Book Review: Energy Innovation – Fixing the Technical Fix

The energy policy of our time is a mess. What can be done about it? Lewis Perelman addresses the problem by first analzsing its various roots and subsequently pointing towards possible solutions. Not surprisingly, the roots are manifold comprising technical as well as political sources. In a nutshell: there are very good reasons to go “away from emissions regulation and toward technology innovation”.  The ultimate goal is to “make clean energy cheap”.

Clean energy, however, does not become cheap by subsidising a particular branch of industry (as is currently the case in Germany with detrimental effects to the economy) but rather by providing the appropriate technology which is competitive against conventional energy sources.

Needless to say that there is a lot of effort put into R&D as well as innovation programs funded by countries and/or international organisations. In spite of that the great breakthrough is still lying ahead of us. Nevertheless, technology is the ultimate answer to our energy problems. Clearly, there are clean technologies, but so far none of them is cheaper and/or equally practical as the conventional carbon-based ones.

Perelman is convinced that governments have an important role to play in that game. I wonder why the market should not be able to create its own viable (and sustainable) solutions without regulators interfering. Nevertheless, also the role of government has its limits as Perelman acknowledges.

Thus the only way out from the current state of affairs is a big technology breakthrough. But how do we get there? There are clearly new ways needed to stimulate innovation in the energy sector. Thinking out of the box is paramount.  Going beyond conventional mechanisms to promote innovation may open new possibilities. Perelman discusses various ways to overcome the traditional path of innovation management, like new financing models, prizes, the role of philanthropists etc.

All in all, Perelman’s book offers a great insight into the complexity of the energy problem as well as into the even more challenging complexity of how to overcome it. Technology can save us – it has to!

Energy Innovation – Fixing the Technical Fix

by Lewis Perelman

www.energyinnovation.perelman.net

 

Nuclear power – a solution for a sustainable future?

I want to write about this subject because of a talk by a science professor that I heard a few weeks ago. He was talking about his vision for the future and how that future would look like concerning the CO2-problem and sustainability. According to him nuclear power should be used in order to be able to produce the electricity that will be demanded for in the future. Solar and wind options will not be able to succeed in producing enough energy for the future.

Solar based power and wind based power could never become a viable option to fulfill the world’s demand for energy. Their efficiency is limited, based on physical laws. I can partly agree with that. At the moment, the efficiency of commercial PV-panels is about 15%. At the other hand, the efficiency of PV-panels is increasing and a lot of research is done to improve the technology (see fig. 1).

Source: National Renewable Energy Laboratory

Fig. 1: Efficiency of PV-panels

The results of these tests have to be proven outside the laboratory, but the developments go fast. Another solar based option is to build large fields of PV-panels on empty fields, on empty land in industrial areas, on contaminated soil (examples of PV-fields in former coal-mining areas), floating on lakes or water reservoirs (e.g. at horticulture sites: http://www.valksolarsystems.nl/projecten). In this way, a sustainable option for electricity production is combined with other functions, a multi-functional approach; or contaminated areas can be of some use. We have to look for much more of those options to reach a sustainable future.

The efficiency of wind turbines nowadays is much higher than those 15-20 years ago. More is known also about the problems concerning turbines and possible methods to tackle many of those problems (noise pollution is almost decreased to zero). Next to the turbines on land, the option for turbines at sea came into the picture. That seems a good development.

A sustainable energy system has to be based on multiple technologies: wind and solar power, biomass, hydropower, etc. We all know that the wind and sun cannot produce energy constantly. Therefore, there is need for back-up power or storage capacity. A viable option seems the combination with hydrogen production. A gas that can be stored and used in a later phase to produce electricity. Another option: a large lake in two levels, so water can be pumped up when there is excess of electricity. In moments that wind or sun cannot produce electricity, the water can run down via a turbine and produce electricity via that technology.

Going back to the nuclear power option. I tried to indicate that I believe the efficiency of wind and sun can be improved further. One thing I know about nuclear power is that there is a huge problem with nuclear waste after electricity production. If it is stated that, according to physics, PV-panels can never reach high efficiencies, for sure the physical laws have also to be taken into account when proposing a nuclear solution. We have to keep in mind the physical aspect of ‘half-life’ (fig. 2). The use of nuclear power produces nuclear waste that has a considerable half-life and we do not have a proper way to deal with that waste. The best option we came up with, at the moment, is underground storage. Thereby, hoping that the caverns can store the waste without leakages or other disasters. But, we do not know what will happen in so many years: does the underground storage last forever, do people in centuries or millennia from now recognize  the symbols we have used, can they tackle leakage or misuse?

Isotope Percent in natural uranium Half-Life (in years)
Uranium-238 99.284 4.46 billion
Uranium-235 0.711 704 million
Uranium-234 0.0055 245,000
Plutonium-239 24,110
Plutonium-240 6560

Source: Institute for Energy and Environmental Research, ‘Uranium, its uses and hazards’; Factsheets, posted on December, 2011; Last modified May, 2012 (http://ieer.org/resource/factsheets/uranium-its-uses-and-hazards/) + Wikipedia, ‘Radioactive waste’ (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Radioactive_waste#Physics)

Fig. 2: Half-life of some uranium and plutonium isotopes

I would opt for a sustainable future in which I do not see a role for nuclear power. We have to focus on other sources and invest and research more in solar, wind, hydro, etc. I think our future will be a combination of centralized, sustainable solutions (wind turbine parks, hydro power plants, CSP/PV-fields, etc.) and decentralized sustainable solutions (local production with sun, wind, hydro, etc.). Sustainability deals with the here and now, but also with there and later. We have to keep in mind the generations that come after us.

A sustainable city needs to be smart

A sustainable city needs to be SMART.

In order to reach sustainability, SPECIFIC targets need to be set and met: e.g. reaching climate neutrality within a certain time frame. Those targets need to be MEASURABLE. It is not enough to just talk about sustainability and a transition. It is very important that the targets can be quantified and that results are shown. Reaching sustainability demands a lot of effort. Therefore it is important to make a time-plan and split up the final target into small steps that can be reached more easily and which can be measured. This introduces the 3rd aspect, i.e. targets need to be ATTAINABLE. When dividing the final target into smaller steps, results of the measures taken become visible one by one. It is also important to involve local stakeholders, e.g. inhabitants, local companies, governments, etc. Each step in the plan towards final sustainability can be celebrated, giving a boost to the people involved, showing that their actions result in something positive on the way to the final target. The measures need to be REALISTIC. It is good to dream about sustainability and about the transition to a sustainable city, but it will be reached by taking one step at the time. When going too quickly, without a plan to follow, problems can be created and it may become difficult to reach the final target. The approach needs to be TIMELY. It is important to develop a good plan towards a sustainable city. This means going step by step, and choosing which step/measure to take at which moment in a smart and innovative way. Thus, use what is available at a certain time and apply this measure to the best knowledge. Furthermore, try to find ways to improve these measures to bring cities to a next, sustainable level.

There are many examples and I will name a few. On the island of Samsoe in Denmark, they reached energy neutrality in 2005 (started in 1997). Some general facts: surface is about 110 km², and about 4000 inhabitants. The energy system of the island is based on wind and solar energy for electricity, biomass (straw and wood chips) and solar energy for heat and measures are taken for the fossil fuel use of the ferries and cars on the island. Güssing, Austria, is a nice example of how a complete village and region can transition from a fossil fuel based system with high costs to a system based on renewables, keeping more of the money in the region. General facts: surface is about 50 km², and about 3700 inhabitants (region 27000). They started in 1992 with the transition. Güssing has reached a 71% self-sufficiency in 2010 (100% if industry is not taken into account) and they are working on also reaching energy autarky within the Güssing-region. The energy system is based on local available biomass (wood, grass, rapeseed), via a CHP-plant and district heating, and solar energy. I will name one other example: the work that is done in the city of Wageningen in The Netherlands to transition to a climate neutral city by 2030. Wageningen has about 36000 inhabitants on about 32 km². In this initiative the municipality involves also local stakeholders like inhabitants and companies. The targets are: 25% local renewable production, 50% energy saving, and 25% import of renewable energy. Many more examples can be mentioned.

Furthermore, a SMART sustainable city needs to include the following aspects:

A sustainable city needs to be SUSTAINABLE. When taking a measure, this has to be done in a considered, clever way. A measure has to be ecological, economical and socio-cultural. This means keeping in mind also the future perspective: think about here and there, current and future generations (UN-Brundtland commission 1987, definition Sustainable Development). A sustainable city needs to be MULTI-functional/disciplinary. It is important to use the mixture of functions to find the most efficient and effective solutions for problems in the city. The multi-functionality needs to be seen as an opportunity and not as a problem. Another important aspect is AFFLUENCE. This means that people need to be able to live good and in the way they want, but they have to be aware of the consequences of their actions. A sustainable city has to inform its inhabitants about smarter ways to reach their targets, better for both the environment and the city. Those measures have to improve the quality of life in the city. A sustainable city needs to be RENEWABLE. This is/seems logic, meaning that the use of resources should be renewable. The measures taken need to be renewable or from residual origin. It is important to divert away from the old way of thinking: it is not possible anymore to use fossil fuels/resources as we currently do and think that we can compensate for the emissions and other negative effects. A last aspect for a sustainable city is the TECHNOLOGICAL one. This implies using the available knowledge and not always throw it away immediately because it seems not worthwhile or too expensive. Those new methodologies/measures need to be given time to develop. The technologies for fossil fuel use did not come out of the blue either and needed a lot of support as well.

The following figures show results of a study applied to a municipality in the south of The Netherlands, Kerkrade.

Fig. 1: Energy demand for different urban functions

Fig. 2: Energy supply potential for the studied district (solar: PV/solar boilers; hydrogen production demands electricity which is supplied by extra wind turbines).

The results are based on research described by the author in a published paper. Available by author on request. Reports on Samsoe, Güssing or Wageningen on which results are based, on request by author.

Wouter Leduc