On the Record: Jeroen van der Veer
You might expect Royal Dutch Shell CEO Jeroen van der Veer to pooh-pooh the recent surge of interest in renewable energy. But despite his contention that the public is naively placing too much faith in solar and wind power, the 59-year-old Dutchman has raised eyebrows by claiming that the world can meet its energy demand and control greenhouse gases—while still depending on fossil fuels for 70 percent of energy supplies. Van der Veer spoke with U.S. News Senior Writer Alex Markels.
How is all that possible?
Well, the first priority is conservation, because more than half of the energy we generate today is wasted. Take the average car, which uses about 20 percent of the gas to move it forward; the rest is lost to heat. We can help by making better, cleaner-burning fuels, and the car companies can help by making more fuel-efficient cars.
Is conservation enough?
It's extremely important, but no, conservation isn't enough. Even with conservation, energy demand will double by the year 2050, and more and more of the world's conventional oil fields are going into decline. So supplies of oil and gas that are easy to extract will struggle to keep up with demand, which means increasing use of unconventional fossil fuels, such as oil sands, including and especially coal. Coal is more than twice as CO2 intensive as natural gas, and abundantly available.
So you also need to take the [carbon dioxide] out of fossil fuels, especially coal. If you capture the CO2, then you can store it in the ground. At our big refinery in Rotterdam, we capture CO2 and feed it to greenhouses so the tomatoes grow faster.
Why not capture and store CO2 now?
We're doing it in demonstration projects now, but we still need to see if we can do it on a larger scale. And it will take a decade to test the carbon-capture technology. Then we have to work things out with governments so we can make it [economically] worthwhile, because right now if you capture CO2, you don't get credit for it, which just isn't logical. A unit stored should be the same as a unit saved.
Isn't there a role for more renewable sources?
Yes, in fact, I believe we're the world's largest distributor of first-generation transport biofuels [which are made primarily from corn and sugar]. But if you start to calculate how to make a real dent in demand, you will get huge competition with food that will push up prices. So that's not a real solution. Our strategy now is to focus on second-generation biofuels, which are made out of the nonfood parts of crops. We've invested in companies that are working to produce ethanol from cellulose and raw materials like wood chips.
And what about hydrogen fuel?
We were very early to start with hydrogen—in the mid-'90s—but it's gone slower than we expected at the time. To make it successful, we still need innovation in two industries: We need cars, and we need a system of hydro stations. And even then, you need to find a way to make the hydrogen without emitting a lot of CO2 in the process. This is technically possible, but it's still a long way out.
What is the long-run solution?
There has to be a new mind-set. All the recent hype about renewables and about being "carbon neutral" doesn't change the reality of what we face, but it does help with short-term awareness. That's how it starts.
This story appears in the August 27, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.