The Future Fuel Mix in Temporary Power

June 6, 2021
While diesel is still widely used in power generation, all industries need to prepare for the energy transition.

By Carsten Reincke-Collon; Photos by Aggreko  

Fossil diesel is the number one fuel choice for industries globally. Its high energy density makes it the most viable fuel for transportation. It is widely available, including in remote areas, and is cost-competitive, meaning that it is relied upon in industries like construction and agriculture, while also being a widely used fuel for power generators across all sectors.

This presents a challenge for industries across the world which are coming under increasing pressure to decarbonize. All industries need to look at how they can take part in the energy transition, and for those currently incorporating diesel in their fuel mix, the focus should be on seeking alternatives that are cleaner, as well as cost effective, accessible, and reliable.

Replacing diesel will be a gradual transition

While eradicating fossil diesel from the energy system is no small feat, it is not unachievable. There are clean alternatives available today that can meet this new challenge, and many more in the pipeline. But change at scale does not happen overnight.

The fuel of today is certainly not going to be the fuel of tomorrow, but for most industries it is not feasible to swap out diesel straight away. Replacing equipment, changing operational processes and establishing a global supply chain takes time, planning and investment, and businesses need to strike a balance to make progress in decarbonizing operations while avoiding wasting money on alternative solutions that don’t work.

This balancing act is often where gaps can appear, and it’s in this scenario where temporary power is hugely valuable to business. Temporary power provides flexible energy solutions which can deployed at scale and add clean energy to the mix, helping businesses understand what can work for them in the long term.

The energy transition will continue to require industries, economies and societies to overhaul how they are powered. The transition won’t be straight forward, and temporary power will be there to bridge the gaps that emerge between innovations, providing reliable, clean, stop-gap solutions to assist the permanent transition.

Hybrid solutions unlock reliability

Owing to the scale of the existing energy infrastructure and reliance on fossil diesel, it is likely that thermal generation will remain the number-one power choice in industry for the next few years. However, there is room to move away from diesel and towards alternatives, most notably natural gas.

In energy-intensive industries in particular, Liquified Natural Gas is likely to play an increasingly important role. Not only is it fully compatible with existing natural gas engines, it can also be deployed to remote locations, where heavy industry is often situated, without the need for a physical pipeline. While it is not a renewable energy source and therefore not the ‘silver bullet’ solution we are all looking for, it can reduce carbon emissions by 15 to 20 percent, acting as a stopgap while other alternatives are in development.

In places where renewable power, like wind, solar and tidal, can be immediately deployed, then those sources should be prioritized over LNG. While clean and cost effective, these sources of power are intermittent in nature, which presents a reliability challenge for heavy industry.

To overcome that problem, industries are increasingly deploying hybrid solutions, which combine renewable energy sources with thermal generation and energy storage. This approach ensures reliability and reduces carbon emissions, compared to traditional thermal-only generation. At Aggreko, we’ve applied hybrid technology in the mining sector, reaching the most remote of locations. For example, in the Granny Smith gold mine in Australia, we combined solar power, energy storage and thermal generation. As one of the largest renewable energy microgrids in the world, the project has reduced the mine’s carbon emissions by approximately 9,500 Tco2E. 

Commercial availability will prompt wider adoption

In the medium to long term, alternatives such as biofuels will start playing a greater role in power generation. As infrastructure develops, the economies of new and alternative fuels will improve to the point at which they can achieve scale across industry and society.

For example, one fuel alternative that is likely to be adopted more widely is hydrotreated vegetable oil (HVO). Currently the most advanced fossil fuel alternative to modular power, it is produced by hydro-processing fatty acids from vegetable oils and cooking grease. All carbon is removed in the production process, resulting in a biofuel that emits 78 to 90 percent less carbon than diesel, has an established supply chain and is compatible with existing engines. While it is currently an expensive alternative, oil and major refineries are already converting capacity towards HVO, prompting further commercial availability in the years to come.

Within this decade, bio-methanol is another candidate that could emerge as a sustainable fuel alternative. Currently, it is produced by reforming natural gas to create a synthesis gas. However, it can be produced more sustainably when using bio-mass, and in the longer-term, green hydrogen, to create “green methanol.” Clean-burning, green methanol can cut greenhouse-gas emissions by around 200 percent compared with fossil fuels. At present, infrastructure limitations make bio-methanol not suited to long-term projects, but this is likely to change as storage facilities develop.

With demand increasing for each of these alternatives, virtual pipelines will be established to enable the effective transportation of these fuels to hard-to-reach locations.  

As the commercial case for these fuels builds, business can contribute to the momentum by implementing temporary power solutions that use them. In temporary power, these fuels will play an increasingly diverse and interesting role. With limited to no capex requirement, businesses will feel encouraged by shorter-term alternatives. Undeterred by limitations of heavy investment, they have room for choice, opting for the power alternatives that work for them, while reducing carbon emissions.

The fuels of the future

Research and development of new fuels is opening up exciting possibilities. Alternative fuels including hydrogen and synthetic e-fuels are being explored, and it won’t be long before battery storage becomes widely adopted to optimize hybrid solutions.  

Of these fuels of the future, green hydrogen is perhaps the most talked about. While hydrogen power exists today in limited capacity using fossil fuel feedstocks, its next generation is likely to be produced by ‘green,’ renewable energy, including solar and wind. Generating zero emissions, green hydrogen is highly versatile and can be transformed into electricity, synthetic gas, synthetic diesel and ‘hydrogen carriers’ such as methanol and ammonia.

Owing to round-the-clock production and storage, hydrogen is a scalable electricity source, giving it significant potential in heavy industry. Hydrogen’s versatility can also be applied to synthetic fuels, known as powerfuels or e-fuels. Here, hydrogen can be used in production to create a carbon-free, drop-in diesel alternative.

However, producing and distributing hydrogen comes with all kinds of challenges – and there was a time when overcoming these was not worth the effort. The answer is not to look at hydrogen as a direct replacement for oil, coal or gas, or a direct competitor to wind and solar, but to find applications where the unique properties of hydrogen give it a technical and commercial fit.

Getting the balance right

Different industries have always needed different energy solutions, even in the ‘old age’ of energy. Now, in the face of the energy transition, that challenge is becoming more complex as it is complicated by industry, geography and season. Relying on renewable sources is not as simple as plugging in a solar farm, or a wind-turbine to well established industries.

Complicated scenarios require an innovative approach and temporary power can provide ready to use solutions. In scenarios where the energy transition is in the early stages or still relies on nascent technologies, short-term temporary power solutions can bridge the transition gap and even stimulate the transition for industries anywhere in the world.

At Aggreko we recognize that decarbonization and temporary power can go hand-in-hand. We know that the solutions we provide can help companies overhaul their energy, giving them choice and flexibility during the energy transition.

For some time, we’ve been investing and exploring new ways to provide power with sustainability front-of-mind. Our R&D has led us to develop hybrid solutions that can provide reliable power while reducing carbon emissions. We have technology-led solutions that bring renewable energy online, tracking off-grid solutions, and we’re now testing hydrogen powered generators.

For the next decade, we are committed to switching our fossil diesel to natural gas and alternative drop-in fuels like HVO, which we are already deploying in our solutions. By 2030, our goal is to reduce the local emissions of our solutions by 50 percent and achieve net-zero across all of our own business operations. Our energy evolution will be boosted by this shift towards cleaner fuels and gas, and we aim to become a completely net-zero business by 2050.

We are committed to playing our part in the energy transition, providing expertise and solutions to help business grow whilst supporting them as they seek to meet their own net-zero commitments. 

It’s an exciting time to be part of this era of energy. We are witnessing a new age of innovation that will transform our societies and economies. As the energy system changes, business and industry must work to decarbonize their operations and temporary power has an important role to play in helping help them figure out the ideal fuel mix for the future.

Carsten Reincke-Collon is director of future technologies at Aggreko.