A great future for geoscience

Mike Stephenson

The subject of my talk for this week’s ‘Geology for the Future’ ESTA conference is geoscience in energy and sustainable development. The role that geoscience will play in providing clean, reliable and affordable energy will be clear in the coming years and will guarantee a great future for aspiring geologists both in the developed world, and the developing Global South.

The facts are clear and sobering. In 2016, sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia had approximately 600 million and 200 million people respectively with no access to electricity, while in the Global North this figure was negligible. Where will the power for the Global South come from and how will we ensure that it’s low carbon, available when it’s needed, and affordable? This is the subject of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7 (SDG7), which aims to ‘ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy’.

Forecasts of future global energy mix are being produced all the time and are a useful way to think about how SDG7 might be achieved. A recent one by the Energy Transitions Commission (ETC) is for 2050. Their 2050 forecast shows a massive shift from fossil fuels to renewables electricity. The key for this shift is not the cost of renewable electricity, which is already (often) lower than new fossil fuel power station electricity, but the cost of balancing supply and demand due to intermittency. The ETC thinks that a lot of industries will be electrified by 2050, but that steel, chemicals and cement will need hydrogen and some fossil fuel for power. This use of fossil fuels will mean that carbon capture and storage will be needed to dispose of CO2 generated, but also to deal with CO2 produced by the manufacture of hydrogen. In 2050 the ETC predicts that transport will dominated by battery electric vehicles, except shipping which will be powered by ammonia (a hydrogen carrier) and aircraft powered by low carbon biofuels. The key to electrification of cars will be batteries whose main ingredients are metals like lithium and cobalt from rocks. Where will all this lithium and cobalt come from, and how will countries secure their supply?

For many of these technologies and new fuels predicted for 2050, geoscience is important because they rely in some way on the subsurface – the rocks under our feet – to make them work. Carbon capture and storage – where CO2 is captured in industrial settings, piped to the subsurface and disposed of – relies on understanding geology intimately. Already, geologists who would have once been interested in working in oil and gas are thinking about careers in a new CCS industry. A variant on CCS called bioenergy and carbon capture and storage (BECCS) may be the only effective ‘negative emissions’ technology if we want to accelerate the race against global warming. Again, geoscience expertise and trained geologists will be needed for this technology.

In the case of the hydrogen economy – where hydrogen replaces coal, oil and gas as a fuel – geoscience is vital because huge increases in the use of hydrogen will require enormous amounts of hydrogen storage to deal with seasonal, and other variations, in demand. At present, this scale of storage is only feasible in salt rocks. One of the clever new technologies to deal with the intermittence of renewables may use compressed air in rock caverns to store energy. Similarly, understanding of rocks under our cities will be needed if we want to harness geothermal to heat our homes, or perhaps in the Global South to cool our homes. We may use rocks under cities in the future to store summer heat – or industrial heat – to be used in the winter when we need it more. We may use old coalmines in previously industrialised areas as a source for warm or cool water for air-conditioning homes and schools.

But how might the energy mix be different in the Global South compared with the North? This is an interesting question because countries have different natural resources, different industries, different heating and cooling requirements for houses, different amounts of space for development – and of course different geology. Some parts of the world appear to be well set up for carbon capture and storage because the rocks are suitable. Others are well set up for geothermal. Countries with tropical climates may require lots of new low carbon technologies for air conditioning like cooling from the earth. Some countries may have lots of hills and valleys and rainfall for hydroelectric power. Of course many Global South countries also have fossil fuels in abundance – for example oil and gas or coal – and may want to use them because they appear to be cheap and easy to use for development and economic growth.

So the solutions for energy will be different in different places but it’s likely that geology will be important. Wherever you are in the world, whether you are school pupil or a university student just setting out to study geology, your career path is assured. The work you’ll do is less likely to be in coal and oil and gas, and more likely to be in energy storage, geothermal or carbon capture and storage – or perhaps in mining and extraction of the metals critical for the energy transition like lithium and cobalt.

Geology has a great future! Tune in to my talk for this week’s ‘Geology for the Future’ ESTA conference to hear more!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.