Saturday, September 16, 2017

Shell Executive Describes Inevitable Transition to Carbon-Free Energy

Harry Brekelmans, the projects and technology director for Royal Dutch Shell, one of the world’s leading oil and gas companies and a founding member of the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), on Wednesday met with groups of MIT students and faculty members about their work before taking part in a public discussion about energy issues with MITEI co-founder and director Robert Armstrong.

Harry Brekelmans, right, the projects and technology director for Royal Dutch Shell, speaks with MITEI co-founder and director Robert Armstrong. (Photo Credit: Kelley Travers) Click to Enlarge.
In the discussion, titled, “If you had a billion dollars for energy-related R&D, where would you spend it?,” Brekelmans addressed that lofty question and many others about the company’s, and the world’s, energy future.

“For some years already we’ve been aware of the energy transition,” Brekelmans said.  It’s accelerating, he said, and it’s clear that “it’s time to act, even more so than before.”  Already, Shell has made “significant investments in wind, in solar, in biofuels — not all of them successful,” demonstrating the need to be careful about how one invests that research money.  Because of the complexity of the world’s energy systems and demands, he said, “we have concluded that this will be a multidecade transition.”

Shell has long expressed its acceptance of the science of human-induced climate change and its determination to invest heavily in technologies to help enable a global transition to a world of drastically reduced greenhouse-gas emissions.  As part of that commitment, Shell continues to fund a variety of research projects at MIT and elsewhere related to renewable energy, energy storage, and ways of capturing and storing carbon emissions from fossil fuel.

In introducing the discussion Maria Zuber, MIT’s vice president for research, pointed out that Shell’s CEO Ben Van Beurden recently said that with the right mix of policy and innovation, he sees global demand for oil peaking in the early 2030s or sooner — and that his next car will be electric.
Brekelmans said that Shell’s approach to energy R&D is two-pronged, working in parallel on both near-term and long-term strategies.  For the near term, the emphasis is on finding technologies that already exist in other industries that can be adapted and scaled up to have a rapid impact on energy use.  The longer-term work deals with new findings in laboratories, that have great potential but that may require many years of work to determine if they can be scaled up to meet a significant portion of the world’s energy needs or to improve the performance of existing energy systems.

While the company’s investments in low-carbon energy technologies goes back many years, the mix of research projects they support has evolved over time, he said.  One change is that much more of the long-term research is now focused on energy storage systems.  These are seen as a key enabling technology to allow for increased usage of energy sources that are inherently variable, such as wind and solar power.  “It was not part of our portfolio 10 years ago,” he said, but is now a significant piece of it.

Another research area of increasing emphasis is capturing and storing carbon emissions from power plants to reduce their climate impact, he said.  But other approaches don’t necessarily have to be high-tech, he said.  “When we talk about offsets, we increasingly talk about simple things like reforestation,” he told students during his morning meetings.

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