Passion #3: Sustainable Energy

I’m starting this blog by writing about 5 passions. An introduction, if you will, to some of the things I think about. This one is about energy:

In 2008 I completed an MSc in Sustainable Energy and the Environment at Cardiff University. For my MSc thesis I worked with a recycling company to investigate the opportunity for turning food waste from businesses in central London into energy using anaerobic digestion. It was fascinating and very mucky.

Equipped with a broad appreciation of energy generation and consumption, in the years following this I worked on a variety of energy efficiency projects at BioRegional. In 2011-12, I spent a year in Kenya working with access:energy – a start-up that builds remote, village-scale, renewable energy micro-grids. I take a pragmatic and thorough  approach to sustainable energy.  My areas of special interest are:

  • Monitoring: designing systems for measuring and tracking energy consumption.
  • Footprinting: energy-related carbon footprinting for organisations and communities, and modelling the impact of interventions.
  • Demand reduction: identifying key interventions for demand reduction. Experienced with designing physical interventions as well as understanding positive behaviour change opportunities.
  • Energy efficiency: identifying technologies and design.
  • Renewable energy assessment: evaluating the cost-benefit of different renewable energy solutions and selecting system specification.
  • Communication: developing communication material for organisations to engage their staff on energy usage and best practice.

Some thoughts on a green energy transition

The way we generate and use energy is generating greenhouse gases that are accumulating in our atmosphere. We are disrupting the planet’s carbon cycle so much that it’s now changing our climate. The bathtub provides a useful analogy to communicate this disruption. The running tap represents greenhouse gas emissions; the plughole represents absorption by plants and the ocean; and the water in the bath represents the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. As we are release more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than can be reabsorbed, the dynamics of the cycle are shifting. If we keep going along this path, we shift the carbon balance irreversibly and this has a knock on effects on our other earth systems, most notably, a steady climate which we need for survival.

bathtub-analogy

Put forward by John Sterman at MIT, and Linda  Sweeney at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, the “bathtub analogy” suggests that the atmosphere is like a bathtub. 

Burning fossil fuels is one of the major ways we are generating greenhouse gas emissions. In his excellent book Sustainability Without the Hot Air, Professor David McKay dedicates his work to “the next generation who will not benefit from the two billion years’ accumulated energy reserves that we have”. Instead, our children are inheriting a world with dangerous levels of greenhouse gas (GHG) concentrations in the atmosphere that severely threatens their chances of having healthy, comfortable lifestyles. As individuals, communities, businesses and politicians, we should take responsibility with a long-term view for humanity’s survival. A great energy transition is called for. But can we act with pragmatism and urgency?

industry

It feels we are all at different stages in our response to this issue. There’s stubborn folks in prominent positions who are dragging their heels, some who are still in denial, and others working on the change. And many who simply have other priorities, or don’t think the role they can play. That’s the uncomfortable state of play. Pretty uncoordinated, lacking momentum, and lacking urgency. 

There’s no golden bullet solution for our great energy transition. However there are huge opportunities to reduce energy demands across our housing stock and in our organisations, and power up with a range of renewables. The solutions are diverse with some which are simple, low impact and cost effective, and others which are expensive and/or less-developed. History has shown us how quickly transformations can occur through waves of technological development – consider the internet, the introduction of electricity, technology. We need innovation, strong commitment, and heavy investment of time and money.

I wanted to give a special mention to nuclear power, even though this short piece is not a place to cover much ground of this complex discussion. Nuclear power is a difficult technology for me to accept. It’s a centralised, expensive technology with uncomfortable connections to weapons and has supply chain issues that could be vulnerable in the long-term. I also believe we have a lack of skills and expertise on modern nuclear energy in our country. Despite all this, it can provide a huge amount of energy with very low carbon emissions. This doesn’t lead to a black and white answer and as I’ve tried to weigh things up, I’ve been so disappointed at how nuclear is portrayed by both it’s supporters and opponents. Although I don’t like it, I could accept it provided its considered with good reason and engineering. However my preference is always for localised energy solutions; supported by robust policy and legislation and retrofit schemes – and it’s here I see so many opportunities. 

Recommended reading and resources

Zero Caron Britain

Sustainability Without the Hot Air (Free Book)

Tyndall Centre for Climate Research

Centre for Sustainable Energy

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