Konstantin Simonov: “The green energy industry is looking more and more like a classic stock bubble”
Is it possible to predict the future of global energy? Are oil and gas really a dead horse that needs to be abandoned immediately? What will result from the colossal expenditures of some states on the construction of wind turbines and solar panels: a reduction in the technological impact on ecosystems or a sharp increase in the price of electricity and heat? These and other questions were raised during an act lecture by Konstantin Simonov, Russian political scientist and director of the National Energy Security Fund. It was held at St. Petersburg Mining University, at the closing ceremony of the International Contest of Young Scientists “Topical Issues of Subsoil Use.”.
Forpost cites the most striking excerpts from the speech.
Discussions of the energy agenda have become like meetings of the Party Bureau in the USSR
- It is a pleasure to be with you at Mining University. A truly impressive educational institution. Today its rector Vladimir Litvinenko asked an essential question: how adequately do we perceive changes in the fuel and energy complex and what will they lead to?
The main message is that we should try to look critically and impartially at the prospects for transforming the fuel and energy complex. But, unfortunately, this is not always possible. Instead of objective analysis, we are often offered ready-made answers, drawing pictures of a pre-formed future that looks absolutely single-optional.
We often hear that tomorrow’s energy sector is predetermined. Hydrocarbons will die. Coal will be first, then oil. Gas, as a transitional fuel, will hold on for a while, it will be tolerated because it has a less significant environmental impact. But then it will die as well. And by 2050, the world will reach climate neutrality, meaning that we will live with a completely different energy mix, without greenhouse gas emissions, including CO2.
Is the future, in fact, so predictable that we already know the answer to what the global fuel and energy complex will be like in 30 years? When we ask this and other questions (to adherents of the energy transition - ed.), we never get answers; they are simply dismissed as naive and harmful to humanity. And people who try to point to the obvious disadvantages of renewable energy, such as its low energy efficiency or the lack of available technologies for recycling the same wind turbines, are branded retrograde.
Please, understand me correctly, I do not want my statement to be perceived as the speech of a counter-revolutionary who refuses to perceive modern realities. I do not want you, as representatives of the younger generation, to think that you are attending a lecture by an aging maniac, that I should be placed in the Mining Museum next to the skeleton of an ancient bear.
But let’s take an objective look at the current situation in the energy industry and the problems that arise during the energy transition. They, at the very least, require debate, because science assumes versioning. But no debate is provided for. Almost from every refrigerator, we are told daily that the choice has been made, there is no alternative, the path is predetermined and we will have to take it. It scares me. At least those who try to think and ask questions haven’t been taken to a mental hospital yet. Although it may come to that soon. It's not a joke.
I recollect the Soviet Union because, at meetings on the fuel and energy complex of the future organized by our Western colleagues, I have the feeling that I am at meetings of the Party Committee in the 1980s. Back then, any alternative opinion on the topic of socialism was met with hostility. Now the same thing happens when it comes to the energy agenda.
Many of you in the hall do not know, but 40-45 years ago it was thought we would build communism in 2000. As you can see, the reality turned out to be. So we cannot rule out the possibility that the energy industry in 2050 will be quite different from what we see today.
How to overcome poverty if people are foisted on very expensive technology?
Last May, the World Energy Agency appealed to abandon investment in hydrocarbons. If we do not invest in them, then they will die, and their place will automatically be taken by environmentally friendly energy sources. By the way, we took this statement fairly calmly, while the reaction in Australia was quite aggravated, both at the level of state institutions and of the expert community.
Yes, we can say that this is also an extractive country and that they are defending their interests, nothing more. But let’s face it: it is impossible to implement a green project on a global scale and at the same time bring 2-3 billion people on Earth out of total poverty.
I am not even considering the technical part of the problem, the efficiency of wind turbines or electric cars, the difficulties associated with their operation in cold climates. Let us leave this aside. The most important thing is that the development of RESs is in obvious contradiction with the need to fight poverty, because their cost is very high, and the prospects for reducing prices are not obvious.
According to the IEA, about 900 million people living on Earth have no access to electricity at all, and more than 2.5 billion people cook on an open fire, that is, with firewood or other primary energy sources. On anything that burns in a fire. That’s a lot, which, by the way, gives a huge greenhouse effect, but for some reason no one talks about it or thinks about it.
If we assume that the energy transition is necessary and that it is a very costly story, then how are we going to fight global poverty? How are we going to reduce the percentage of the population that has no electricity at all? Does anyone seriously believe that these people are willing to become consumers of electricity that is generated in a climate-neutral, but very expensive way?
By the way, their number in the world is gradually decreasing. But this has nothing to do with the spread of green energy around the planet. It is localized mostly in industrialized countries, and people whose homes have only recently been lit are living in other regions of the world.
Who pays for the banquet?
It’s easy to be happy when someone has paid for you. But it begs the question: who? Let’s find out. But first, let’s answer the question: What is the reason for all this green hype? It is very simple. The EU needed a new Keynesian project, in other words, an idea that would allow the government to invest public money and stimulate demand.
The choice fell on renewable energy. There are no fundamental innovations or technological breakthroughs there. But such impressive investments have been and continue to be pumped into it that it made it possible to create an entire industry, the economic justification for the existence of which remains highly questionable. In its essence, it reminds of a classical stock bubble, when enormous funds are invested in a certain trendy but not very promising direction.
The consequence has been the rapid growth of so-called “sustainable debt,” although the terms “debt” and “sustainability” probably do not go well together. In the first quarter of this year alone, more than $300 billion worth of green bonds were issued around the world, and the total is approaching $3 trillion.
It is largely because of this that the debt of the eurozone has already exceeded 100% of annual GDP. And when the girl Greta speaks from the rostrum of the UN and says that the producers of oil and gas have stolen her future, one cannot help asking: is that exactly true? Maybe those are the ones who invest huge sums of money in rather dubious from the economic point of view projects?
However, the Europeans are already beginning to think of an answer to a very important question: who will pay for all this? They propose, for example, those companies and countries that supply goods to the EU with a high carbon footprint to “make additional payments.” It is clear that Russia will be among them, and will be charged for this project.
This raises the question: is this, in fact, a story about the climate or money? Or about the distribution of this money from the pockets of hydrocarbon producers to the pockets of their consumers? However, Europeans, too, will have to pay the price. After all, today, the highest cost of electricity for households and businesses is in those countries that have achieved the greatest success in the introduction of alternative energy sources - the Federal Republic of Germany and Denmark.
Hydrogen: is it a new hope?
Russia has already written a strategy for the development of hydrogen energy, and it turns out that by 2050 our country will earn more than $100 billion from exports of the lightest element in nature. This is surprising to me, because today there is simply no hydrogen market in the world, and no one has any idea whether it will appear in the future.
No one knows how to transport H2, since existing pipelines are not suitable for it; how compressor stations will behave when pumping a gas that is more explosive than methane. Mining University is deeply involved in scientific research in this field, their results were recently discussed in detail at the Russian-German Mineral Resources Forum, but so far no optimal solution has been found.
There are a lot of technical and economic questions to which no one can give a definite answer. But at the same time, they tell us: we will have hydrogen. Are you sure about this? By the way, let’s remember, why did this topic arise in the first place? Because it is still unclear how to store the electricity produced by renewables. In other words, having not created accessible technologies for storing green electricity on an industrial scale, we turned back to hydrogen, a very old technology. Probably, Russian officials were so positive about the idea of its reanimation because they expect to dig through dusty archives and find some secrets there.
It must be remembered that there have been a lot of innovations created around the world that have not taken off. To be sure of this, it is enough to ask the question: “Has the speed of civilian airplanes changed over the past 40 years?” Both the USSR, the U.S., and Europe worked on supersonic airliners designed to carry passengers back in the 1970s, built their prototypes. But today they do not fly, the French were the last to give up working in this direction.
Progress is uneven and cannot be guaranteed in all directions. This should be understood when we talk about the future of energy and, especially, the role of hydrogen.
What really is outside the window?
Today, the share of the hydrocarbon triad - gas, oil, and coal - in the European Union’s fuel and energy complex is 75%. We are told, don’t look at these figures, in 10 years renewable energy sources will produce so much electricity that you will gasp. Yes, maybe the EU’s energy transition rates will indeed turn out to be quite high. But what about other countries? China, India? It is unlikely that they will be able to develop renewable energy at the same pace.
No one disputes the fact that a traditional coal-fired power plant is a very dirty production. There is no doubt that it is. But in today’s world, technologies that can capture carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide emissions are available, thus making the environmental impact of thermal power plants much less significant. The paradox is that they are being shut down. Both in Germany and the Netherlands. At the same time, in the first quarter of 2021, Germany increased electricity output from lignite (a type of fossilized lignite) by 20 percent. Is this a step in the direction of green energy?
There are objective factors - the growth of the world’s population, the need to ensure economic sustainability, industrial safety. At the same time, there are much more serious environmental challenges than the urgent need to switch to hydrogen, wind turbines, or solar panels. For example, improving the quality of fuel, increasing the amount of trash recycling and land reclamation, and introducing technologies to capture CO2 emissions and other harmful substances.
When we are offered to spend trillions of dollars on the development of green energy, without any calculations, simply because this is what they do in Denmark or Germany, to become green and not to think about profit, even for a good cause, think hard: what can it lead to? I don’t think anyone would seriously want to live not-enough-to-eat for the sake of intensifying the eco-transition.