Question Time: Energy

Article by Amanda Jasi

Experts gather to discuss how the discipline can contribute to the energy transition

ICHEME’s fourth centenary webinar focused on Redefining the energy mix: What does the future of energy look like in the transition to net zero? Experts gathered to discuss the transition of the energy sector as we strive to achieve a net zero future, the future of the system, and how chemical engineers can contribute. 

System shifts

The gathered experts acknowledged that the energy system has in the past, and continues to, rely primarily on fossil fuels. 

Neil Loader pointed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report issued in April and highlighted that limiting global warming to 1.5°C or 2°C requires rapid and deep emissions reductions in all sectors of the global economy. Loader is VP for Climate Ambition, Strategy and Sustainability at BP. 

He outlined what the future energy system may look like, using BP’s 2022 Energy Outlook. In all three scenarios explored, fossil fuel consumption declines. This includes a “net zero scenario” aligned with a 1.5°C pathway. Oil and gas “doesn’t go away” but it will play a role in lower volumes. Renewable energy rapidly increases, to between 35% and 65% of primary energy share by 2050, depending on the scenario. This will be supported by increasing electrification (to between 30% and 50%). Loader said renewable energy is expected to penetrate the global energy system at a pace quicker than any fuel seen in history.

 “Of course, there will be a range of energy sources and technologies required to support this deep decarbonisation of the global energy system,” including electric vehicles, hydrogen, bioenergy, and carbon capture and storage, he added.  

In this scenario, energy emissions fall by 95% by 2050 versus 2019, “and that’s going to require significant changes in societal actions and behaviours to achieve,” Loader said. 

Peter Taylor explored how the Government could play a part in helping achieve the “unprecedented” energy transformation. Taylor is a Professor of Sustainable Energy Systems at the Centre for Integrated Energy Research at the University of Leeds, UK. Looking at the work of Shell and others he said it takes “something like 30 years” for new technologies that enter the market to play a substantial role. But “2050 is less than 30 years away.  

“It’s quite clear that if we’re going to be successful in tackling the net zero challenge, we’re going to have to accelerate those historical timescales quite considerably. And governments have a range of different policies in the toolbox that they can use to help do that.”  

“I’m pretty certain it’s going to be less painful and less costly than facing up to the challenge of runaway climate change”

He mentioned policies governments could implement, including supporting specific technologies such as through public funding of research, development, and demonstration; public procurement policies; price-based instruments including taxes, subsidies, and emissions trading; command and control regulations such as technology performance standards and banning high-polluting technologies; and information and voluntary approaches, such as rating and labelling programmes and information campaigns.

 “The number of governments that are introducing climate policies [is] growing, and the extent of those policies and the sectors that they cover are also growing,” Taylor said, adding: “I think that therefore there is a growing realisation of the need to take action.

 “I’m quite certain that the path towards net zero is not going to be easy […] but I think if we look at the alternative then I would also like to say that I’m pretty certain it’s going to be less painful and less costly than facing up to the challenge of runaway climate change.” 

Opportunities in challenges

Commenting on the opportunities for chemical engineers in key challenge areas, Loader said there’s lots of opportunity in oil and gas as industry works to “squeeze the last drop from existing fields”, making use of existing infrastructure. He added that there are also opportunities in areas such as hydrogen, carbon capture, and wind and solar. 

 “Building more skills tangentially from our core skills [is] going to be really critical as well, because efficiency and demand reduction are so critical as we go forward, as well as being able to build those new technologies. So, I think it’s a very exciting time where the ability to transition into different career paths is enormous.” 

Alexandra Meldrum, VP of IChemE’s Learned Society, said that “energy is the engine that underpins an economy, so there’s actually opportunities in every other industry too”. She listed examples including food, water, and manufacturing.

During her presentation, Meldrum highlighted that greenhouse gas emissions are generated by a range of sectors, and these offer opportunities to make a difference. She said that chemical engineers can play a central role in finding solutions and looking at the future of industry – though it is an international challenge that calls for interdisciplinary teams to address these systemic challenges. 

She said driving the needed change requires a “broader lens” that considers responsible production, safety, addressing major hazards, and using digital tools. These align with IChemE’s Learned Society priority topics, “areas that we believe are very important to focus on.

 “As chemical engineers we can all make a difference. We’ve got the opportunity to bring in our professional expertise and to be looking at how we can continue to develop our knowledge and our skills.” 

She recommended tools for developing skills and knowledge including IChemE’s position statements, webinars, journals, and its knowledge and sustainability hubs. For those interested in getting involved in the challenge she suggested the IChemE Energy Community of Practice, special interest groups, volunteer opportunities, and contributing to consultations and projects. 

Taylor said: “What we try and encourage our students to do, is to think holistically about the problem, to be clear about the role that they can make, but also understand the contribution that can be made by other disciplines. I think more and more chemical engineers are going to be working with economists, material scientists, physicists, chemists, lawyers, whoever, to tackle these challenges because […] energy is a socio-
technical system. 

“So, you’ve got the technical bits, but you’ve also got the socio bits and if you don’t get both bits right then we’re not going to deliver the transition that we need, and so it’s incumbent on everybody from across all disciplines to be quite open to working together to meet this shared challenge.”

View the webinar recording here:

Join the centenary discussion! Next up: Safer processes for a sustainable world

In the next webinar, chemical engineers will gather to discuss how to enable a shift to a circular economy while keeping people safe.

The panel comprises senior members from the profession, who collectively have a wide and deep knowledge and experience of processes and safety. They include Thomas Lakey, Dame Judith Hackitt, Darren Cunningham, Trish Kerin, and Ian Shott.

Blogging on the topic, IChemE Fellow Ian Thomas said that society’s increasing concern with risk and injury has led to an increase in safety, but accidents still happen. He added that safety will remain important in the future, particularly in reducing the potential for “low-frequency, high-consequence events which are abhorred by all of us.

“The future chemical engineer will be dealing with complex problems, some of which we don’t yet even know about. Consequently, the processes of learning and training need to continually adjust.”

Register for the 8 June webinar here:

Submit your questions for the panel ahead of the webinar here:

Thomas’ blog will be live from 1 June here:

And for more on the centenary, including historical reflections from IChemE members, visit the dedicated website:

Article by Amanda Jasi

Staff reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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