Monday, 1 July 2019

Environment Monday - Can Technology solve the Global warming crisis?

It's that time of the year when people start to think about global warming. When the sun shines and it is hot, it seems to focus the mind. With much of Europe seeing record temperatures, it is becoming ever clearer that we need to do something. There seems to be three main schools of thought. These are

1) Bury our heads in the sand and wait for disaster to befall us before we do anything (advocated by the likes of Trump and Farage)

2) Embark on a massive program of decarbonisation and take a huge economic hit (advocated by extinction rebellion, the Green party etc).

3) Develop new technologies to fix the problem (advocated by the likes of Elon Musk)

For me, option 3 is the most interesting. Perhaps the thing which intrigues me most is that we don't really need to develop that much. Most of what we need is already here, but we choose not to deploy it. Lets have a look at a few ways in which we could massively reduce our carbon footprint.

Solar energy - There are two problems with solar energy. The first is that the sun doesn't shine all day and the second is that when it does it can actually generate too much energy. With a carbon fuelled power station, you can regulate the generation and manage power spikes. With solar energy, the production is almost chaotic. Take last month. I have solar panels. For June, my panels produced 3.45KW/H on Monday June 10th. On Thursday June 27th it produced 23KW/H. Our consumption on both days was around 20KW/H. This demonstrates how hard it is to rely on solar. But there are technologies to manage this. Elon Musk has invested billions in a plant to produce batteries. These would allow charge to be stored. I spoke to a friend who is an engineer. We had a fascinating discussion on this issue. His view is that every new dwelling by law should be required to fit a solar system and a battery system to store the energy. For most properties, this would add around £14,000 to the build price. These homes would then enjoy free energy for much of the year at no carbon costs.  It seems to me a no brainer. As we pay mortgages back over 20 odd years, the home owner would be in substantial profit by the end of their mortgage. It really is criminal that this hasn't been done. But he had an even more interesting idea. For the vast majority of UK residents, our cars are idle for up to 23 hours a day. Every car has a battery. A simple regulator could be supplied that would allow you to plug your car into the national grid. When solar is overproducing, our cars could mop this up and then feed it back to the network as sunshine declines. The system would manage the battery so that there was always ample charge to start the car. Car owners would get a fee from the grid for their contribution. My friends suggestion was that things such as congestion charge, road tax could be used to incentives usage of the system. The system would be primarily used to manage sudden peaks and troughs. I found this idea fascinating

Biofuels - The idea is that you farm fuels to be burned in a sustainable manner, so that the net carbon usage is zero. This can be as simple as managing forests, but it could be using genetically engineered microorganisms to pull carbon out of the atmosphere which can be converted to oil and petrol. I saw a fascinating proposal to grow such micro organisms in polythene tubing in the Nevada Desert. Using the Earths resources such as trees, algae etc to capture carbon seems to me a really sensible proposal. Using technology to enhance and manage this is clearly the way of the future.

Tidal power - Using the tide to generate electricity is not a new idea. The idea is that you use the rising and falling tides to generate electricity by working turbines. Production is entirely predictable. The downside is that these peaks are not sync'd with when we actually need them, which again brings us back to storage of electricity

Hydrogen technology - Hydrogen is the cleanest imaginable fuel. When it burns it produces water. You can produce usable hydrogen simply by passing a current through water. If our tidal and solar powered systems are producing too much energy, this would seem to be a sensible thing to use the overproduction for.

Transport modal shift - Transport is a huge source of carbon in the atmosphere. It seems to me to be perverse that the UK is still buying new Diesel powered railway vehicles. It would seem to me that we should be aiming to replace these with electric or hydrogen powered vehicles. The UK should be setting firm deadlines for the end of diesel power on our railways. But there is more we can do. Our transport networks are geared up for rush hour traffic. If we could persuade 15% of workers to avoid the rush hour, we'd see huge reductions in carbon emissions. The less cars on the road, the less idling at traffic lights. We need a coherent strategy to encourage usage of bicycles. With technology, it should be possible to log journeys and I'd like to see us all have a personal carbon allowance, which determines the rate of tax we pay. If we take a decision to pollute, we can pay for the privilege. many of us walk around with Fitbits and other trackers. If we walked, cycled and took the train, it would be easy to log this. As we'd be fitter and healthier, the NHS would need less money. Sadly, as I live in Barnet, which is possibly the worst London Borough for cycling, I don't put into action what I preach as much as I like. I do usually walk to work, but once you venture onto the  A1/A41/A406 you are risking your life. We need to invest in technology. When I first started my working life, I used to travel to St Pancras on an antiquated Diesel powered train. In 1983, this was replaced with an electric train and in 1987, the Thameslink Cross London service opened. Last year, the upgrade of this (Originally called Thameslink 2000) was finished. When the service was a rickety old diesel carriage, only around 4-5,000 people a day were using it. Now it is one of the busiest lines in the country. It has cost billions, but has transformed the travel patterns of hundreds of thousands of people. This has generated prosperity and removed carbon. It is a shining example of what we should be doing.

The point I've been trying to make is that most of what we need to secure a massive decrease in the UK's carbon footprint is not yet to be developed fancy systems. It is simply being creative and using what we've already got in a sensible and well managed manner. If we put the money into it, the UK could become world leaders in something that would be hugely lucrative. To me it is a no brainer. Sadly our political masters seemingly have no brains!

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