Tag Archives: sustainability

When an upgrade is downgrading

I had slightly surreal time last week.  I visited the USA to attend a review of a research programme sponsored by the US Government and reported on two of our research projects.  When I arrived in the USA on Monday evening, I went to collect my rental car and was told that I had been upgraded to a pick-up truck because the rental company did not have left any of the compact cars that had been booked for me.  I gingerly manoeuvred the massive vehicle, a Toyota Tacoma, out of the parking garage and on to the freeway.  I should admit to having owned a large SUV when we lived in the USA and so driving along the freeway was not a totally new experience, except that the white bonnet in front of me seemed huge.

The following morning, I drove to the location of the review and strategically selected a parking space with empty spaces all around it so that I could drive through into the space and avoid needing to reverse the behemoth.  As I was walking across the parking lot, someone accosted me and said: ‘Nice truck, how do you like it?’  Embarrassed at driving such an environmental-unfriendly vehicle, I responded that it was a rental car that I just picked up.  To which he replied that the best protection against my Tacoma, was his Tacoma. And, that it was his dream car.  Then, I noticed that he had parked his black one alongside mine.

Our children learnt to drive in our ancient Ford Explorer and loved it.  We all knew that it was wrong to drive something that consumed fuel so voraciously even if it did get us effortlessly through the most horrendous winter storms.  However, we have left all that behind and now either use public transport or drive cars that achieve 60 mpg or more on good days. But here I was being admitted to a club that worshipped their pick-up trucks.

We walked together into the review which was held in a small lecture theatre equipped with comfortable armchairs, which was just as well because we sat there from 8.30 to 4.30 for two days listening to half-hour presentations with only short breaks.  We were presented with some stunning research based on brilliant innovative thinking, such as materials that can undergo 90% deformation and fully recover their shape and how the rippling motion of covert feathers on a bird’s wings could help us design more efficient aeroplanes.  More on that in later posts.  Of course, there were some less good presentations that had many us reaching for our mobile phones to catch up on the endless flow of email [see: ‘Compelling Presentations‘ on March 21st, 2018).  At the end of each day, we dispersed to different hotels scattered across town in our rental cars.  On Thursday, I drove back to the airport and topped up the fuel tank before returning my truck.  I worked out that it had achieved only 19 mpg (US) or 23 mpg (UK), despite my gentle driving – that’s almost three times the consumption of my own car!  On the plane home I started reading ‘Overstory‘ by Richard Powers, a novel about our relationship to trees and the damage we are doing to the environment on which trees, and us, are dependent.

Planetary Emergency

Global energy budget from Trenberth et al 2009

This week’s lecture in my thermodynamics course for first-year undergraduate students was about thermodynamic systems and the energy flows in and out of them. I concluded the lecture by talking about our planet as a thermodynamic system using the classic schematic in the thumbnail [see ‘Ample sufficiency of solar energy‘ on October 25th, 2017 for more discussion on this schematic].  This is usually a popular lecture but this year it had particular resonance because of the widely publicised strikes by students for action on climate change.  I have called before for individuals to take responsibility given the intransigence of governments [see ‘Are we all free riders‘ on June 6th, 2016 or ‘New Year Resolution‘ on December 31st, 2014]; so, it is good to see young people making their views and feelings known.

Weather-related events, such as widespread flooding and fires, are reported so frequently in the media that perhaps we have started to ignore them as portents of climate change.  For me, three headlines events have reinforced the gravity of the situation:

  1. The publication earlier this month of a joint report by UNICEF and the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health that air pollution in the UK so high that it is infringing the fundamental rights of children to grow up in a clean and safe environment; and, under the Government’s current plans, air pollution in the UK is expected to remain at dangerous levels for at least another 10 years.
  2. The warning earlier this month from the Meteorological Office in London that global warming could exceed 1.5C above pre-industrial levels within five years.  In my lecture, I highlighted that a 2C rise would be equal to the temperature 3 million years ago when sea levels were 25 to 35m high; and, a 1m rise in sea level would displace 145 million people globally [according to Blockstein & Weigmann, 2010].
  3. The suspension of construction of the new nuclear power station on Anglesey by Hitachi, which leaves the UK Government’s energy strategy in disarray with only one of the six planned new power stations under construction.  This leaves the UK unable to switch from fossil-fuelled to electric vehicles and dependent on fossil fuel to meet current electricity demand.

I apologise for my UK focus this week but whereever you are reading this blog you could probably find similar headlines in your region.  For instance, the 2016 UNICEF report states that one in seven children worldwide live in toxic air and air pollution is a major contributing factor in the deaths of around 600,000 children under five every year.  These three headlines illustrate that there is a planetary emergency because climate change is rapidly and radically altering the ecosystem with likely dire consequences for all living things; that despite a near-existential threat to the next generation as a consequence of air pollution most governments are effectively doing nothing; and that in the UK we are locked into a fossil-fuel dependency for the foreseeable future due to a lack of competent planning and commitment from the government which will compound the air pollution and climate change problems.

Our politicians need to stop arguing about borders and starting worrying about the whole planet.  We are all in this together and no man-made border will protect us from the impact of making the planet a hostile environment for life.

Some changes to Realize Engineering

The advertising industry is becoming a pervasive influence on us – telling us how we should eat, dress, travel, vacation, borrow, bank, insure, think and vote.  We are constantly bombarded with messages designed to induce us to buy goods or services that we don’t really need and that undermine progress towards a sustainable society [see my post ‘Old is beautiful‘ on May 1st, 2015].

Many services are offered to us for free in order to expose us to advertisements and to collect data about our habits and interests that are put to uses about which we know little.  These issues became prominent last week with the allegations about the inappropriate use of data from Facebook by Cambridge Analytica [see for example the The Guardian on March 25th, 2016].  A number of organisations have reacted by closing down their Facebook pages [see for example Reuters on March 23rd, 2018] and a #deletefacebook movement has started [see for example The Guardian on March 25th, 2016, again].  I have joined them and deleted my Facebook page as well as disconnecting this blog from Facebook.  Also, in a couple of weeks I plan to stop using Twitter to disseminate this blog; so, if you receive this blog via Twitter then please start to follow it directly.

Finally, the advertisements at the bottom of my blog posts will disappear because I am paying to use WordPress instead of allowing advertising to cover the costs.  A side-effect of this change is a new url: realizeengineering.blog/ So please update your bookmarks,if it doesn’t happen automatically!

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.