Climate Action’s July 16 webinar announcement caught my attention and generated some surprised commentary among people who discuss energy and climate on Twitter. The headline for the event wasn’t all that special. “Rising to the Net-Zero Challenge.” Neither was the subtitle. “As we emerge from lockdown following the global health crisis, can leaders from across all sectors rise to the challenge of greening the recovery?”
The panel participation and corporate sponsorship generated most of the discussion. Appearing on the panel were Sinead Lynch, UK country chair for Shell, Shaun Spiers, Executive Director of Green Alliance and John Sauven, Executive Director of Greenpeace. Nik Gowing, Founder and Co-Director, Thinking the Unthinkable served as the panel moderator.
Shell sponsored the event and received the right to decorate the associated media materials with its familiar corporate logo.
Several people wondered why Greenpeace had agreed to share a stage with an executive from one of the world’s oldest and largest multinational petroleum companies. Others wondered why a Shell executive was willing to be grilled about her company’s business plans and growth prospects in the context of a net-zero [CO2 emissions] target.
I suggested what some believe is unthinkable. I wondered if Greenpeace and Shell would finally acknowledge that clean atomic fission has a key role to play in what almost everyone agrees is the important and difficult task of decarbonizing our global economy.
No mention of nuclear during Climate Action’s webinar
Sadly, those who dismissed my suggestion with comments like “it will never happen” turned out to be correct. During the 90 minute event, none of the participants broached the topic of nuclear energy.
There were several occasions during the event that offered the opportunity to discuss atomic fission as a reliable heat source useful for both industrial processes and electric power generation. Both of those commodities are in high demand now and both are major sources of greenhouse gas emissions that need to be eliminated.
All panelists, including Sinead Lynch, supported the premise of the webinar – they agreed about the importance of expeditiously moving to a net-zero economy. Ms. Lynch even surprised her other panelists by stating that Shell was in favor of moving the expiration date of the internal combustion engine for personal automobiles from 2035 to 2030.
She indicated that her company is planning and investing in a substantial expansion of its vehicle charging network at its retail locations and at parking sites. It also has investments and partnerships in hydrogen production infrastructure, especially in Germany were the consortium to which they belong has built about 90 installations. She reminded the audience that “Shell has been investing in hydrogen for decades.”
She also said that Shell could not move significantly faster than its customers. Businesses cannot survive by suppling products for which there is an insufficient demand.
Because you can provide supply, but if you don’t have demand, if you don’t have the vehicles, if you don’t have incentives for customers to use the product then you don’t have a business case.Sinead Lynch “Rising to the Net Zero Challenge” (33:35)
Shell supports policy initiatives that will help motivate consumers to purchase electric or hydrogen-fueled vehicles. Shell also understands the importance of decarbonizing the electricity supply used to charge EVs or to produce H2.
We believe we should accelerate the decarbonization of the energy system where we have the technologies ready to deploy. You can see that now very clearly in the power sector in terms of we can bring on renewables. We have some work to do on a smart, flexible system to manage the intermittency.Sinead Lynch “Rising to the Net Zero Challenge” (40:09)
Despite the fact that nuclear power stations are proven workhorses that reliably produce carbon-free power with no intermittency, no one mentioned it. It did not appear as one of the multiple choices for a rapid response poll conducted during the event, even though the poll question offered a perfect opportunity to broach the subject.
The poll asked, “In terms of achieving net zero, in which area would Energy company action make most impact.” The four possible answers were:
Invest in UK CCUS projects (8%)
Invest more in renewables (37%
Invest to accelerate e-mobility (6%)
Stop producing oil & gas (48%)
It didn’t offer “Invest more in nuclear” or allow write in answers.
During the event, I used the available Q&A feature and hash tagged tweets to ask questions about nuclear energy. They were not selected by the moderator.
Learning more about Shell’s position on nuclear
Following the event, I made contact with Shell’s media relations and spoke to a cheerful and helpful spokesperson. She indicated that she had seen my questions during the event. She told me that her team had dealt with the topic in the past. She asked me to send an email so that she could reply with their prepared response.
Here is the email I sent.
We spoke a moment ago about Sinead Lynch’s participation on the Rising to Net Zero Challenge webinar.
Shell once invested in a nuclear reactor vendor called Gulf General Atomics. For about a decade, Shell was a 50% owner in a reactor vendor. In addition to that investment, Shell had a division in the US called Scallop, which was involved in uranium mining and exploration.
There is no doubt that uranium fission is a well proven source of heat that is capable of directly replacing combustion heat sources in both electrical power generation and industrial heat application. Emission-free industrial heat would be a particularly useful input for energy intensive processes like refining oil.
Ms. Lynch described how Shell was supporting efforts to eliminate customer demand for internal combustion engines for personal automobiles by improving access to capable charging stations and by ensuring that the electricity supply was appropriately green. She mentioned how difficult it was going to be to produce sufficient quantities of “green hydrogen” because of a lack of a sufficient quantity of green electrons.
Is Shell considering a return to investing in nuclear energy? Or is it considering becoming a long term customer for some of the exciting new nuclear technologies being deployed in the UK already? Is Shell aware of the current efforts to use nuclear electricity to produce green hydrogen?
Shell has meany core competencies that would help ensure success if it decided to return to a field where it was once a leader. Nuclear projects demand skilled project management, attention to detail, a focus on worker training, skilled marketing, and high quality standards. They also benefit from capable capital partners and credible customers that understand the value of long range planning and steady execution.
Please send me whatever information you can about Shell’s interest in using this capable, but undervalued tool for achieving net-zero – or even net negative – emissions.
Thank you for your time and attention.Email from Rod Adams,
Publisher, Atomic Insights
Host and producer, the Atomic Show podcast to Shell media relations
The Shell spokesperson promptly replied to my email with the following:
Thank you for your call just now and for listening in yesterday.
Please find our line here:
In the energy transition it’s not either/or. Different sources of energy will be needed to meet global energy demand. Shell produces energy from a wide range of sources but not all.
Nuclear is one example. It doesn’t feature in Shell’s portfolio but the Shell Sky Scenario report shows that the share of nuclear in the global electricity mix could remain steady at around 10% to 2070.
For your information, please find our Sky Scenario here: https://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/the-energy-future/scenarios/shell-scenario-sky.htmlEmail from Shell UK to Rod Adams
Shell’s acceptance that nuclear’s share of global electricity “could remain steady at around 10% to 2070” is an example of what Navy promotion selection boards might call “damning with faint praise”.
I took the spokesperson’s advice and visited Shell’s Sky Scenario pages to learn more about scenario creation and its role in the company’s planning and investment practices.
Here is one of several videos about the scenario development process.
Shell’s Sky Scenarios are not predictions of the future. The company describes them as stories about possible future pathways, but it also states that their stories are a way to help their colleagues understand what the future might hold and to adjust their behaviors accordingly.
An energy company that seriously proclaims its intention to rise to a net-zero challenge and that understands the scale of development needed to achieve aggressive targets should seriously consider all available tools.
Shell executives like Sinead Lynch must take action to enable their scenario developers to consider the benefits of increasing nuclear energy use. They should apply what they know about the importance of customer demand. They could become leaders among energy intensive industries and suggest that clean electricity is a better goal than “100% renewable.”
They might even become early adopters in fission-powered heating systems that enable dramatic emissions reductions at their heat-consuming refineries.
I hope other writers, reporters and journalists join me in continuing to ask energy companies about their investments in nuclear energy every time they take the stage to proclaim their support for decarbonization.
It might be too optimistic to believe that ideological groups like Greenpeace will grasp that decarbonization numbers don’t work without nuclear, but energy companies like Shell employ armies of numerate engineers and scientists who probably already know the truth.
They need to be enabled to freely think and speak about what their calculators, spreadsheets and understanding of physical systems are telling them.