Article written by Bob Laslett and Toby Williams - 2nd September, 2023
In the year 2023, humanity confronts one of its most pressing and formidable challenges: the profound and escalating impacts of climate change. The once-debated issue has now evolved into a stark reality, as the world grapples with the intensifying repercussions of heightened global temperatures. This grim reality is characterized by a surge in extreme weather events, rampant wildfires, prolonged droughts, and devastating floods. These occurrences, now occurring with increased frequency and heightened intensity, can be directly attributed to the emission of Greenhouse Gases (GHG) that trap heat within the atmosphere.
To avert environmental disaster, our global leaders have set the challenge – Net-Zero by 2050; A target that aims to completely negate the amount of greenhouse gases (GHG) produced by human activity.
But, how will that be possible when our demand for oil has never been greater than now? Driven by increasing populations, conflicts and the pursuit of economic growth, U.S crude oil exports in 2022 increased to a new record of 3.6 million barrels a day and is forecasted to produce an additional 1.4 million barrels per day in 2023 to meet this demand.
Figure 1 - Annual U.S Crude oil exports, 2010-2022 (Data source: U.S. Energy Information Administration).
The need for sustainable alternatives to replace fossil fuels is unprecedented. Yet, the progress of producing abundant, clean, carbon-neutral, and affordable fuel is currently faltering in the face of this demand.
Shipping, aviation, and road transport currently account for almost 25% of global emissions and the workhorse powering these sectors is the internal combustion engine – Fueled on fossil-based hydrocarbons. If we are to focus on the aviation industry alone; Global aviation fuel consumption is set to quickly return to 2019 pre-Covid levels of 95 billion gallons per annum and keep rising year after year. Experts are also estimating that the active commercial fleet of aircraft will rise from 25,368 in 2023 to 35,501 in ten years.
It is clear that, despite mandated targets and initiatives to reach Net-Zero, the aviation industry is showing no signs of slowing down; and there is no viable replacement to the jet-engine for commercial aviation on the horizon.
Currently it seems as if E-Fuels (“drop-in” replacements for petroleum-based fuels synthesised from sustainable sources of carbon using renewable electricity) offer an optimistic pathway to achieve carbon neutrality. These fuels can be processed in such a way that they closely resemble conventional fossil fuels such as gasoline, diesel or kerosene, and in many cases act as a “drop-in” replacement that requires no major modifications to existing internal combustion systems.
The biggest challenge facing production of E-Fuels is the cost associated with current production methods deriving from enormous power requirements, as well as the challenges of securing carbon sources without generating excess carbon emissions in the process. These challenges raise the question – Will E-Fuel production methods reach the economy of scale required to meet the Net-Zero target for aviation and road transport by 2050?
There are many emerging technology developers who believe they will; Reminiscent of the oil rush of the 1900’s the race is back on but this time it’s the “Net-Zero Race”.
Due to the high electricity demands of renewable fuel production, such as green hydrogen, e-fuels, sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), etc., as nations aim to reach Net-Zero, they will inherently become larger electricity consumers.
The expansion of renewable electricity infrastructure is essential to support these decarbonisation efforts. Olaf Scholz, the Chancellor of Germany, emphasizes the necessity of constructing three to four new wind turbines every day for Germany to achieve its ambition of becoming a carbon-neutral industrialized nation. Presently, the rate of wind turbine production stands at slightly above one per day.7 Equally important is the advancement and establishment of significant new processing facilities. These facilities are crucial for achieving the necessary scale to meet our net-zero objectives in the transportation and industrial sectors within the coming years.
The journey towards decarbonization not only demands advancements in technology but also necessitates substantial investments with a recognition that these commitments involve a considerable lead time before yielding any financial returns.
Industries like road transport, marine, and manufacturing are all grappling with challenges akin to those faced by the aviation sector in terms of sourcing sustainable fuel sources. Given that these feedstocks often overlap, competition for them could impact supply, demand, and consequently, market prices.
The mounting pressure on oil and gas producers to reshape their operations and realign strategies with the principles of a net-zero world has intensified. This call for change originates from various quarters, including investors, environmental advocates, policymakers, and, to some extent, entire nations.
The oil industry has a history of surmounting diverse challenges, a trait that the burgeoning carbon-neutral sector must emulate. With a track record of venturing into uncharted territories and, more significantly, delivering results, the oil industry stands well-positioned to replicate this success in the carbon-restricted sphere.
Transitioning effectively from fossil-based to carbon-free fuels necessitates not only the advancement of new technologies but also the refinement of existing ones. Above all, it entails the establishment of numerous substantial process plants, pivotal for various decarbonisation pathways.
However, it's imperative to acknowledge the continuing need for oil and gas, which will persist for a considerable period. The transition away from these conventional fuels’ hinges on the availability of cleaner alternatives. Therefore, oil and gas companies must persist in production not only to ensure their survival but also to possess the financial and technical capacity to lead the charge towards a carbon-neutral world.
A valid example of a developing and promising technology for sustainable alternatives which faces substantial and diverse challenges to reach economy of scale is Waste-to-Fuel (Wtf).
WtF is a pathway to SAF production using technologies like gasification and Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis to transform solid waste into a drop-in jet fuel. Feedstocks can be cellulosic waste (forestry/wood/agricultural waste) and Municipal Solid Waste (MSW). These feedstocks are carbon rich and considered a by-product of human activity. In the case of using MSW as feedstock, it offers a highly beneficial multi-pronged approach to tackle the environmental impacts of current waste management practices – By burning carbon rich fractions of household/commercial waste and collecting the synthesis gases (Syngas) that it produces for fuel production; we can reduce the volume of waste going to landfill, preventing subsequent methane emissions, as well as supply a carbon neutral fuel to the transport sectors.
Figure 2 - Flow diagram of MSW to SAF process
However, the logistics of collecting, sorting, and pre-treating MSW and consequent conversion into fuel is a huge challenge that must be overcome to access this valuable source of carbon. These processes require complex infrastructure, logistical operations, and technology.
Figure 3 -Worlds first automated MSW sorting plant opened in 2016 outside of Oslo, Norway. This $221 million facility processes the household waste of 10 municipalities. Similar scale infrastructure would need to be rolled out nationally to harvest the carbon rich resources from MSW for SAF production at considerable investment. (Image credit: Wastetodaymagazine.com)
Certain strategies, effectively championed by offshore oil and gas sectors, offer noteworthy contributions, such as modular construction using Pre-Assembled Units (PAUs) and Modules (PAMs). This approach proves invaluable in challenging environments or scenarios where equipment production occurs remotely from the final operational site. By reducing timelines and costs for new plant construction, this approach becomes pivotal in achieving timely net-zero goals.
This is especially relevant when we consider countries that have abundant clean energy owing to a wealth of geothermal/hydroelectric power, which makes them an ideal location for energy-hungry fuel production processes, such as electrolysis and Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. Yet, these countries may have a limited industrial complex to enable efficient manufacture and construction of large-scale infrastructure. This is where the oil industry can draw upon decades of experience in international cohesion and coordination to deliver technical, operational, and management solutions at a pace necessary to achieve future Net-Zero targets in an expedient timeframe.
A valuable lesson gleaned from the construction of the large, intricate capital projects undertaken by the oil industry underscores the importance of robust project management in engineering and constructing novel process plants, be it Waste-to-Fuel facilities, E-fuel refineries, Green Hydrogen production sites, and more.
The cornerstone of successful project management is meticulous planning and scheduling, proven time and again as a fundamental factor in the triumphant execution of large, complex projects or as they are also coined “Mega Projects” – reminiscent of those achieved in the North Sea during the 1970s. It was there that the oil companies faced “unprecedented engineering challenges” bringing together large structures with oil and gas process plant, drilling rigs, subsea connections, and marine operations.
Based on these achievements, we can see the value in the expertise and experience gained from the challenges oil companies and their project engineers overcame to deliver the world's energy needs. This expertise can guide the implementation of carbon-neutral infrastructure development, helping overcome the logistical, economic, and operational hurdles slowing down the roll-out of commercial-scale carbon-neutral fuel production projects.
In this article, the central exploration has revolved around the question of how to achieve ambitious 2050 Net-Zero targets, given the historical peak of demand for fossil fuels. With a focal point of discussion on the aviation sector, it has identified the potential for Waste-to-Fuel SAF production technologies to offer a multifaceted approach to reducing GHG emissions in the race for carbon-neutrality. Furthermore, this paper describes how it is possible to win "The Net-Zero Race" by drawing upon the Mega Projects experience of the Oil Industry and accelerate the deployment of time- and cost-effective solutions to meet unprecedented challenges at a global scale, in the face of climate disaster.
The principals of LASLETT INTERNATIONAL bring decades of management, consultancy, and project engineering experience from the oil and gas sector since the 1970s. Notably, they recognized the urgency of addressing climate change in 2005. This recognition prompted their transition to the forefront of renewable power, starting in wave and tidal energy from 2005 and subsequently in carbon-neutral fuel technology projects such as e-fuels, SAF, and Green Hydrogen since 2013. This proactive approach reflects their commitment to driving sustainable solutions in response to evolving global challenges.
With experience gained globally over many years Laslett International are ideally placed to provide expert support to companies and organisations involved in renewables and carbon neutral fuels especially during the development and project execution phases, these support services include:
· Pre-Project Review and Expert Reports
· Project Options Analysis
· Project Planning and Scheduling
· Project Phasing & Staging Analysis
· Project & Program Management
· Project Assurance, Project Audits
· Benchmarking & Due Diligence
· Feasibility Studies
· Commercial and Technical Advisory
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