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Pete Rowley

How will the geosciences contribute to achieving a sustainable energy supply in the 21st Century and beyond?

Throughout human history energy supply has been a defining factor in the level of development a society has been able to achieve. Wood and grasses provided the first fuels – the control of fire possibly being one of the first steps onto the ladder of society, enabling the smelting of bronze and iron, the preparation of food, and the creation of pottery. Without the advent of charcoal and subsequently coke, the production of good quality steel would never have been a possibility; without the move to coal, the energy demands of a full industrial revolution could never have been met; and without oil and natural gas the development of the combustion engine, plastics, domestic piped fuel supplies and the trappings of a 20th century lifestyle could never have been possible.

Our reliance on fuels such as coal, gas and petroleum has become all-encompassing; the idea of a house with no access to mains electricity and central heating in the Western world is associated only with the most remote of locations – energy is considered a right rather than a luxury. The space shuttle imagery of Earth at night, showing the vast night-time areas illuminated by tens of millions of pinprick lights is a powerful reminder of precisely how much we have come to embrace energy-on-demand. However, in recent decades the discovery that we might be running out of these resources has prompted governments and populations to pay serious consideration as to where energy can come from next. With the depletion of oil and gas fields, where is the next phase in human development going to take us, how is it going to be powered, and more selfishly - what are we going to do with all the geoscientists?

It is initially quite straight forward to come to the conclusion that the depletion of our oil and gas deposits will in turn lead to a collapse in geosciences employment. The oil and gas industry invest tens of millions of pounds into the geosciences each year, and without this there could conceivably be some crisis in funding for geology and earth science departments in universities and research institutes around the world. As the energy companies diversify out in to other areas, will these new areas require the input of geoscientists? More fundamentally, how will institutions which currently rely on income from corporate sponsorship and funding fare - do they have the expertise to diversify themselves? There is no good reason to keep an institution running if it cannot provide a useful output, and if the geosciences do not evolve along with the companies that they feed into, then their future is in doubt. On the flip side of this argument is the fact that large portions of the geosciences community are not involved in the oil and gas industry in the first place, and those that are have transferrable skills which may be utilised elsewhere. Geosciences are a diverse field, and the interdisciplinary nature of the subject is conducive to surviving change. As our approach to powering our homes, transport and industry evolves, so will the demands on and training of geologists.

Sustainable energy has become a massively politicised phrase in recent years; there is national and international legislation and policy about it, there are NGOs that campaign about it, there are charities that fund research into it, and tens of thousands of newspaper column inches that are devoted to it every year. The realisation that oil and gas are not an endless resource is one with enormous consequences, but one which many people still have a lot of difficulty coming to grips with; they have become such integral parts of our society that the idea of being without them is alien. Never the less, global production is due to peak in the next 5 years (Campbell, 2003), and as demand continues to increase the ever shortening supply, unless alternatives are found, will have critical consequences on global and national scale economies. With our growing global population it is easy enough to envisage demand for energy increasing, but it is important to remember that this is not such a cut-and-dried case. Go back to shuttle image of earth with the night-sky illuminated. Now look at what is not illuminated. Entire continents and regions appear – or perhaps more correctly – do not appear; India, Africa, China, South America. Not only do these countries and regions not yet have access to energy supplies that we in the developed world have considered commonplace for a hundred years, but they are now in the early stages of industrialising. Even more concerning, they have by far the fastest growing populations on the planet. To say that energy demand is going to increase in the next century is to woefully understate the case.

Were it simply that oil and gas are being depleted the situation may not be so grave. However, the burning of fossil fuels, and the associated release of carbon dioxide has been identified as a major contributor towards global changes in atmospheric chemistry, and the subsequent ‘greenhouse’ effect; the trapping of solar radiation and associated warming of the planet. Measurements of CO2 levels at Mauna Loa observatory, Hawaii, have demonstrated that since the 1960’s concentrations have risen from 320ppm to 380ppm. Only when looking at data for the last 1000 years, however, does the true story emerge. Northern hemisphere CO2 levels were static at 280ppm for the first 800 years of the last millennium (IPCC, 2001); only once industrial development, and the large-scale burning of coal and other fossil fuels started did CO2 levels begin to rise. As the potential consequences of global warming became clear (for example polar melting, associated sea level rise, desertification) so resistance to the burning of fossil fuels has grown. Alternatives are now being sought, but what are they, and how do we approach them?

Guided by policies and agreements such as the Kyoto Protocol and EU Renewables Directive, as well as meetings such as the Earth Summit, different countries are finding different solutions to the issue, and are having varied levels of success in doing so. France, for example, has long been a proponent of nuclear power generation, the Netherlands have made considerable strides in solar power, and Austria and Belgium are working towards the development of biomass-generated power as a major contributor to their economy (Reiche & Bechberger, 2004).

The current UK government policy is expecting offshore wind farms to become a significant contributor in the next 15 years, with subsequent development in tidal energy options (DTI, 2003).China – now the number one gross producer of global CO2 emissions (BP, 2007) is a concern for many environmentalist, largely due to its rapid industrialisation, and vast reserves of coal. However, China appears to be taking its responsibilities in this regard seriously, and has imposed a number of energy taxation schemes, as well as use of funds and subsidies to reward clean industry practices. The USA still maintains its position as number one per capita CO2 producer by quite some margin, and appears to be having the least success in curbing its use of fossil fuels. Government reluctance to raise fuel duty, and a governmental apathy towards the climate change issue has left the USA some way behind other nations in their moves to approach alternative energy supplies. While some states have shown good progress with both wind and solar energy installation, nationally the renewable energy provision is negligible (EEA, 2001).

So in a world where solar, wind, tidal, wave, hydroelectric, geothermal and nuclear power appear to be future growth industries, where do geoscientists fit in? Clearly at present the majority of geoscientists in the energy industry work directly or indirectly for oil and gas companies, whether it be in prospecting of new sites or management of current ones. While we are unlikely to ever run out of oil or gas entirely, production is going to reduce significantly in the next 20 years. As fields run low they become less economic to keep open, but then, as oil and gas prices rise, the economies rebalance and it may become fiscally viable to re-open these fields. For this reason, there will always be some work for geologists in maintaining the (admittedly shrinking) production fields.

As far as prospecting goes, again there is likely to be some level of work maintained. Oil and gas prices will inevitably rise, and potential sites previously considered unviable or too difficult to access will become viable targets economically. However, it must be acknowledged that the growth period in the oil and gas industry is over, and the number of geologists employed in this field carrying out this same work is going to decrease. Traditional oil and gas companies cannot afford simply to go bust with the industry, however, so are already making moves in many cases to get into renewable research and provision. If the companies themselves are maintaining profitability, then, is there space for geologists in these same companies?

To answer this you must look at what renewable energy sources require, and whether there is a niche that geoscientists can either fit in to or carve for themselves. For two centuries the geologists’ role in the energy industry has essentially been locating fuel to burn. It is clear that this is no longer a feasible approach, both economically and environmentally, and geologists need to reconsider their role in the evolving energy landscape. – no longer in terms of providing the energy industry with its fuels, but in terms of taking advantage of the markets that the new industry will create. It might appear that geologists have little place in the solar, wave, tidal and wind power industries; indeed, the traditional well-logging and seismic interpretation work is very far from what these industries require. That is not to say, however, that geosciences as a whole do not have a lot to offer. Offshore tidal and wind farms may not initially seem prime fields for geologists, but there are few groups of scientists with anything approaching their experience in working offshore on large-scale structures, such as those which will be necessary to support much of the offshore energy generation schemes proposed to date. Equally, mineral prospecting geologists will always be in demand; as resource prices increase, deeper and deeper deposits become economical, and massive growth in the high tech industries will require increasing amounts of rare elements used in the various charged-couple-devices, transistors, circuit boards and displays which we have come to rely on. The energy industry itself will drive a demand for such prospecting: Fuel driven cars are still prevalent – in fact there is little point switching to electric cars at present, as you are merely displacing the fuel consumption from the engine to the power station which generates the electricity for the car. However, as clean renewable electricity becomes more common electric powered transport becomes a far more environmentally sound proposition. As demand for electric vehicles increases, so does the demand on the materials used to construct them.

The Ian M. Banks vision of mineral prospecting on other planets and moons is a pipe dream, at least for geoscientists in the 21st Century, but there are resources still to be tapped here on Earth. The massive scale of the oceans, and the fact that they are largely unexplored grants a great deal of potential for future work in providing the raw materials for next-generation batteries, circuits and components. Almost two-thirds of the naturally occurring elements are now extracted offshore in at least some way and scale (UNESCO, 1998). Deposits come in many and varied forms; sedimentary structures can have detrital and placer concentrations, whilst chemical precipitation can lead to manganese nodules and crusts for example. Hydrothermal mineralization (the original source of many now-terrestrial massive sulphide deposits) may become a significant target for prospecting geologists in the future, due to their high concentrations of metals such as gold and platinum – vital in many hi-tech electrical components. As terrestrial deposits become depleted, offshore extraction will become an increasingly attractive proposition, and the potential for growth in this sector is significant. However, there are a number of obstacles to growth which will first have to be addressed. Not least of these is ownership; whilst the Law of the Sea (United Nations, 1982) parcels up much of the continental shelf, and defines Exclusive Economic Zones for coastal nations, it does not currently hold provision for abyssal plain deposits outside of 200km offshore. Alongside this there are the mechanical problems of working in deep water. High pressures and poor visibility render deep-sea exploration expensive and time consuming. While sea floor seismic studies are a well-developed art, interpreting the nature of sediments is difficult, as boreholes are a very expensive prospect at sea. Whilst the Deep Sea Drilling Program and the subsequent Ocean Drilling Program have been collecting core data for over 40 years, the drill legs are concentrated around continental shelf areas, and the sample rate, when compared to the size of the oceans they are intended to represent is miniscule. The ODP has carried out 312 drilling legs to date (Ocean Drilling Data), in an attempt to sample something around 360 million square kilometers of ocean.

In terms of ocean based energy production, it is important to note that very little progress has been made in commercializing wave or tidal sources. One large obstacle is that they are only productive while the tide is in significant flux, which is for approximately 10 hours a day in most locations. This makes them unsuitable as a main stream power source, unless technology provides a large scale battery solution in the coming decades, or an even more unlikely global power network so that production and load can be averaged out. Realistically, although a number of plans have been developed particularly in the UK, the time-dependant nature of the generation, as well as its unpredictable effects on currents and ecosystems have rendered tidal generators unlikely as mainstream energy sources, at least in the short to medium term.

Geothermal energy has obvious openings for geologists, and initially seems like a promising source of energy. Countries which have significant sized geothermal plants boast incredibly cheap electricity and heating. A perfect example of this is Iceland, where the abundance of geothermally generated electricity (alongside significant investment in hydroelectric generation) has lead to a massive growth in the electrolysis industries – particularly aluminum extraction.

Use of electricity is the only economical method of separating aluminium from its bauxite ore; aluminum is highly reactive and oxidizes rapidly to form a stable aluminum oxide Al2O3. The process involves melting the bauxite with cryolite (an aluminium-sodium fluoride used to lower the melting temperature of the mixture), and then passing through electricity to separate the oxygen and aluminium ions. The process requires very large amounts of energy (in the region of 14KWh of electricity per kilogram of aluminium), which means it is cheaper to ship the bauxite and aluminium to and from Iceland to make use of the cheap electricity, than it is to site an electrolysis plant nearer the extraction or market locations. It must be appreciated that geothermal electricity is not a viable power generation method for the majority of nations; geothermal gradients in most areas are too shallow to make it a viable proposition. Only where relatively shallow boreholes grant temperature increases up to the boiling point of water is it an economical prospect; normal cratonic geothermal gradients of around 20˚C/km are simply not sufficient to make geothermal electricity generation viable. Interestingly, the spatially restrictive nature of geothermal energy, and its very low cost and environmental impact have significant implications for nations who do have access to it. Significantly, Iceland is moving into the direct and indirect export of electricity (Icelandic Ministry of Industry), through production of clean fuels such as hydrogen (made through electrolysis of seawater) and electricity supply through submarine cables to mainland Europe.

Hydroelectric power is an important asset to the renewable energy portfolio; large hydroelectric projects accounted for over 58% of the global renewable production in 2005 (REN21, 2006). With over 10% of Icelands energy output (Icelandic Ministry of Industry), and projects such as the Three Gorges Dam in China, hydroelectricity is proving itself to be capable of providing large amounts of power with less variability in output than is intrinsic with systems such as solar and wind generation. Of course, large scale schemes such as this can have significant implications – there was controversy over the Three Gorges project, for example, as it required the flooding of 600km of the Yangtze, displacing over one million people (Human Rights Watch, 1995). Projects of this scale will always provide work for geologists; Dam walls are a major feat of engineering, and an understanding of the geology in the area and under the foundations is vital to its successful construction.

Many governments are making the move to using biomass as a fuel source – perhaps the most similar solution to what we already have with fossil fuel powered generators. By using crop materials, or even waste and refuse as a fuel, it is possible to sustain energy production without reliance on non-renewable fuels. Whilst this is certainly the simplest solution to moving away from coal oil and gas, it is also the least environmentally friendly; it still requires combustion, and with it the associated release of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Bio-fuels such as rape oil and ethanol from sugar cane produce a cycle of carbon out of and back into the atmosphere, but do little to effect any attempts to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the environment. Bio-fuels also do not require geosciences specialists, and are unlikely to help drive an increase in demand for mineral resources. Nevertheless, the relative cheapness of the system, coupled with its ability to deal with waste materials if necessary has meant a growth in the bio-fuels sector such that it made up over 20% of the 2005 world renewable energy production (REN21, 2006).

The ‘elephant in the room’ that many feel unsure about is of course nuclear power. While a minority of countries have embraced it as a clean and cheap fuel, Chernobyl is still fresh in many peoples’ minds, and the discomfort people feel at the idea is magnified many times when the idea of having a nuclear power plant in their local area is raised. The recent earthquake in Kashiwazaki, Japan served only to compound this concern, and created an international news story. A transformer caught fire, and a series of barrels toppled over, leaking 1200 liters of radioactive coolant into the Sea of Japan. The reactors themselves were automatically shut down as soon as the quake was detected, however damage included oil and water leaks in buildings housing all 7 reactors, malfunctioning of water intake pumps at two reactors, as well as loss of power at the liquid waste disposal control centre (Mariotte, 2007). People only need to hear the words ‘accident’ and ‘nuclear’ in the same sentence and panic will spread. It is important to consider though, that many of the renewable energy approaches being used by governments are generally on a moderate scale, and often with unproven technology. Nuclear is in many ways the only true challenger to fossil fuels in terms of cost and feasibility; we already have the proven technology, materials and expertise. Despite this, many governments are reluctant to consider it. The UK governments own recent Renewables Innovation Review recognised that “Technologies other than wind will be required to meet the 2050 carbon emissions reduction aspiration.” (DTI, 2004)

However, the only alternatives they considered were tidal, wave, biomass and solar energy. Hans Blix, the retired Director-General of the International Atomic Energy Agency provided a strong defense of nuclear energy at the World Nuclear Association Annual Symposium (2001):
“No one denies the importance of energy saving, and solar and wind power and commercial biomass have their niches in which they make welcome contributions. However, the energy of wind and sunshine is very dispersed. To harvest it on a large scale, large installations are required. It has been calculated that to achieve the capacity of a large power plant - say a 1000 MW(e) nuclear or coal plant - by using solar cells, an area of more than 20km2 would have to be covered by such cells. If you were to rely on windmills, you would need wind farms covering more than 50km2. Let me also recall that the energy contents of
  • 1 kg of firewood corresponds to about 1 kWh of electricity
  • 1 kg of coal and oil correspond to respectively 3 and 4 kWh of electricity,
  • while
  • 1 kg of natural uranium corresponds to about 50,000 kWh of electricity and
  • 1 kg of plutonium corresponds to about 6,000,000 kWh of electricity.”
If nuclear energy were to undergo an improvement in public acceptance, and found its way into mainstream policy for renewable energy production, there would be significant implications for certain sections of the geoscientific community. The demand for fissile materials, as well as the subsequent requirement for safe storage locations for radioactive waste material would generate growth in those sectors of prospecting and geological engineering. As well as all of this, new approaches to nuclear generation are being looked at; The Estonian Maritime Academy has developed a project to build an underwater 1000MWt nuclear facility (Reilly, 2007), whilst Russian authorities are expected to start work this year on a floating nuclear plant, planned to be in operation by 2010 (BBC, 2006). Building and siting offshore plants like this is yet another example of where present-day expertise can be utilized – at least in the initial phases of construction.

Ultimately, regardless of what energy sources we consider now, and how geoscientists might fit into the industries on the operational side of things, perhaps the single most important aspect of geoscientists is that they have a sound grasp on the environmental issues which are driving much of the renewable energy revolution. Geosciences are inextricably linked to not only the use of fossil fuels, but also the observation and diagnosis of the effects of their use, and ultimately in the mitigation and remediation of their effects. Regardless of whether geoscientists are employed by companies to help anchor the next offshore wind platform, there will always be a geoscientist somewhere looking at what the effects of that wind farm might be, and another helping model the efficiency of its successor or competitor. Geoscience is ultimately about the study of the Earth, and that generates an interest, respect and understanding in our environment that places geoscientists right at the very forefront of this upcoming age of environmental change and technological development. Whilst the stock-in-trade of geoscientists to date has often been the coal, oil and gas which humanity has used in ever-increasing quantities, one of the geoscientists’ great assets is in understanding what an insignificant fragment of history that period of time will ultimately represent.


Reviewing the potential for an entire field of science over the next century, when based on assumptions of rapidly developing technology in a political climate which is still unsure of its direction in the coming few years, let alone decades, is a challenging, and probably futile thing to attempt. In the same way that 100 years ago no-one could have predicted the present day reliance on fossil fuels, or the ubiquity of electricity in the Western world, any predictions we make today are only as reliable as the assumptions and understanding they are based on. To assume that we understand now everything which might influence the development of both geosciences and renewable energy policy in the next century is clearly foolhardy, but it at least allows a degree of contemplation and consideration of the coming years. Whatever level of accuracy or inaccuracy the predictions made here may have, it is at least true to say that the traditional work of an oil and gas based geoscientist is going to begin to disappear. With it, perhaps the conventional definition of what a geoscientist is (at least within the energy sector) will also change. No branch of science is as all encompassing and multidisciplinary as geology; geologists find themselves dealing in physics, chemistry, and biology every day; even areas such as sociology and cosmology can find themselves within the remit of geology. With the industrialisation of what we have previously named the Third World, and the undoubted future exploitation of marine mineral and energy resources, what we understand of about the worlds economy, industry and science now will likely be irrelevant within a short few decades. For geoscientists to maintain a key role in the 21st Century they will have to evolve, but since the days of Hutton and Lyell we have known that things don’t stay the same for long. If any field of science is able to cope with significant changes and evolution of a system, then the geosciences must be a favourite; the present is the key to the past, just as it is the path to the future.

Pete Rowley

Works Cited

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