Imagine more energy

Shell is looking to the future of energy and making a habit of thinking big, but significant barriers to energy reform remain in place.

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Central to any discussion on the future of vehicles is energy and how it is stored. Many of the conversations centre around existing technology for battery power, and are based on “known knowns” in 2018. To make any sensible progress it’s important to base assumptions on reality but before embarking on any energy project it’s worth considering how much battery power has developed in recent years compared to that which might have been anticipated. There are laws of physics that dictate there will be no short-cuts available when it comes to moving parts transporting a certain weight along a given surface but there may be mitigating variables.

For example, as futurist and CEO of think tank Fast Future Rohit Talwar points out, there are alternatives. Wireless charging happens with phones and it’s entirely possible that it could apply to the world of vehicles. Solar roads may become a reality and more important, and then there are the energy and resources that go into making a car, but when people bring these subjects up they can be stifled. “We’re so imprisoned in the old ways of doing things that when someone suggests something disruptive we start thinking, how can we incorporate this into the old systems.” His view is that we need to get beyond that and start embracing the idea that things will indeed change.

This is part of the backdrop against which Shell is working on future emerging technologies. Its Sky Scenario publication is dedicated to describing a technically possible but challenging pathway for society to achieve the Paris Agreement goals, and concerns some of the more challenging elements of energy production in future. It outlines tough objectives for society including making carbon emissions decline after 2035 faster than the rate of growth in the century so far, an ambition the company describes as “eye-watering” whilst acknowledging that it has to be achieved.

It involves numerous drivers and they are not all technical; first the mindset of the entire society has to change so that people want low-carbon, low-emission fuel; it requires a step change in the efficiency of fuel consumption and governments acting in concert to embed the true cost of CO2 within products. Rates of electrification of final energy will need to more than triple, new energy sources will need to grow fifty-fold, and there will be a need for 1000 new carbon capture and storage facilities and net zero deforestation.

Perhaps “eye-watering” was an understatement, but this is what Shell believes the world needs to achieve against a backdrop of increasing energy demands and consumers wanting the latest and best of everything, always, with £1000 phones regarded as disposable after a couple of years. The dichotomy is obvious and damaging.

The company is also investigating uses of carbon dioxide, derided in the popular imagination as the source of all greenhouse gas (this is a simplification as water vapour and methane also play their part). CO2, however, can be captured and deployed in industry; it is used in beer, food production and in agriculture in combination with other things; work out how it can be captured before reaching the ozone layer and a great many issues will be addressed. Methane also has potential as a fuel.

The Sky Scenario calls for a different approach to car use as well. Sharing vehicles would allow a reduction not only in petrol and emissions but in the manufacture of batteries and other components. Other vehicle innovations may become possible. Cars spend 90 per cent of their time parked, so the resources involved in manufacturing them are substantially wasted on something ornamental in people’s driveways; while it is not an alternative to reducing the numbers of vehicles, Talwar points to 3D printing processes which – once they have been refined to the Nth degree, and this is a process rather than an end point – they could become cheaper to make and the raw materials more easily recyclable into new models than they are now.

Variables such as the power required to make this happen will need to be assessed as the technology becomes available. Again, allowing for the notion of disruptors rather than evolutionary nudges in the development of better fuels and processes.

The forecasts and targets (for example the government targets to end new diesel and petrol car sales) in the motor industry at the moment point mostly towards the year 2040, with a number of commentators and industry participants saying they are in fact aiming for 2030. This is laudable and nobody should criticise – but they are in the future and technology can take some unexpected turns. Talwar believes the approach needs to be as flexible as possible – the idea of a motorway with an induction rail or some sort of solar capture technology, a car park with a cable-free charging station, hydrogen, an as-yet unpredicted way of harnessing marine power or methane – none of it should be discounted immediately.

For the foreseeable future the research continues on battery power, spreading access to it and improving battery life. The thing is, the future may not be as foreseeable as we think. “If we take all this into account we could be starting with a very different mindset,” says Talwar. “It’s really difficult to think about the choices people who haven’t be born will make about technologies that haven’t been invented, working in jobs that don’t yet exist – let alone how they will transport themselves to work.”

But that’s what the forecasters have to do. Shell and its competitors appear to have shown a lot of willing in terms of reinventing themselves as energy companies rather than oil giants; the next few years will be testing in terms of how profound that move will need to be; a lot will depend on society reaching the Paris Agreement’s global warming target which is proving politically as well as technically difficult.

It should be understood that Shell’s Sky scenario is not intended as a forecast of future events but as an aim; investors should not rely on the document when making investment decisions with regard to Royal Dutch Shell plc securities.