Tag Archives: renewable energy

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.

Sources:

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…

Sources:

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].

Sources:

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.