Matter and energy are both trinities

1 May 2007

One of the recommendations fashionable in managerial gurudom a few years ago was that no company should consider itself to belong to its most obvious, closest-hugging, business sector, but rather to a larger one. Thus all electrical power generators, for example, should graduate from the electricity business to the energy business, and every oil multinational should likewise deem itself even grander than it had thought.

Today it is almost standard practice for suppliers of electricity, oil and gas to display such items as solar panels, wind turbine generators and forever-promising fuel cells among their wares, thus justifying their claims to be in the energy business. Total, the French energy group that reached this exalted status by the oil and gas route, is among the trendies. When Christophe de Margerie, an oil and gas man with a long and notable record, particularly in Total’s middle-eastern ventures, recently took over his company’s chief executiveship, he used the occasion to stress that energy was the firm’s business, not just hydrocarbons, which were anyway proving ever harder to get. Renewables could meet only a small part of the world’s needs, he reportedly and rhetorically opined, so Total had to face the challenge: ‘If it is not hydrocarbons, if it is not renewables, if it is not nuclear, what is it?’.

A very good question, one is tempted to remark. And with it, de Margerie seemed to define a natural totality as neatly as does that primary trio of ‘kingdoms’ – animal, vegetable and mineral. His answer was fairly explicit. Being in the energy business and having responsibility to the consumer (he allegedly told an interviewer), Total considered that it would ‘one day have to be part of this nuclear adventure’.†

Some of us recall just such adventurousness in the behaviour of certain oil majors way back in the twentieth century,†† but their interest in nuclear power came to nothing. Perhaps the 21st century will prove more propitious.

Here is another possible realignment of the energy business that may take your fancy, as it has taken mine. Areva, the French state-owned nuclear group, has been competing with the Indian energy group, Suzlon, for ownership of the German wind power group, Repower. Areva has been said to be acting according to its strategy of ‘developing emissions-free technology’. That is a sort of development that, I suppose, the wind power business thinks itself to be already engaged in, but in opposition to the nuclear industry and its (ionising) emissions. But the nuclear industry believes it has its ionising radiations under control, and plainly it does not discharge fossil-fuel combustion-products into the environment as do conventional coal-, oil- and gas-fired power generators. But…

You may find additional piquancy in this tale if you compare the French approach with one that has reportedly been made in the UK. Turn to p35 of our March issue to learn how a British nuclear power station operator allegedly maintained that a neighbouring wind farm might – dare I say, emit? – broken turbine-blade fragments to the detriment of the nuclear operator’s plant. Unless wind power people perfect the technology of turbine-fragment capture and damage limitation (TFCDL), as fossil-fuel-burning power generators aspire to perfect so-called carbon capture and storage (CCS), more properly described as CO2 capture and sequestration, I fear that their acceptance by the global emission-free energy business will be jeopardised.

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