Not building Utopia but building better
Avoiding environmental and financial damage is the stick. The carrot is the fact that a low carbon infrastructure for generation, transport and manufacturing is an infrastructure update. It reduces or removes the risks from the extraction of increasingly hard to find fossil fuels, which can also endanger increasingly scarce clean land and water resources. While low Carbon solutions alone will not create Utopia, they are by their nature cleaner and more efficient than the inherently dirty process of finding coal or oil, processing it and then setting it on fire.
Even a few years ago there was a fairly pesimistic tone – even from advocates of renewables – that renewable energy likely means a difficult and uncomfortable ‘energy poor’ future. This was often because the models assumed renewable technology was fixed at that point in time.
However not only has renewable efficiency increased year on year, other barriers tend to get removed. For example, a few ago there were horror stories of the entire British countryside being scarred with wind turbines to create adequate renewable generation. But the UK is becoming a world leader in wind generation (peaking at 26.7% of uk grid generation in July 2017). This is partly because turbines are increasing in efficiency, but also because most new wind installations are large-bladed and offshore.
Another myth is building a turbine base creates more carbon than the turbine saves. This is untrue and in fact in 2017 Norwegian company Statoil completed a highly efficient floating offshore windfarm, Hywind. This undoubtedly benefited from the engineering experience gained building North Sea oil platforms.4
Until the entire grid is renewable some carbon cost is innevitable when installing new renewables. But carbon cost is dropping all the time. And compare that to the fossil fuel alternative; extracting then processing fossil fuels with large amounts of grid energy, then burning them. Energy generation which produces carbon at every stage.
Without promising Utopia is around the corner, there are potential political gains from renewables. Energy independence is key to financial and political stability. The shape of the modern political world has been greatly determined by the need for oil, leading to serious compromises on human rights, and oil wars like the US invasion of Iraq (previously Iraq had a nationalised oil industry). As technologies progress more nations will have the capability to become self sufficient in energy, without having to dig a coal seam or sink a single well.
Of course any rapid shift in materials demand can have negative consequences, like de-forestation due to misguided Palm oil plantations for biofuel, or the poor conditions for Cobalt mining (for Lithium) in the DRC. These require international action and responsible supply chains from companies. But these problems are not unique to renewables. Gold, diamonds and oil all have similar issues. Importantly to keep costs down there is also a huge push in renewable tech to use non-exotic materials, Carbon, Iron, Sodium, Hydrogen, Nitrogen etc which would certainly reduce exploitation in supply chains.
Tech buzz to help fix global warming
The buzz that surrounds new low carbon tech gives me some hope. Tesla has single-handedly shifted the perception of electric cars by making cars more desirable than similarly priced petrol models. And it’s fascinating to learn how many potential solutions there are to our energy problems, often from unexpected quarters – for example, a material made for soft contact lenses turns out to be a potential supercapacitor battery material.5
Storage is rightly cited as the achilles heel of renewables. But simple tech solutions are coming onstream. From ultra low pollution Iron and saltwater flow batteries (ESS Inc shipping container batteries can power a block of houses for 6 hours), to the gravity train being built in Nevada this year to give uninterupted solar power to 50,000 homes.
Climeworks and Canadian based Carbon Technologies are two companies which can produce carbon neutral synthetic fuels, by sucking carbon out the atmosphere. These can potentially compete on price with fossil fuels but would need public support for carbon taxes so the technology can get a proper foothold.
Whether the next breakthrough is glass batteries, carbon cathodes, graphene supercapacitors, many apparently brilliant solutions will turn out to be unworkable. However we are past the point where an oil company can buy up and kill off pioneering renewable technologies. There is so much money to be made in battery tech, new ideas are attracting big bucks because investors don’t want to miss the energy equivalent of Microsoft, Apple or Facebook at the start-up stage.
We will also see a shift in how we think about energy. Electric cars can do more than simply replace petrol vehicles which sit unused 90% of the time. With bi-directional chargers EVs can play a role as mobile battery backups for the grid (Nissan and Bristol based OVO energy are running a trial of this).
Societal change will play a part as well. A study recently showed Millennials are less likely to view car ownership as an important life goal. Reflecting this, German start-up’s Sono Sion can not only capture around 4000 miles a year with pv cells built into the body, it contains tech that makes ride sharing and car sharing easier, a sign of the growing gig economy in transport.
What has so far dominated our economy has been consumption of resources to create physical products. What needs to become the new motive is efficiency – doing more with less, and an economy based more on usage than ownership.
Four climate change actions to take now
There is a limit the effect of individual action. That said, here are four positive actions I’m taking involving minimal lifestyle changes.
1. Renting or just can’t afford solar panels? You can still change the energy grid by switching to a renewable energy supplier, turning your energy bill into an investment in renewable generation. I chose Ecotricity as my electricity supplier years ago because I personally believe in their commitment to renewables. I will also switch this winter to Ecotricity gas because a) they don’t use fracked gas, and b) have made significant progress feeding bio-Methane (biogas) from agri waste into the national energy grid. Here is a guide to UK renewable suppliers.
Don’t fall for the standard whinge that because grid energy is all mixed, your energy is no more renewable than your neighbours. That misses the point. Energy suppliers either produce energy or buy wholesale from other producers. So the more energy is bought through exclusively renewable suppliers, the more dirty fossil fuel and fracked gas will be left ‘on the shelf’ and lose value.
2. Adding top up insulation to the loft space, bringing it to around 10-12 inches depth. About £100 worth of extra insulation will cover my loft, although I will need to raise the boards and do some electrical work so cables aren’t buried under insulation.
As well as cutting heating bills this level of insulation should also keep the temparature down in the summer by reducing solar gain in the attic. There is a similar advantage with wall insulation. People usually assume insulation increases heat. But heat always moves towards a colder space, which includes from a baking hot roof down into the living space.
3. Eating less meat. Apart from de-forestation, meat production is inevitably carbon intensive because growing crops for animal feed, instead of for human consumption, means producing food twice. Farting cows also produce methane, which is 25x worse than Carbon for global warming. I’m not suggesting going fully vegetarian or vegan, only reducing meat and dairy consumption.
4. Share some stories on social media about the positives of renewables, because we need hope! Positive stories are also more likely to influence climate sceptics. I’d recommend channels like fullychargedshow.