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  • Writer's pictureGeoff Russell

Deliver us into evil, for gas is the glory, hallelujah!

The global energy market is becoming transfixed by gas. Without adequate gas supplies, people in cold climates will be dying, or very miserable, during the coming winter. During winter in Europe, for example, the capacity factor of solar panels drops below half of what it is in summer. Can wind power make up the shortfall? In Germany, wind farms over winter will typically get 20 or so 5-hour periods with aggregated output less than 5% of maximum, and about 8 or so 5-hour periods with aggregated output less than 2% of maximum. So you can appreciate the urgency with which Europeans are hoovering up natural gas from anywhere they can find it.

As of 2020, Australia and Qatar were far and away the biggest Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) exporters on the planet.

What’s LNG? It’s natural gas, meaning methane from underground, which has been cooled until it turns into a liquid (about -162°C.). It isn’t cooled by being left on a benchtop, like a hot potato; no, it takes a considerable amount of energy to drive the process. The LNG is then loaded onto ships and then restored to gaseous form; typically the cooling and regasification costs 1/4 of the energy contained in the gas you are shipping. That 25% loss is about double the loss you’d get from shipping the gas by pipeline.

How do you measure natural gas? In units nobody but experts have a feel for. Who understands units like billion cubic metres, or trillion British thermal units? I have a better unit of measurement, the AREH!

What’s that?

Remember the Asian Renewable Energy Hub (AREH)? It was rejected on solid environmental grounds by the Morrison Government, but I suspect it will attempt a resurrection at some stage. It was to have covered an area of Western Australia about 1/10th the size of Tasmania with wind turbines and solar panels. Here’s a plot of LNG exports by country and the number of AREH projects you’d need to replace the energy in that LNG with electricity.

LNG exports, measured in AREHs

Qatar would have considerable difficulty building 20 AREHs, given that its land mass is only about two AREHs. Add up all the AREHs in the graph and you’d get 108. This is a total area of over 712,000 square kilometres; an area bigger than France (544,000 km²); it’s even bigger than Texas (696,000 km²).

Alternatively, you could measure the gas production in tonnes of uranium (annually) required to match the (heat) energy in the gas. Do the maths and it comes to about 40,000 tonnes of uranium annually. Is that a lot? Back in 2012, BHP was planning to expand the Olympic Dam copper mine. That expansion was shelved, but would, as a by-product to the copper, also have produced 19,200 tonnes of uranium per year. So you’d need a couple of such mines, or about 10 more normal-sized mines. Most (60%) of the world’s uranium isn’t produced with big open cut mines like BHP’s copper mine, but in in situ leaching mines like the one in the following image. Australia’s Four Mile Uranium Mine uses a similar process. Follow the link for a description of how it works. Here’s what an in situ mine looks like in Kazakhstan, currently the world’s largest uranium producer:

In situ leaching, ultra low impact uranium mining, this image from Kazakhstan (Kazatomprom)

But Qatar doesn’t need AREHs or uranium. It has gas.

In the Australian mainstream media bubble, the death of Queen Elizabeth II brought a brief respite from football scores and scandals; meanwhile, the global energy industry has been in a state of turmoil. While Russia was pumping gas, it was easy to focus on the glossy facade of the global energy system. It was easy to forget that vast expanses of solar panels have tiny outputs, and nothing at all each and every night. It was easy to forget the mineral bottlenecks strangling electric vehicle expansion. It was easy to ignore the realities of cobalt mining, illustrated on ABC’s “Blood Cobalt” program on Foreign Correspondent; or nickel mining in Indonesia, otherwise known as operation drop-your-tailings in the ocean. We can expect that nickel and cobalt mining will both eventually get cleaned up, but it will most likely take as long as it took for uranium – decades. What are tailings? It’s the material left after you’ve extracted the stuff you are interested in. For cobalt, that might be 700 parts per million. You might have some other valuable material also, but most of the other 999,300 parts of the ore is rubbish – tailings.

Listening to our politicians and renewable groupies, you’d think you could just chant emission targets using Tibetan throat singing, rub the side of a lamp, and solutions would appear.

The reality is that the global energy system still rests solidly on a foundation of fossil fuels. All we’ve done over the past 20 years is solidly entrench gas as the goto choice for reliable electricity; stuff that is on-demand instead of on-whenever.

The attempts to fight Russia with sanctions have exposed the Middle Eastern sand under those foundations.

The public don’t get it, but the leaders of major industrialised (and often cold climate) economies get it.

In recent months, there has been a steady flow of the world’s most powerful people to those Middle Eastern sands to fawn and grovel to the goliaths of gas. Charles Michel for the European Council, Boris Johnson representing UK interests, Joe Biden for the US, German Chancellor Olaf Schulz and his Minister Robert Habeck, and Japan’s Minister for Foreign Affairs, Yoshimasa Hayashi. Emmanuel Macron met Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in France. All the mountains have been visiting Mohammed.

Qatar has considerably more gas than it is currently producing. It has ownership over most of the South Pars/North Dome field, usually called the “North Field”. This is 35,000 cubic kilometres of gas; the biggest on the planet. The next biggest field, in Russia, has a “mere” 6,300 cubic kilometres.

By 2027, Qatar aims to be producing 126 billion cubic metres (bcm) of gas per year; up from 106 bcm in 2021.

How much is 126 bcm? About 28 AREHs occupying 190,000 square kms, an area almost 3 times the size of Tasmania (batteries not included), or 153 gigawatts of nuclear reactors, occupying about 245 square kms. Qatar isn’t worried about the price of gas falling, because their production costs will undercut most other fields.

There are only three serious competitors to coal in the world of dispatchable electricity: hydro, gas and nuclear.

Hydro-electricity is heavily dependent on both geography and climate. China’s hydro output has been low recently because of drought. Had it not been for China’s zero covid lockdowns, and their reduced imports of gas, the global energy crisis would have been even worse than it has been. Nobody wants to be standing in front of the fan when China’s appetite for gas returns to normal.

Many hydro schemes should not be classified as either clean or green; particularly those in tropical areas where they entail deforestation and non-trivial methane emissions.

Which leaves any country without a strong nuclear industry firmly dependent on gas to plug renewable intermittency holes. Eventually, those countries will realise that the reasons for current high nuclear build costs are all artificial and readily solvable. The only question is how long it will take for those few pennies to drop.



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