30 November 2018

Professor Gert Jan Kramer's vision for the energy transition

‘We need carbon-based energy, but make it circular and taxed’

With an increasing global population and the industrialisation of the Global South we will need more and more energy to sustain the global economy. According to Professor Gert Jan Kramer, we will continue to rely on hydrocarbons, which currently come overwhelmingly from fossil fuels such as oil. So which technological pathways will allow us to use and produce hydrocarbons sustainably in the future?

Gert Jan Kramer is Professor of Sustainable Energy Supply Systems and head of the Energy & Resources group at the Copernicus Institute of Sustainable Development at Utrecht University. He is also the leader of the research hub Deep Decarbonisation: Towards Industries with Negative Emissions, part of the university-wide strategic research theme Pathways to Sustainability. His interests focus on energy transition as a technical and a socio-technical phenomenon.

Straightforward expansion of green renewable electricity production

Professor Kramer is optimistic about the expansion of green renewable electricity production. “There is more and more action in the solar and wind sectors. So much that soon there will be no longer be a need for subsidies. Rather, there will be a need for different market rules. The electricity market was designed in the fossil-based era. As we change towards a more sustainable production system, we will have to change the market too. Governments are keen to ‘leave it to the market’, which they can do provided they make market rules conducive to ongoing, transformative change.”

There is more and more action in the solar and wind sectors. So much that soon there will be no longer be a need for subsidies. Rather, there will be a need for different market rules

The limits of electricity

Before coming to Utrecht University, Kramer worked at Shell. In 2016, he contributed to Shell’s scenario supplement A Better Life with a Healthy Planet – Pathways to Net-zero emissions. This left him with the firm conviction that it will be almost impossible to have more than half of energy consumed as electricity. In other words, we will have no choice but to continue using fuels in addition to green renewable electricity. And this will most likely mean carbon-based energy. “Simply because electricity will not yet be able to power everything,” explains Kramer. He expanded on these ideas in his inaugural lecture De Ontdekking van de Toekomst (The Discovery of the Future).

One example is aviation, says Kramer, where batteries will likely never be powerful or light enough to sustain a long-haul flight. There is also the issue of geography. Densely populated areas in affluent countries like the Netherlands are easily electrified. Although more than half of the world’s population live in cities, this leaves almost as many outside them. Rural areas that rely heavily on agriculture, for example, require long distance heavy goods transportation that, according to Kramer, cannot reasonably be electrified.

Rural areas that rely heavily on agriculture require long distance heavy goods transportation that cannot reasonably be electrified. Photo credit: Ákos Szabó

The flow of carbon must become circular

There are enough fossil fuels to provide all the carbon-based energy we need until the end of the next century. But in order to prevent global temperatures rising beyond the 1.5C ceiling set out in the Paris Agreement, something needs to be done to stop greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere. “We need to make sure the carbon flow is circular,” says Kramer. “We must close the loop”. 

Carbon capture, storage and utilisation

“Time is of the essence. If we continue to rely on carbon-based fuels, carbon dioxide must be removed from the atmosphere to ensure zero (net) emissions before it's too late”. This removal is colloquially referred to as ‘carbon capture’. “Since carbon dioxide is a thermodynamic sink and at this moment a waste product, underground storage is currently the most obvious way to handle it,” Kramer goes on to explain. This is carbon capture and storage or CCS. Carbon dioxide from the combustion of fossil fuels is captured at source. It is then transported and deposited at a storage site, normally underground, where it cannot enter the atmosphere. 

With the development of appropriate technology this could be taken a step further. In carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) the loop is properly closed: captured waste carbon can be used in the manufacture of fuels, carbonates, polymers and chemicals. 

Price on emissions necessary for circular flow of carbon

“What's key is that carbon capture and storage technology already exists and is scalable. But wide scale deployment will never happen unless governments put a price on emissions,” says Kramer. So far, however, a stiff carbon price, or ‘carbon tax’, has been anathema for politicians. Kramer thinks politicians shy away from it “precisely because it would be so effective.”

The risks of an unknowable future

Kramer feels that by not putting a price on carbon and by resisting CCS, governments are placing a heavy bet on technical breakthroughs such as solar fuels - a heavy bet on innovations that do not exist yet. “The future is unknowable. Are we willing to take such a risk? What if there are limits to solar fuels that we are not yet aware of? It’s an excuse for inaction and shying away from difficult political decisions, and worse, it’s a moral hazard!”

The future is unknowable. Are we willing to take such a risk? What if there are limits to solar fuels that we are not yet aware of? It’s an excuse for inaction and shying away from difficult political decisions, and worse, it’s a moral hazard!

Gauging the limits to future technologies

A key factor for the pace of the energy transition is the deployment rates of new technologies. Gauging such deployment rates is one of Professor Kramer’s key areas of research. In 2009 he wrote an opinion piece in Nature, No quick switch to low-carbon energy. It described some of the hard realities associated with the massive scale-up of new technologies and the timeframes needed for such scale-ups. Electric renewables solar and wind still track the path predicted in this paper.

“The same logic can also be applied to batteries of electric vehicles and indeed to solar fuels,” says Kramer. This is the topic of his forthcoming paper with PhD student Oscar Kraan and Shell Scenario staff. Kramer hopes to ensure that technology expectations are better ‘calibrated’ to reality, thereby allowing the world to charter a more robust course to an unknowable future.

About Gert Jan Kramer

Professor Gert Jan Kramer was inaugurated as Professor of Sustainable Energy Supply Systems at Utrecht University in September 2017. He is also the leader of the research hub Deep Decarbonisation: Towards Industries with Negative Emissions, one of the hubs of the university-wide strategic theme Pathways to Sustainability. Kramer obtained his PhD in experimental physics from Leiden University in 1988. He then joined Shell where he worked on theoretical chemistry of catalysis, more conventional oil industry research, and, since 2000, the future of energy and alternative energies. These diverse experiences influence his work at Utrecht University.