Tag Archives: renewable energy

The disrupting benefit of innovation

Most scientific and technical conferences include plenary speeches that are intended to set the agenda and to inspire conference delegates to think, innovate and collaborate.  Andrew Sherry, the Chief Scientist of the UK National Nuclear Laboratory (NNL) delivered a superb example last week at the NNL SciTec 2018 which was held at the Exhibition Centre Liverpool on the waterfront.  With his permission, I have stolen his title and one of his illustrations for this post.  He used a classic 2×2 matrix to illustrate different types of change: creative change in the newspaper industry that has constantly redeveloped its assets from manual type-setting and printing to on-line delivery via your phone or tablet; progressive change in the airline industry that has incrementally tested and adapted so that modern commercial aircraft look superficially the same as the first jet airliner but represent huge advances in economy and reliability; inventive change in Liverpool’s Albert Dock that was made redundant by container ships but has been reinvented as a residential, tourism and business district.  The fourth quadrant, he reserved for the civil nuclear industry in the UK which requires disruptive change because its core assets are threatened by the end-of-life closure of all existing plants and because its core activity, supplying electrical power, is threatened by cheaper alternatives.

At the end of last year, NNL brought together all the prime nuclear organisations in the UK with leaders from other sectors, including aerospace, construction, digital, medical, rail, robotics, satellite and ship building at the Royal Academy of Engineering to discuss the drivers of innovation.  They concluded that innovation is not just about technology, but that successful innovation is driven by five mutually dependent themes that are underpinned by enabling regulation:

  1. innovative technologies;
  2. culture & leadership;
  3. collaboration & supply chain;
  4. programme and risk management; and
  5. financing & commercial models.

SciTec’s focus was ‘Innovation through Collaboration’, i.e. tackling two of these themes, and Andrew tasked delegates to look outside their immediate circle for ideas, input and solutions [to the existential threats facing the nuclear industry] – my words in parentheses.

Innovative technology presents a potentially disruptive threat to all established activities and we ignore it at our peril.  Andrew’s speech was wake up call to an industry that has been innovating at an incremental scale and largely ignoring the disruptive potential of innovation.  Are you part of a similar industry?  Maybe it’s time to check out the threats to your industry’s assets and activities…


Sherry AH, The disruptive benefit of innovation, NNL SciTec 2018 (including the graphic & title).

McGahan AM, How industries change, HBR, October 2004.

Ample sufficiency of solar energy?

Global energy budget from Trenberth et al 2009

I have written several times about whether or not the Earth is a closed system [see for example: ‘Is Earth a closed system? Does it matter‘ on December 10th, 2014] & ‘Revisiting closed systems in Nature‘ on October 5th, 2016).  The Earth is not a closed thermodynamic system because there is energy transfer between the Earth and its surroundings as illustrated by the schematic diagram. Although, the total incoming solar radiation (341 Watts/sq. metre (W/m²)) is balanced by the sum of the reflected solar radiation (102 W/m²) and the outgoing longwave radiation (239 W/m²); so, there appears to be no net inflow or outflow of energy.  To put these values into perspective, the world energy use per capita in 2014 was 1919 kilograms oil equivalent, or 2550 Watts (according to World Bank data); hence, in crude terms we each require 16 m² of the Earth’s surface to generate our energy needs from the solar energy reaching the ground (161 W/m²), assuming that we have 100% efficient solar cells available. That’s a big assumption because the best efficiencies achieved in research labs are around 48% and for production solar cells it’s about 26%.

There are 7.6 billion of us, so at 16 m² each, we need  120,000 square kilometres of 100% efficient solar cells – that’s about the land area of Greece, or about 500,000 square kilometres with current solar cells, which is equivalent to the land area of Spain.  I picked these countries because, compared to Liverpool, the sun always shines there; but of course it doesn’t, and we would need more than this half million square kilometres of solar cells distributed around the world to allow the hours of darkness and cloudy days.

At the moment, China has the most generating capacity from photovoltaic (PV) cells at 78.07 GigaWatts or about 25% of global PV capacity and Germany is leading in terms of per capita generating capacity at 511 Watts per capita, or 7% of their electricity demand.  Photovoltaic cells have their own ecological footprint in terms of the energy and material required for their production but this is considerably lower than most of our current sources of energy [see, for example Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles by Fthenakis et al, 2008].


Trenberth KE, Fasullo JT & Kiehl J, Earth’s global energy budget, Bulletin of  the American Meteorological Society, March 2009, 311-324, https://doi.org/10.1175/2008BAMS2634.1.

World Bank Databank: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/EG.USE.PCAP.KG.OE

Nield D, Scientists have broken the efficiency record for mass-produced solar panels, Science Alert, 24th March 2017.

2016 Snapshot of Global Photovoltaic Markets, International Energy Agency Report IEA PVPS T1-31:2017.

Fthenakis VM, Kim HC & Alsema E, Emissions from photovoltaic life cycles, Environmental Science Technology, 42:2168-2174, 2008.

And then we discovered thermodynamics

sunEnergy, matter, space and time came into existence in the Big Bang 13.5 billion years ago. 10 billion years later biological organisms started to appear. 70,000 years ago one of those organisms, man started to organise in structures, called cultures and history began. For most of history if you wanted something moved then you had to do it yourself or persuade someone else to do it. The agricultural revolution began 12,000 years ago and shortly afterwards we realised that if you fed fuel to an animal then it would ‘burn’ it and do work for you. And that’s how it remained for thousands of years – we didn’t know how to convert heat into work or work into heat. The average energy consumption per capita was about 20GJ per year. Then, 200 years ago we discovered how to imitate nature by burning fuel and producing power in the steam engine. We had discovered thermodynamics and our average energy consumption started rising towards 80GJ per year today.

As a consequence, ‘we have now all but destroyed this once salubrious planet as a life-support system in fewer than two hundred years, mainly by making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ as Kurt Vonnegut wrote. And that’s because nature starts from solar energy and recycles everything and we haven’t learnt how to do either very effectively. But energy or power engineering has been around for less than a blink of eye relatively speaking and we are just learning how to perform a trick nature has been using for billions of years: convert solar radiation into other energy forms. The sun delivers about 340 Watts per square metre to the Earth so we have plenty energy available.

If you would like to know more about energy engineering or thermodynamics and its potential then join the 5000 people who have signed up for the MOOC that I am teaching for five weeks from next Monday.  Listen to me interview Ken Durose, Director of the Stephenson Institute for Renewable Energy on the prospects for renewable energy.



Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A brief history of mankind. London: Vintage (Penguin, Random House), 2014.

Kurt Vonnegut, A Man without a Country, New York: Seven Stories Press, 2005.

Small is beautiful and economic

tractorFarm tractors have been growing bigger and bigger, though perhaps not everywhere – the photograph was taken in Donegal, Ireland earlier this year.  The size of tractors is driven by the economics of needing a driver in the cab. The labour costs are high in many places, so that the productivity per tractor driver has to be high too.  Hence, the tractors have to move fast and process a large amount of the field on each pass.  This leads to enormous tractors that weigh a lot and exert a large pressure on the soil, which in turn results in between 1 and 3% of the farm land becoming unproductive because crops won’t grow in the severely compressed soil. But what happens if we eliminate the need for the driver by using autonomous vehicles? Then, we can have smaller vehicles working 24/7 that do less damage and are cheaper, which means that a single machine breakdown doesn’t bring work to halt. We can also contemplate tailoring the farming of each field to the local environmental and soil conditions instead a mono-crop one-size fits all approach. These are not my ideas but were espoused by Peter Cooke of the Queensland University of Technology at a recent meeting at the Royal Society on ‘Robotics and Autonomous Systems’.

It is a similar argument for modular nuclear power stations. Most of the world is intent on building enormous reactors capable of generating several GigaWatts of power (that’s typically 3 with nine zeros after it) at a cost of around £8 billion (that’s 8 with nine zeros) so about 50 pence per Watt. Such a massive amount of power requires a massive infrastructure to deliver the power to where it is need and a shutdown for maintenance or a breakdown potentially cuts power to about a million people. The alternative is small modular reactors built, and later dismantled, in a factory that leave an uncontaminated site at a lower capital cost and which provide a more flexible power feed into the national grid. Some commentators (see for example Editor’s comment in Professsional Engineer, November 2015)believe that a factory could be established and rolling modular reactors off its production line on the same timescale as building a GigaWatt station.

Regular readers will recognise a familiar theme found in Small is beautiful and affordable in nuclear powerstations on January 14th, 2015, Enabling or disruptive technology for nuclear engineering on January 28th, 2015 and Small is beautiful on October 10th, 2012; as well as the agricultural theme in Knowledge-economy on January 1st, 2014.