“Reaching carbon neutrality requires all industries to collaborate much more than we have so far”
October 11, 2022
At this year’s edition of The Business Booster, we discussed how we must focus all our efforts on a twin strategy of scaling-up existing technologies and exploring new prospective ones in order to win the race to reach net zero.
In this interview Jan Mertens, Chief Science Officer of ENGIE, TBB Diamond sponsor, discussed how they tackle the exploration of new technologies.
For ENGIE, keeping an eye on emerging technologies is a key exercise and they have been releasing an annual report on emerging technologies since 2016, predicting those technologies they believe would offer “non-trivial benefits” to the energy transition.
However, selecting these technologies is no small feat, says Jan Mertens. He explains, “back in 2016, we tried to do it quantitatively, looking at other reports, from the likes of Bloomberg, Guidehouse, McKinsey, and research from the World Economic Forum.” However, he says, “What you end up with is a collection of digital technologies.” So the team began combining this research with ENGIE’s industrial expertise. “This real-life knowledge, combined with a deep, scientific background makes our research unique and differentiates our report,” Mertens says.
Three paths of exploration
The research explores three pathways to carbon neutrality. The first one is energy efficiency. “This is something we’ve been doing for over 20 years – to try and do the same, or maybe even more, if we can, with less energy.” This remains crucially important, says Mertens, “there are still emerging technologies trying to do more with less energy.”
However the real excitement lies in the second pathway – electrification. “Electrification increases efficiency enormously,” Mertens believes, “and this can be done with electricity. So we should try to electrify as much as possible. However, not everything can be electrified and this is why the third pathway, or the need for sustainable molecules is a final crucial one.”
Most of the emerging technologies that we will need to reach carbon neutrality fall within this third part, says Mertens. Technology such as carbon capture and utilisation will be key to future success, he explains, “for example, for aviation we need kerosene. But we also need to stop taking oil out of the ground and refining it into kerosene. So the only way to do it is to manufacture kerosene in a synthetic way. This can be done by taking CO2 out of the air or from an industrial plant and turning it into kerosene using renewable electricity and hydrogen for example.” This technology, and those like it, says Mertens, are very high on ENGIE’s agenda.
The challenge is most of the times, the business case
However, the challenges to bringing these technologies to market aren’t always technical. “In many of these situations it’s about the business case not being quite there yet.” In the case of e-kerosene, the cost is still too high to be a renewable alternative. “The gap between the fossil alternative and the renewable alternative as a kerosene made from CO2 and hydrogen is still too big. Although, he adds, “unfortunately for many, the current high gas prices might speed up development and close this gap.”
The answer, perhaps, is “a massive deployment of cheap, renewable, abundant electricity which, for about a third of our energy needs, we will turn into molecules.”
Crucial to overcoming any of these challenges is collaboration. “Reaching carbon neutrality by 2045 cannot be done by one company or even one industry,” says Mertens, “this is not about the energy industry alone any more. This is about all the industries collaborating much more than we have done so far.”
Previously, Mertens explains, the energy and chemistry industries were in silos, “but now we’re starting to understand that we need the chemical guys. For hydrogen, it’s chemistry, for batteries, it’s chemistry…They, in turn, also see that they need to rely on our expertise.”
A call for collaboration
The main objective of ENGIE’s emerging sustainable technologies document is a call for collaboration, says Mertens, “We are not a technology developer, we’re not trying to develop from scratch. What we try to do is work together with the technology developers and bring things to the market as soon as possible.”
Reports like this are not only a call to arms but an energy industry snapshot. Carbon Capture and Utilisation or CCU in short was something ENGIE reported on five years ago and, says Mertens, “at the time people smiled and said ‘Very interesting but way too expensive and will never happen’. Now it’s on a lot of companies’ strategic agenda.”
Mertens is hopeful that this emerging tech will make a real difference. “We don’t need to invent new stuff, we just need to bring all the ideas together and close the business gap.”