Looking back to look forward - Dr Bernie Bulkin

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Courtesy of Energy Institute (EI)

In 2014 we are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Institution of Petroleum Technologists, the oldest of the Energy Institute’s predecessor organisations. We will be publishing throughout the year a series of interviews with eminent figures from the world of energy, reflecting on how the past can inform the future. This month we have Dr Bernie Bulkin FEI, one-time Chief Scientist at BP and more recently Chair of the UK Office of Renewable Energy at DECC.

From your own perspective, how would you characterise the key challenges facing the energy industry and society today?

Ever since we began exploiting coal to replace energy from gathering wood and dung, human beings have enjoyed a fossil fuel subsidy. This has allowed us the time to invent all the myriad technologies most of us enjoy today. We must use this subsidy to invent our way out of a fossil fuel based economy. Climate change and the need to decarbonise our energy supply is the biggest challenge we have. It is the toughest problem human beings have ever been asked to solve.

Our determination to find a solution will ultimately decide whether we can feed our population, where or even whether we can live on this planet.

How can we use the experience of the past to plot the future? (Given hindsight, have mistakes been made in the past, and are we learning from these?)

A CEO I used to work for said: ‘in business, extrapolation is bad for you.’ This is also true of the energy business, both at the micro and macro level. Too much of the energy debate has been dominated by the question of peak supply – are we running out of oil (or coal or gas)? The attempt to frighten us into using renewables because we would run out of fossil fuels is wrong on so many levels.

There is plenty of fossil fuel left; we just cannot burn it because the system cannot cope with that load of greenhouse gas. But it is also wrong because it tries to motivate us through fear, rather than aspiration. A society whose energy economy is based on lower carbon will be a better place for everyone to live.

Please comment on the energy policy ‘trilemma’ – the need to balance supply security, affordability and sustainability?

I never see sustainability as being in conflict with security of supply and affordability. Sustainable development means living within environmental limits; ensuring a strong, healthy and just society; achieving a sustainable economy; promoting good governance; and using sound science responsibly. When viewed in this broader context, sustainable development will never force us to choices with affordability or energy security.

But it will drive us along particular directions – for example coal fails every test of sustainable development (and carbon capture does not materially change that), while wind energy and concentrated solar thermal power, where appropriate, are very much in line with the principles of sustainable development.

Still, regarding affordability, it is important that everyone working in the renewables industry, or what we might better call the energy decarbonisation industry, should be both ambitious and realistic about what can be achieved.

The industry needs to wean itself from the drug of subsidies. We know that costs of new energy sources can come down, sometimes slowly, sometimes more rapidly – onshore wind and photovoltaics are two good examples. But projections of cost reduction must have a sound engineering basis.

I don’t find it useful when promoters of a particular technological solution invoke some vague learning curve to project major cost reductions. We must look at every component of a device to see where costs can be removed, as well as at the costs of deployment, the gains from mass manufacture (where appropriate), the cost of finance as risk is reduced….Only then can a convincing case be made. The offshore wind industry has done a very good job on this in the UK, and this should be a model for how to approach the cost reduction challenge.

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