem is that they're vested, they are wedded to oil because so much of their value is based on the product in the ground.

So they have to keep it coming out of the ground to generate the energy that they sell. The issue for them now is that there's more and more people coming in and say, well, we can take our energy from here. So it's never going to be the full solution, but you've got diesel from waste, which is made from a tallow, which is animal carcasses.

So that is a waste product. Again, as a, there's a powerful argument, undoubtedly about cutting down on meat consumption. Big, big contribution to climate change. Probably the biggest we can all do as individuals is probably cut down meat consumption. But as long as there is meat consumption, you have carcasses and you have tallow.

And they in a pretty effective way can be made into diesel. And so you have probably about a 90% CO2 reduction, uh, in terms of the process and then the burning of that diesel.  It's actually mistakenly called Hydra treated vegetable oil.  Most of it comes from animal, but it can also be done from vegetables.

You have used cooking oils. So you have. The market for used cooking oil at the moment is, is massively down because used cooking oil typically comes from restaurants. So Indian restaurants, normal restaurants, you know, so across the world, the prices of used cooking oil have gone through the roof because nobody's generating used cooking oil.

So that's bad for the environment because that's made it much more difficult to replace crude oil diesel with used cooking oil diesel. But the point of all this is that as time goes on, there's more and more alternatives. Engines. The vehicle manufacturers, you know, they're not stupid, they're completely, they know to survive they have to basically produce different models. So engines are now much more tolerant to non crude oil specific products. So whereas the oil majors have a major problem in how they adjust to a new world of moving away from crude oil, sadly for people like us, and of course they see us as total parasites because we're not wedded to their product , for people like us you know, it doesn't really matter. It's a commodity. There's still going to be price volatility because of the nature of commodities. And really what it's made of is not, you know, as long as it's legal and ethical and all the rest of it, you know, but that's, that's a separate kind of box of what we do in terms of where the product comes from.

We're not wedded to where it comes from. And on that basis where probably able in businesses like ours, they're probably able to move a lot quicker to, uh, a lower carbon future, simply because we have no vested interests. Hmm. 

Anthony Day: Well, finally, you've been talking about earlier, uh, a major spike in oil prices.

When do you think that's going to happen?

James Spencer: I think the big caveat is what we talked about at the start about when… , when is there a second wave, really genuinely hope hopeful that there won't be, but fearful that there will be, and that obviously will suppress demand. But, um, if you look at the production figures, you look at American rigs going from 1000 to 200, this just staggering level of cuts in oil production.

So probably at the back end of this year. Yes. I think I'm confident as that only to a 55 to 45%, because in the same way that nobody really predicted. Um, you know, I went to a conference in London, in February and there's quite a lot of no shows. And I remember in the bar kind of slightly mocking people, you know, you know, makes me, makes me feel, sound a little bit like Donald Trump at the time, but yeah.

You know, saying it's just a cold c'mon, you know, people got to get used to this and let's face it. None of us really predicted. Well, maybe some did, but most people didn't really predict the scale of this. So I think the whole COVID-19 impact, unfortunately, probably hasn't quite run its course. It's very difficult to make any predictions on the economy and things that relate to that like the oil price, because we don't know where that goes. But as things stand oil production cuts are immediate. Demand is a deterioration that can happen over time. Once those oil wells are stopped, they're very difficult to reopen, but more than that, even if they were able to reopen, I think people might have careful consideration about whether they actually want to be stuck on an asset that demand doesn't.

There is another lockdown in 2021. Prices go through the floor again. They're all scarred. I mean, you know, the bankruptcies in shale oil last year. I think this is something we've talked about. Bankruptcies in shale oil  last year were already, uh, something like 50% up. And that was before all of this. So, you know, these guys were up against a little bit like retail on the high street.

A lot of them businesses were up against it before this. This has been the straw that's broken the camel's back. So yeah, a spike in oil price I could easily see at the back end of this year, maybe into the spring, but I'm not a hundred percent sure. That's what makes our life interesting. 

Anthony Day: Yeah, it's going to make everybody's life interesting. And thank you for sharing some very interesting thoughts with the Sustainable Futures Report. 

James Spencer, Managing Director of Portland Fuel 

Compressed Air Hybrid

Talking afterwards, we discussed the fact that even hydrogen cars rely on batteries. The Toyota version is a hybrid, and like a petrol or diesel hybrid uses the battery to store energy which otherwise would be wasted as heat in the brakes. That set me thinking about an article I read somewhere about cars using compressed air as an energy store. A little research showed that a lot of work has been done in this field, so if you want to store energy which otherwise would be wasted as the car is slowed down, why not use it to compress air? The technology is extremely simple, the tanks would not be nearly as heavy as batteries, perhaps they could be tubes forming part of the vehicle’s subframe, and no rare earths or precious metals are required. 

An article in Environmental Research Letters says:

“…Even under highly optimistic assumptions the compressed-air car is significantly less efficient than a battery electric vehicle and produces more greenhouse gas emissions than a conventional gas-powered car with a coal intensive power mix. However, a pneumatic–combustion hybrid is technologically feasible, inexpensive and could eventually compete with hybrid electric vehicles.”

You’ll find links to this and other articles on the blog, including an article about Jo Bamford’s plans for his hydrogen bus manufacturing plant.

It’s not all good news, though. The fuel cells at the heart of a hydrogen powered vehicle use rare metals like platinum and cobalt. Rare metals are also needed for the high-performance magnets in the electric motors which drive the vehicle. The inescapable conclusion is that the future of individual private transport is looking very uncertain. Walking, cycling and electric scooters can take us so far, but certainly not all of us, and at present public transport is to be avoided for the sake of social distancing. Public transport must be the future, but it can't play its part as long as the pandemic persists.

And Finally…

Capturing Carbon

Looking at emissions reduction, consultancy McKinsey & Co  suggests that carbon capture, use and storage (CCUS) is the way forward. They caution that CCUS could continue to struggle unless three important conditions are met: (1) capture costs fall, (2) regulatory frameworks provide incentives to account for CCUS costs, and (3) technology and innovation make CO2 a valuable feedstock for existing or new products. 

In the article referenced on the blog (at, one of the uses they suggest is enhanced oil recovery - pumping the CO2 into part-depleted oil wells to drive out the remaining oil. That seems to assume that there will be continuing demand for oil at a price which will justify building the infrastructure to achieve this. Another possibility is incorporating CO2 as a component of cement, effectively locking that CO2 up indefinitely. This is quite ironic given that the cement manufacturing process is one of the largest emitters of CO2 globally. Then there is the possibility of carbon neutral aviation fuel, created by combining CO2 with hydrogen. Carbon neutral, mind you, it will still emit CO2 from combustion.

Other possibilities include the use of CO2 in carbon fibre, as an ingredient in some plastics, and the creation of biochar, used as an agricultural soil improver.

The key to all this depends on the efficient capture of the CO2 in the first place. Apart from biochar - that’s created by heating wood in an oxygen-free atmosphere. Direct Air Capture (DAC) is creating a lot of interest, although it is expensive, about $500 per tonne of CO2 captured. CO2 forms only 0.04% of the atmosphere by volume. More than enough to cause environmental damage, but not very much at all when you are trying to capture it. Capture from industrial processes or power generation is much cheaper but not cost-free.

The overall conclusion of the article appears to be that the potential is enormous, but storage is not financially attractive and usage requires substantial investment in research. I can't help comparing carbon capture and storage, with or without usage, to the nuclear fusion reactor. You know, the one that's going to produce endless energy for almost nothing. It will be ready in about 30 years as they have been saying for the last 30 years. Although you may remember that when I interviewed him on 15th May, Michl Binderbauer, CEO of TAE Technologies, predicted only 10 years.

Trucking On

What was that about the impracticability of electricity for heavy haulage? Lexology, an international law reporting site tells us, “The California Air Resources Board (CARB) on June 25, 2020, unanimously approved the “Advanced Clean Trucks” rule, requiring automakers to sell a minimum number of zero-emissions diesel (sic) trucks, delivery vans and large pickups, starting in 2024. The quotas will be phased in and the rules require most new trucks in the state to produce no pollution at all by 2035. By 2045, every new truck sold in California will have to be zero-emission.”

They seem to take it as read that zero-emissions means electric, because they go on to say: 

“However, many stakeholders in the trucking industry are concerned the transition will not be nearly as easy and beneficial as CARB suggests. Critics cite the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on the economy as a substantial financial obstacle to manufacturing the new, cleaner trucks, which will also have a high price tag. They also are concerned that the infrastructure and technology, including charging stations and batteries, are inadequate for the roll-out of such a large amount of zero-emissions vehicles.”

Shortage of batteries, eh? You heard it here first!

Still Recovering

There's lots of discussion and controversy about how we should recover the economy as we come out of the pandemic. This episode goes to press before the announcement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak explains exactly what the British government is going to do. Having said that, most of what is proposed appears to have been leaked in advance and to have been received less than enthusiastically. Billions of pounds make good headlines, but when you divide them out over all the organisations they are supposed to help, all the jobs they're supposed to create and so on, it becomes clear that it will be very thinly spread. It doesn't compare very well with the actions taken by other countries. We won't know exactly what is proposed until after the chancellor’s statement but in the meantime Climate Action reports,

“New poll reveals public believe “the government has the wrong priorities” for COVID-19 package”

This is a response to the announcement made by the Prime Minister which I mentioned last week. According to Climate Action a poll commissioned by Conservative Environment Network reveals that the vast bulk of the British public sees a recovery that fails the environment as “bad for the economy”. More than half of British citizens want to see plans involving measures that tackle pollution and climate change. I’ll look next week at what’s actually promised.

And that’s it…

…for another week. Thank you for listening, thank you for your support especially if you are a patron. I'm always grateful for your feedback and I reply to every email even from those who are not actually patrons, although I have to say that others do support the Sustainable Futures Report in other ways.

If you've been thinking about becoming a patron, then what could be a better time than now? Why not pop across to and you’ll find all the details. If you are already a patron, are you getting what you expected? Would you like something different? In particular, would you like a Zoom call, and if so, when and what would you like to talk about?

I look forward to hearing from you, and if you get in quick I could even put your ideas into next week’s episode. 

I leave you with the thought that Rio Tinto’s trains that cart iron ore from their mines in Western Australia to the port are 1.5 miles long and fully autonomous. They are monitored and controlled remotely from Perth, 1,000 miles away. You’d need big battery for that! 

But for the moment that's it. 

I’m Anthony Day  

That was the Sustainable Futures Report 

Stay safe!


Portland Fuel Oil Market Report 


Zero-Carbon Trucks


Jo Bamford’s plans for his hydrogen bus manufacturer 

Compressed Air vehicles 

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