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Is transition the right word for our energy changes?


By Andrew Bradshaw, Fifth Ring


The energy industry, particularly the oil and gas industry, loves its catchphrases.

In the UK in recent years we’ve had (in chronological order) the subsea factory/village, the great crew change, the downturn, the upswing from the downturn, collaboration, standardisation, cautious optimism and big data. And that’s to name just a few – all of which mirror the industry’s fortunes at a given time.

It seems that when we grow tired of one phrase we can always exhume an old favourite, such as peak oil.

One of today’s popular phrases is energy transition. It’s everywhere. It’s been the theme of conferences across the world. There was much talk about it at Offshore Europe in Aberdeen at the beginning of September, where it shared the popularity platform with another phrase, net-zero carbon emissions.

But while there seems common agreement about the end game of the energy transition (a widespread global adoption of lower or no carbon energy sources) the question of the routes we should take to get there and the speed of travel elicit varying responses.

Mohammed Barkindo, the secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) speaking at the Dundee Energy Forum.
Mohammed Barkindo, the secretary general of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) speaking at the Dundee Energy Forum.

At the Dundee Energy Forum earlier this year, Mohammed Barkindo, the secretary general of OPEC (the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries) claimed “transition” was the wrong word to describe the changing nature of energy supply.

“I feel it is important to point out that when we talk of an energy transition, the word ‘transition’ can be misleading,” he said.

“The dictionary definition of transition focuses on the process of changing from one thing to another. But the energy transition does not necessarily mean moving from one energy source to another.

“The majority and balanced consensus is that all forms of energy are required; a diverse mix of sources is the best way forward. It is also vital we appreciate just what each energy source can provide in the decades ahead.”

Barkindo added that while renewables were “coming of age” with wind and solar power expanding rapidly, OPEC’s World Oil Outlook suggests they will make up just 19 per cent of the global energy mix by 2040 – less than coal at 22 per cent and significantly less than oil and gas, which will still provide more than 50 per cent of our energy requirements.

Only two things are likely to force private enterprise to speed up the journey towards net-zero carbon energy adoption: strong governmental legislation or a seachange in shareholder/investor sentiment.

“We need to recognise the environmental challenge is not oil and gas themselves – it is the emissions that come from them. We in OPEC believe solutions can be found in technologies that reduce and ultimately eliminate these emissions.”

Referring to renewable energy sources, he said: “We should not limit ourselves by putting all our eggs in one basket.”

Of course, as the head of OPEC, you wouldn’t expect Barkindo to demand an immediate halt to oil use. Turkeys voting for Christmas spring to mind. But he is echoing a growing call from the industry to be accepted and recognised as part of the energy solution and not merely a dirty problem.

The major oil companies support the idea that the change in energy sources will be more an evolution than an “either or” transition. In its Energy Outlook for 2019, BP echoes the notion that oil and gas will still make up half the world’s energy by 2040 and Shell has stressed the continued importance of fossil fuels in future energy provision.

While some may argue for a rapid switch from oil and gas to renewable energies, forecasts suggesting a 1.5 billion increase in the world’s population to 9.2 billion by 2040, along with a 33 per cent increase in energy demand driven largely by Asian countries, do not point to such a wholesale change.

Renewable energy on its own will not be able to fill that gap. A broad mix of energy sources, including oil, will be required. Those camped on the moral high ground need to come back down and get used to it.

A mix of energy sources will be needed to fuel a growing global population.
A mix of energy sources will be needed to fuel a growing global population.

Indeed India, one of the leading performers in the Asian economy, is currently pursuing its most active oil and gas exploration campaign ever to reduce its reliance on imports.

Only two things are likely to force private enterprise to speed up the journey towards net-zero carbon energy adoption: strong governmental legislation or a seachange in shareholder/investor sentiment. It could be argued that the journey towards both has started, especially with the governments at Westminster and Holyrood setting net-zero targets of 2050 and 2045 respectively. For some that’s not fast enough.

However, unless we are prepared to turn our back on an energy source that has fuelled our economic and social development over the last century, and therefore radically and rapidly change our lifestyles en masse globally, it will not be a quick process.

So, while we have become used to the phrase energy transition, we should ask ourselves if it adequately covers what is really happening, or if we should consider an alternative that highlights the inclusive nature of future power provision.

Energy evolution, anyone?

  • Andrew Bradshaw is head of energy insight at global corporate communications company Fifth Ring and is based at the firm's Inverness office. He is internationally recognised as one of the leading experts in energy public relations.


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