The coming methane age – will it ever end?

An offhand remark on my last post made me think a little more about how significant methane (lets really do away with Natural Gas and use the correct word instead) will become over the next decades and what will end the show – and when.

The Methane age has started. It really has. How do I know? Well, there is wholesale conversion to it in the transport sector which in today’s economy it is unthinkable to be without.

Methane in its various forms has been around for ages and man has used it for about that time. Swamp gas was known to have been captured by our early ancestors in animal skins in order to provide warmth and light.

But this shall not be a history lesson – we will look a bit in the other direction of the timeline. Let’s just accept for the sake of this post (be nice to me) that the Methane age has hit us by now.

Can you see the other side?

Can you see the other side?

The real question is (and I get that remark pretty frequently) if LNG – or Natural Gas for that matter – is a bridge technology or really more some kind of paradigm change.

Let’s look at the last paradigm change in energy. It was the shift from coal to oil. Has coal disappeared? No way. But it has gotten squeezed into its corner – process heat and electricity production. No steel horses anymore dragging large black plumes of toxic smoke behind them. This part was taken over by oil and this alone has enabled the individualism in transport that we all enjoy so much today.

Just imagine today’s economy chugging on steam engines. Would it work? Well, one could at least imagine. But up until today we would have had to develop filter technologies of unimaginable proportions in order to deal with the exhaust. Besides, even if it is sane to believe that today’s steam engines would be a lot smaller and slicker than the monsters from more than 100 years ago, I still doubt that a Mini could be powered by it. But engineers will probably prove me wrong here.

Oil pushed mankind onto another level. Environmental protection was not yet an issue when it hit us big time but just imagine how filthy our planet would have become if we would have realized all that mobility with coal (again presuming that it would be technically feasible at all). I would presume that steam engineers probably had staged a fierce battle against the new internal combustion engine guys and derided it as utter folly. That must have gone on for decades (my grandpa would be able to tell me but he is not with us anymore).

In today’s economy, oil is the big boy on the dance floor and Middle Distillates are the backbone of the world’s well-being. Diesel powers all heavy onshore transport, Kerosene reigns supreme in the air and Heavy Oils make sure the marine monsters do their thing. But it all has a snag. At the volumes we burn the black stuff up every day, our planet quickly becomes a living hell. Oil products are comparatively cleaner than coal but it’s still very dirty stuff.

This all mattered less when consumption was much lower. But at today’s levels, oil and its byproducts become unsustainable. The search for the alternative is on for decades now and its striking that with all the nice ideas that have come up with, methane was almost completely overlooked. Mostly because people perceived it as the little brother of oil.

It’s an oil product – they said – and so it pollutes too. We should go for something really clean – they said – something that does not pollute at all. That gave rise to what we call today the various green movements and to renewable energy as we know it. The problem – they all work but they firstly require us to change our way of life (which we don’t want) and secondly cost an arm and a leg (and our sanity).

Time for something else then. And Methane is just here when we need it. Methane, as we know quite well, has been around since the dawn of time. But it always had a niche role. Heating and power production. Vehicles are being fuelled with LNG for almost 30 years now and with Methane even longer but especially the LNG applications have remained on the very exotic side.

This is different now as LNG and its gaseous form Methane starts to become a mainstream fuel for – well – everything. And here it is – the paradigm change. Methane invades every aspect of our daily lives – where is the end? As this happens the more daring among us begin to imagine a world without Middle Distillates. And without Heavy Fuels, and without coal, and, and, and …

Methanisation of the planet sure will yield peculiar results at every turn and twist. And it sure will not do away with Diesel, gasoline and all the other stuff that gives us thermodynamics and movement. But it will eat into the market shares of all of them reducing them to the niche fuels while Methane itself takes center stage.

You ain't seen nothin yet ...

You ain’t seen nothing yet …

What are the drivers? Methane is much, much, much cleaner to burn than any other mainstream primary thermal energy source. Yaaaawn. I think that has not been news for you. OK, just did not want to omit it because no matter how many times we hear it, it’s the most significant advantage it has over all others.

Just imagine all that filtering technology used to prevent the toxic, cancer-causing byproducts of diesel combustion to reach our organisms. That means we produce stuff that kills us in the first place just in order to apply shitloads of technology to filter it and finally dispose of it so it does eventually not kill us. Ain’t that nuts?

The same applies even more to coal and heavy oils. And still to lesser degrees to gasoline the other light distillates. Not at all producing the filth in the first place would make a lot more sense, wouldn’t it?

But wait a minute. With all this green talk we forget the one argument that will make the biggest impact. It’s cheap. Yeahhh. Finally, something that is clean and cheap at the same time. Those in green energy for a little while did not think this possible anymore but well, here we go. Price is the single biggest driver for the wholesale Methanisation of North America.

OK, Methane is a primary energy form that can replace oil in any potential application except maybe greasing of door hinges or engine parts. It’s so clean we can burn it in a closed room and it’s not going to force us to take another mortgage on the house in order to fill the tank. The technology is also ready for mass deployment and it’s very, very safe to use. And finally, the biogenic and biologically produced offshoot is even almost emissions-free – and renewable.

Have we found the Holy Grail? Nope. It sure does not prevent unwanted pregnancy and will not cure cancer. But it’s just going to define the way energy is produced, conditioned and consumed for a really long time. And I think of something like the next half a century or so.

Is it then a bridging solution? In a sense, everything is a sort of bridge as it always just spans the period of time for the next thing to take over. The Roman empire – in its almost 500 years of history – was nothing but a bridge from the Greeks to the Mid-Ages. Horses were just a bridge from walking to motorized transport. Paper was just a bridge to the tablet computer.

You see the point? Some bridges can seem never-ending. I call a bridging solution something where I clearly see what the end result shall be. Not some flimsy idea but a clear path towards a better future with an implementation plan. If that is not given, all talk of a bridge is nonsense.

Methane is not a bridge solution. It is going to be the dominant energy source for a really long time until other technologies have become much more efficient and much cheaper to use and implement.

Methane works without any subsidies. Can any other alternative renewable technology boast such a claim?

When will it end then? Never, just like the oil age does not really end. Something better comes and slowly but inexorably pushes it to a niche existence where it will linger for really long. Methane will sure share the same fate one day. No reason to hold your breath for it. My children will live in a world of methane, not in a world of oil I have grown up in. It has just begun.

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