Energy research is so vital right now

Everything we do needs to become more energy efficient — from the way we heat our homes to the way we store our data — and we’ve got less than 12 years to do it, says Professor Tony Day, Executive Director IERC
Energy research is so vital right now
Prof Tony Day is Executive Director of the International Energy Research Centre at Tyndall in Cork. The IERC Annual Conference “Enhancing Success in Energy Research – Mind Space to Market Place” will take place on April 11, 2019. See www.ierc.ie

THE recent United Nations IPCC report suggested that we have just 12 years to get our greenhouse emissions under control to prevent catastrophic climate change.

As most of these emissions come from burning fossil fuels, this means time is not on our side to find solutions that both prevent global warming while continuing to provide all our energy needs.

Although we know what many of these solutions are — renewable electricity from wind, solar, waves etc., and energy storage in the form of batteries, hydrogen, biofuels and heat — the challenge is to deploy these widely and rapidly at reasonable cost to the consumer, without disrupting existing energy supplies.

One way to reduce the cost of renewables is to need fewer of them, which we can do by reducing our energy needs, through greater energy efficiency. A very good example of this is the use of LED lighting, which can save 75% or more on lighting energy costs. While they are currently more expensive to buy, LED lamps last 20 times longer than an incandescent light bulb, and as research into new materials continue to provide more efficient conductivity they become significantly cheaper in the long run.

But LED lamps didn’t just appear. They needed years of applied research to take what was a well-known theory and turn it into a useful, affordable product. We need more solutions like this for the way we heat our homes, use our transport systems, keep our food fresh, and store our data. In fact everything we do needs to become more energy efficient, and then those appliances need to be supplied by zero carbon sources. And we’ve got less than 12 years to do this.

Research is all about ideas. And turning a concept that starts inside someone’s mind into a useful product, artefact or service is a complex process that takes a good deal of time. It is important for research to provide tangible value to society, and this is greatly helped when industry teams up with academics. Industry often knows what solutions it needs, and research academics know how to solve problems. So putting them together can really speed up the process of delivering something valuable.

The IERC conducts research with industry and academic partners to deliver exactly these types of accelerated solutions. We work to develop better systems, for example in smart electricity grids, residential energy storage, consumer engagement, low carbon heating and cooling solutions. To build better systems we need to work with providers of the latest technologies, the best theoreticians, and those organisations that will implement the solutions (the utility companies, or building owners and managers, vehicle fleet operators, etc.). It can be difficult and time consuming to get these parties together with a common aim of finding a solution to future needs, but it has to be done if we are to succeed in transforming the energy system.

Let’s try to imagine a zero carbon society. What will it look like? Would we have to make sacrifices in the way we live our lives?

More solar energy hits the surface of the Earth in one hour than the whole world uses in one year. This gets soaked up by the Earth’s surface and the oceans to drive our weather systems, and by plants to form biomass. Some of it we can directly harvest with photovoltaic (PV) cells or thermal collectors, and some indirectly from wind and wave conversion devices. (Wind and wave are just forms of solar energy). However, these are not always constant in any particular area. Whereas fossil fuels give us stored energy (actually many millions of years old buried sunshine) that we can use whenever we need them, renewables are intermittent and until recently have been expensive. So let’s assume a world where renewable technologies are completely affordable, and we have developed cheap and reliable ways to store this energy. It might look like the following.

All major buildings in cities will have photovoltaics on their roofs, including many residential homes. Each building will have either its own electrical battery store, or there will be a community storage facility that serves a number of buildings. These buildings will either use the electricity produced directly, or sell the surplus to other consumers, or charge up the energy store. Which of these it is will depend on weather conditions and demand patterns at any moment in time. Cars will be either electric or run on hydrogen. Electric cars will plug in at home or by the road side, hydrogen cars will still go to a local filling station. In fact these hydrogen cars, when not being used, could generate electricity (through their on-board fuel cells) to sell to the grid. The whole community becomes fully interconnected in a zero carbon system.

Heating is a bit more challenging. Heat demand can be up to five times higher than electricity demand. Heat pumps can reduce this demand, but the buildings they heat must be well insulated with controlled ventilation. It makes sense to use every available renewable source, and one of these is biofuel, from either solid wood (biomass) or biogas from agricultural residues. Biogas allows us to put low carbon fuel into the existing gas network that can heat our homes with existing technologies. The network could also be used to carry hydrogen, made from excess electricity produced by large offshore wind farms. This might provide a transition over some decades to a fully solar economy.

Is this possible? The answer is yes. Is it affordable? The IPCC report says it’s essential — the costs of not doing it would be ruinous to civilisation. The more important question is: is it affordable now, and are these costs acceptable? This is the job of research, and why it is so vital, to make these systems reliable, affordable and that the transition is not disruptive to our way of life. We cannot afford not to do this.

Prof Tony Day is Executive Director of the International Energy Research Centre at Tyndall in Cork.

The IERC Annual Conference “Enhancing Success in Energy Research – Mind Space to Market Place” will take place tomorrow, Thursday, April 11, 2019. See www.ierc.ie

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