Tag Archives: renewable energy

Bringing an end to thermodynamic whoopee

Two weeks ago I used two infographics to illustrate the dominant role of energy use in generating greenhouse gas emissions and the disportionate production of greenhouse gas emission by the rich [see ‘Where we are and what we have‘ on November 24th, 2021].  Energy use is responsible for 73% of global greenhouse gas emissions and 16% of the world’s population are responsible for 38% of global CO2 emissions.  Today’s infographics illustrate the energy flows from source to consumption for the USA (above), UK and Europe (thumbnails below).  In the USA fossil fuels (coal, natural gas and petroleum) are the source of nearly 80% of their energy, in the UK it is a little more than 80% and the chart for Europe is less detailed but the proportion looks similar. COP 26 committed countries to ending ‘support for the international unabated fossil fuel energy sector by the end of 2022’ and recognised ‘investing in unabated fossil-related energy projects increasingly entails both social and economic risks, especially through the form of stranded assets, and has ensuing negative impacts on government revenue, local employment, taxpayers, utility ratepayers and public health.’  However, to reduce our dependency on fossil fuels we need a strategy, a plan of action for a fundamental change in how we power industry, heat our homes and propel our vehicles.  A hydrogen economy requires the production of hydrogen without using fossil fuels, electric cars and electric domestic heating requires our electricity generating capacity to be at least trebled by 2050 in order to hit the net zero target. This scale and speed of  transition to zero-carbon sources is such that it will have to be achieved using an integrated blend of green energy sources, including solar, wind and nuclear energy.  For example, in the UK our current electricity generating capacity is about 76 GW and 1 GW is equivalent to 3.1 million photovoltaic (PV) panels, or 364 utility scale wind turbines [www.energy.gov/eere/articles/how-much-power-1-gigawatt] so trebling capacity from one of these sources alone would imply more than 700 million PV panels, or one wind turbine every square mile.  It is easy to write policies but it is much harder to implement them and make things happen especially when transformational change is required.  We cannot expect things to happen simply because our leaders have signed agreements and made statements.  Now, national plans are required to ween us from our addiction to fossil fuels – it will be difficult but the alternative is that global warming might cause the planet to become uninhabitable for us.  It is time to stop ‘making thermodynamic whoopee with fossil fuels’ to quote Kurt Vonnegut [see ‘And then we discovered thermodynamics‘ on February 3rd, 2016].











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

US Energy flow chart: https://flowcharts.llnl.gov/commodities/energy

EU Energy flow chart: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/energy/energy-flow-diagrams

UK Energy flow chart: https://www.gov.uk/government/collections/energy-flow-charts#2020

Inconvenient facts

The latest UN Climate Change Conference in Madrid, which is holding its closing session as I am writing this post, does not appear to have reached any significant conclusions.  Unsurprisingly, vested interests have dominated and there is little agreement on a plan of action to slow down climate change or to mitigate its impact. However, perhaps there is progress because two recent polls imply that 75% of Americans believe humans cause climate change and roughly half say that urgent action is needed.  This is important because the USA has made the largest cumulative contribution to greenhouse gas emissions with 25% of total emissions, followed by the EU-28 at 22% and China at 13%, according to the Our World in Data website.  However, the need for urgent action is being undermined by suggestions that we cannot afford it, or that we will have better technology in the future that will make it easier to act.  However, much of the engineering technology that is needed to remove fossil fuels from our economy is already available.   Of course, the technology will be improved in the future but that is always true because we are continually making technological advances.  We could replace fossil fuels as the energy source for all of our electricity, buildings and heating (31%) and for most of our industry (21%) and transportation (14%) using the technology that is available today and this could eliminate about two-thirds of current global greenhouse gas emissions. The numbers in parentheses are the percentage contributions to global greenhouse gas emissions according to the IPCC. Of course, it would require a massive programme of infrastructure investment; however, if we are serious then the subsidies paid to the oil and gas industry could be redirected toward decarbonising our economies.  According to the IMF, that is approximately $5.2 trillion per year in subsidies, which is about the GDP of Japan.  The science of climate change is well-understood (see for example ‘What happens to emitted carbon‘ and ‘Carbon emissions and surface warming‘) and widely recognised; the engineering technology to mitigate both climate change and its impacts is largely understood and implementation-ready; however, most urgently, we need well-informed public debate about the economic changes required to decarbonise our society.


Mark Maslin, The five corrupt pillars of climate change denial, The Conversation, November 28th, 2019.

United Nations Blog, The drive to a conclusion, December 13th, 2019.

Sandra Laville, Top oil firms spending millions lobbying to block climate change policies, says report, The Guardian, March 22nd 2019.

Footnote: The videos ‘What happens to emitted carbon‘ and ‘Carbon emissions and surface warming‘ are part of a series produced by my colleague, Professor Ric Williams at the University of Liverpool.  He has produced a third one: ‘Paris or Bust‘.


Citizens of the world

Last week in Liverpool, we hosted a series of symposia for participants in a dual PhD programme involving the University of Liverpool and National Tsing Hua University, in Taiwan, that has been operating for nearly a decade.  On the first day, we brought together about dozen staff from each university, who had not met before, and asked them to present overviews of their research and explore possible collaborations using as a theme: UN Sustainable Development Goal No.11: Sustainable Cities and Communities.  The expertise of the group included biology, computer science, chemistry, economics, engineering, materials science and physics; so, we had wide-ranging discussions.  On the second and third day, we connected a classroom on each campus using a video conferencing system and the two dozen PhD students in the dual programme presented updates on their research from whichever campus they are currently resident.  Each student has a supervisor in each university and divides their time between the two universities exploiting the expertise and facilities in the two institutions.

The range of topics covered in the student presentations was probably even wider than on the first day; extending from deep neural networks, through nuclear reactor technology, battery design and three-dimensional cell culturing to policy impacts on households.  One student spoke about the beauty of mathematical equations she is working on that describe the propagation of waves in lattice structures; while, another told us about his investigation of the causes of declining fertility rates across the world.  Data from the UN DESA Population Division show that live births per woman in the Americas & Europe have already fallen below the 2.1 required to sustain the population, while it is projected to fall below this level in south-east Asia within the next five years and in the world by 2060.  This made me think that perhaps the Gaia principle, proposed by James Lovelock, is operating and that human population is self-regulating as it interacts with constraints imposed by the Earth though perhaps not in a fashion originally envisaged.


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.