Our renewable future

Richard Smith | 07 May 2015 | Comments

Eye catching press headlines like those about Vancouver and China provide readers with hope that we will be able to reduce our carbon emissions to target levels through the use of renewable energy sources. However, it is not quite that straightforward and emission reduction strategies vary immensely for different global locations.

Take Vancouver for instance, where as a consequence of its mountainous terrain and high rainfall the majority of its energy is already provided by affordable, carbon neutral hydro-electric sources that can easily store energy and meet the fluctuating demand profile. To achieve their future goals it’s about adding more hydro-electric and a modicum for wind, bio-mass and tidal and maybe some geothermal renewable sources.

Another simple example is the deserts of the world where solar power plants are possible and less than 3% of their global potential is needed to power the planet. To put this into context, a solar plant the size of Lake Nasser in Egypt would produce the same amount of energy as that produced by the oil industry in the Middle East. But, it is not that simple, because there are unresolved issues with affordability, energy storage and transmission.

The United Kingdom has shown great leadership and was the first nation to pass primary legislation requiring carbon emissions to be reduced. Presently the UK is on target to produce 20% of its energy from renewable sources by 2020 and has an 80% emission reduction target for 2050, against a backdrop of population increase, improving quality of life and increased personal travel.

The UK emission reduction strategy beyond 2020 has not been established because it is too difficult to do at this stage. Unlike say the mountainous and desert locations that have an abundance of the right natural resources needed by renewables, the UK and Europe rely irregular God given forces of wind, sun and wave to power renewables that do not coincide with the demand profile and this makes it a much harder problem to solve. Flexible alternatives like bio-fuels will be utilised but the feedstocks for these are massive and is severely limited by available arable land. The UK is currently considering over 40 emission reduction strategies with each impacting on the other to some extent and DECC have produced an award winning tool that allows anyone to speculate on the emission reduction mix and understand the complexities involved. The tool included examples of how the target may be achieved by organisations like The National Grid, Friends of the Earth and Atkins.

Reducing energy demand costs a great deal less that the procurement of green energy sources, so the UK and Europe have set a high priority on energy efficiency and for example this is enshrined in the new building regulations that require zero carbon housing by 2016 and all other buildings by 2019. Several other government incentive schemes to improve efficiency of existing building stock have been introduced and this is expected to gather momentum in the next decade.

China has a similar challenges to that of Europe definitely no silver bullet solution for emission reduction. They are running many emission reduction initiatives and fairly extensive research and development in this respect the Quartz headline is significant and shows leadership.

The low emission transportation challenge is not so different the world over and universally we will see an increase in electrically powered public transport systems and pressure to reduce private automobile mileage. All automobile manufacturers are running hydrogen fuel cell, and ‘plug in’ electrical development programmes but achieving targets relies on a technological breakthrough in battery technology or hydrogen production avoiding an energy intensive processes where at present, four times the amount of energy of that contained in hydrogen is required to create the hydrogen. Recently there was a Daily Mail headline that claims such a breakthrough has been achieved by Bath and Yale Universities. If so, this will provide us all with great confidence in our future because it will be able to solve the transportation emission issue and provide an energy storage solution that can be used in tandem with the variable renewable sources.