Solving the energy problem



Future Now asked 50 experts – scientists, technologists, business leaders and entrepreneurs – to lớn name what they saw as the most important issues of the 21st Century.

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Inspired by these responses, over the next month we will be publishing a series of feature articles & videos that take an in-depth look at the biggest challenges we face today.

Every day, our species chews its way through more than a million terajoules of energy. That’s roughly equivalent khổng lồ what we would use if all 7.5 billion of us boiled 70 kettles of water an hour around the clochồng. Or 3,000 times the daily output of Palo Verde nuclear power station in Arizomãng cầu – one of the world’s largest – running at full capathành phố.

With the global population swelling và industrialisation on the rise in developing nations, humanity’s hunger for energy has reached unprecedented levels. More than half of our energy comes from fossil fuels extracted from deep within the Earth’s crust. It is estimated that since commercial oil drilling began in the 1850s, we have sucked up more than 135 billion tonnes of crude oil to drive sầu our cars, fuel our power stations and heat our homes. That figure increases every day.

But our gas guzzling over the past two centuries has taken a potentially devasting toll on the planet. Burning of coal, oil và gas has been inextricably linked to the rising levels of greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere and is a leading contributor of climate change. The world’s scientists agree that we are on a path towards disaster that can only be stopped by weaning ourselves off our fossil fuel habit. But that leaves us with a problem. How vì we ensure the lights stay on?


The energy industry is facing decades of transformation và there are big political, economic & social issues at stake (Credit: Getty Images)

“The energy industry is facing decades of transformation,” according lớn a recent report by the World Energy Council. Yet the implications of the changes underway go far deeper. There are political, economic và social issues at stake, but it may also require each of us to lớn make some fundamental shifts in our behaviour too.

There can be no doubt that implementing a shift in where we get our energy from is one of the grand challenges facing our planet today. Đài truyền hình Future Now spoke lớn a panel of experts about what hurdles we must now overcome và where technology may provide an answer.

Perhaps the greatest issue raised by the scientists, policy experts and companies we spoke khổng lồ is how to lớn cope with the immediate hike in energy demands expected in the coming decades.

“There are still a lot of people around the world – 1.2 billion or so – who do not have sầu access lớn modern energy services,” explains Jyên Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre. “There is going khổng lồ be a lot of rising demvà from regions lượt thích Asia, Latin America & parts of Africa.”

"There is going khổng lồ be a lot of rising demvà from regions lượt thích Asia, Latin America & parts of Africa" – Jyên ổn Watson, director of the UK Energy Retìm kiếm Centre

There are still an estimated three billion people around the world who cook & heat their homes using simple stoves or open fires that burn wood, animal dung or coal. As developing nations become more industrialised, they will need access to lớn reliable electricity supplies. In countries where development is already underway, energy use will soar as increasing wealth leads to a swelling middle class và the lifestyle trappings that brings with it.

“Globally, the greademo challenge for energy is going khổng lồ be cooling,” says Martin Freer, director of the Birmingsay mê Energy Institute at the University of Birmingmê say. “With the growth of the middle class in India và China, there will be an associated demvà for air conditioning. The United Nations" Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change suggest that by the middle of the present century, the demvà for cooling will outstrip the demvà for heating.” Indeed, it is estimated that by 2040, the world’s energy consumption will have sầu increased by almost 50%.

"Globally, the greathử nghiệm challenge for energy is going to lớn be cooling" – Martin Freer, director of the Birmngmê man Energy Institute, University of Birmingham

But faced with global agreements to lớn reduce the amount of carbon dioxide being released into lớn the atmosphere, how will we meet this growing demand without dooming our ice caps và drowning low-lying regions beneath rising sea levels?

In truth, the picture may not be as bleak as it could be. Around a fifth of the world’s primary energy supply already comes from renewable sources such as wind, solar, hydro & geothermal. This sector is expected lớn continue growing by 2.6% each year until 2040.

Until recently, the main source of renewable energy was hydroelectric power & wind has been the fasdemo growing. But new advances in solar panel công nghệ, which allow them to lớn generate power even in overcast conditions, have seen a surge in the amount of energy being produced using the sun.

In the UK, for example, more than 12GW of solar energy has been added lớn the electrithành phố network in the past 12 months – the equivalent of an entire coal-fired power station. Worldwide, the amount of solar energy production grew by 1/2 last year. Researchers in many countries are working on new photovoltaic cells that can be printed on flexible sheets, which could reduce the costs of solar further.


Since commercial oil drilling began, we have sầu sucked over 135 billion tonnes of crude oil to drive sầu our cars, fuel our power stations and heat our homes (Credit: Getty Images)

Hooking up these new energy producers lớn existing grids won’t be straightforward, however. “One of the big challenges of deploying these intermittent renewables lượt thích wind & solar is the impact they could have sầu on the system,” says Watson. In many Western countries, the networks that carry our electricity supply into lớn our homes and offices are decades old, designed to lớn giảm giá khuyến mãi with steady, reliable power generation. Wind and solar energy are highly dependent on the weather – & the time of day, in the case of solar – meaning they bởi not necessarily produce the bulk of their electriđô thị at times when there are peaks in demand.

“It used lớn be that the summer was a really quiet time for the grid operator compared khổng lồ the winter,” explains Watson. “Now they are having this peak in generation in summer due to lớn solar energy when dem& is low. They are having lớn juggle this as we cannot store electricity in large quantities yet. This is a new way of operating for them.”

Most countries are currently tackling this by keeping more reliable sources of energy production in reserve sầu. This means having nuclear, gas & even coal fired power stations sitting idle or running at a low cấp độ, but ready to lớn ramp up their production should the wind drop or when the sun dips beneath the horizon.

According khổng lồ Robert Armsvào, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative sầu, this puts limits on how much renewable energy you can practically use. Armstrong’s models suggest that without energy storage only about 10% of our power could come from solar. “The reason is that solar is concentrated around midday, so you need generation lớn match demvà in the evenings and the mornings. There are issues around who builds that & who pays for that.”

"Transferring electrithành phố from regions that need it least khổng lồ those that need it most would help lớn enable substantial economic benefits" – Ksenia Letova, Skoltech Institute for Science & Technology in Russia

One solution khổng lồ this is to make the grids that distribute the electricity bigger – create so-called “supergrids”. The basic idea is that if energy is shared over a wider area, there is more chance that the sun will be shining or the wind will be blowing in one part of a supply network, if not another.

These schemes envisage connecting the energy grids of several countries together so electricity can be shared between nations. Proposals for a European supergrid và one in the United States have been discussed for decades. More recently there have even been calls for a global energy grid – an idea that has had support from Chinese State Grid, which mix up the Global Energy Interconnection Development và Cooperation Organization.

There are already some moves in this direction. The UK is building new underwater connections to lớn energy grids in France, Belgium, Denmark, Irelvà and Norway, with a capađô thị to import or export up khổng lồ 11GW of electrithành phố. There are also moves towards building an Asian supergrid which will connect nhật bản, Russia, Đài Loan Trung Quốc, Mongolia and South Korea.


One major advantage fossil fuels have over renewable energy sources – they are very easy lớn store & transport (Credit: Getty Images)

“Transferring electriđô thị from regions that need it least to those that need it most would help lớn enable substantial economic benefits,” says Ksenia Letova, project manager of the Asian Supergrid at Skoltech Institute for Science và Technology in Russia. “In countries like nhật bản & South Korea, the maximum seasonal load falls on the summer because of extensive use of air conditioning. In the Russian Far East và Siberia this is the period of the lowest electriđô thị demvà.”

Using the excessive capacities of neighbouring countries may help to lớn reduce costs of building new energy projects. For example, there are plans lớn develop large-scale wind and solar power stations in the Mongolian Gobi desert và in northern regions of Đài Loan Trung Quốc. These regions are sparsely populated but allowing the excess energy produced lớn be exported could bring in significant revenue.

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“The problem is the cost of building such a grid,” says Janusz Bialek, director of the Centre for Energy Systems at Skoltech Institute of Science & Technology. Transmitting electriđô thị over long distances can be inefficient & many countries will need to tăng cấp their powerlines lớn cope.

"Any failure of, or attaông chồng on, a global grid could have sầu very serious consequences, threatening supply in many countries" – Janusz Bialek, Skoltech Institute of Science và Technology

“There are political considerations too,” says Bialek. “Any failure, or attaông xã on, a global grid could have very serious consequences threatening security of supply in many countries.”

It is an important point. Energy security is already the main driving force in the geopolitical landscape. Countries with large oil reserves can largely dictate global policy and nations like Saudi Arabia have won themselves powerful allies like the United States as a result of the blachồng gold buried beneath their territory.

Russia has also used its fossil fuel resources lớn flex its muscles in recent years, turning off gas supplies through Ukraine, và so lớn several European countries, in disputes over prices & debts. Nearly a quarter of the natural gas consumed in the European Union comes from Russia.

Yet as nations become more reliant upon alternative sources of energy, it could also see these traditional power struggles changing. The largest producers of oil in the world are Saudi Arabia, the US and Russia. By contrast, currently the largest producers of solar energy are Đài Loan Trung Quốc, Germany và nhật bản while the US, Đài Loan Trung Quốc & Germany are the world leaders in wind energy.

“As new giải pháp công nghệ is developed it will shift the geopolitics of energy,” says Watson. “It will change relationships."

"As new technology is developed it will shift the geopolitics of energy, it will change relationships" – Jyên ổn Watson, director of the UK Energy Research Centre

 With countries such as Morocco building giant solar farm projects in their vast areas of desert in the hope of exporting this vast resource lớn other countries, it could lead to lớn states that have previously been small fish taking a bigger role on the global stage. If Mongolia builds its huge reserves of wind & solar in the Gobi, it could transform its standing in the eyes of the world.

Yet the need for supergrids và power-sharing đơn hàng between countries would be diminished if a good way to lớn store electriđô thị can be found. Beyond their widespread availability and affordability, fossil fuels have one major advantage over renewable energy sources – they are very easy to lớn store và transport.

Currently there is no easy way to store the electrithành phố produced by wind or solar energy for appreciable periods of time. Technologies like capacitors and flywheels can provide stored energy for a few minutes or hours. But electriđô thị grids need to lớn be finely tuned. They only work when the amount of energy put in is the same as that drawn out. The supply must match the demvà.

Many are still scratching their heads about what to lớn bởi when the sun is shining và the wind is blowing yet electriđô thị demvà is low. Hydroelectric dams can provide some of the solution. In the UK, excess electriđô thị is used khổng lồ pump water lớn the top of these dams in Scotl& and Wales, where it is stored as potential energy. When it is needed, the water is released khổng lồ drive turbines.


One of the biggest challenges is how lớn transport electricity lớn people where và when it is needed (Credit: Getty Images)

Cables currently being laid under the North Sea will also soon allow the UK to access the large amounts of hydroelectric storage in Norway. Excess energy from wind & solar will be exported to lớn Norway to be stored before being bought back off them when needed.

But building new hydroelectric dams is controversial & extremely damaging lớn local habitats. It has left researchers searching for another solution. Some are looking at building banks of batteries to store this energy, but battery technology is not yet good enough khổng lồ efficiently store large amounts of energy.

“My guess is that the solution is going khổng lồ come in the khung of fuel,” says Armsvào. “We can make fuel out of excess solar or wind, perhaps by splitting water to produce hydrogen and possibly taking some of that excess energy và reducing carbon dioxide khổng lồ combine with the hydrogen lớn make synthetic hydrocarbons.”

"The solution to storing energy is going to lớn come in the khung of fuel" – Robert Armstrong, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative

Currently there are a number of small scale projects around the world attempting just this. Aberdeen in Scotland, for example, is running the world’s largest demonstration project of hydroren fuel cells in buses. Renewable energy is used to generate hydroren, which is used khổng lồ power 10 public buses around the đô thị.

This could also solve another of the pressing problems facing many countries with colder climates – how lớn stay warm. “One of the big challenges that countries lượt thích the UK has is how vày you make heating more sustainable,” adds Watson. “These countries are still using fossil fuels for heating. You might need storage that lasts several months. This is an area that is really ripe for innovation and we are really only at the start of deploying và testing potential solutions.”

Most countries in northern Europe, including the UK, use natural gas lớn heat their homes. If Britain was khổng lồ abandon gas and use electricity for heating, it would require a four- or five-fold increase in the capađô thị of the electrithành phố network overnight, according khổng lồ Julian Leslie, head of electriđô thị network development at the UK’s ‎National Grid. 

"Increasing the capacity of the electriđô thị network is going to be hugely expensive" – Julian Leslie, head of electricity network development at the UK’s ‎National Grid 

“That is going to lớn be hugely expensive,” he says. “You would struggle lớn get the planning consent for the wires và generation needed. There is a very strong future for gas and we can decarbonise the gas a lot by producing hydrogen or biogas lớn inject inlớn the gas network. We need to lớn explore more alternatives khổng lồ how we can decarbonise gas further.”

Biogas & biofuels are often seen as one of the most viable alternatives lớn fossil fuels, with companies like BP investing huge sums into lớn developing production lines. Yet burning these fuels will not halternative text the release of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And with the burgeoning extraction of shale oil & gas in many parts of the world, it seems likely we will be reliant on fossil fuels for some time to come.

“By 2050 we will still be getting 75% of our energy from fossil fuels,” says Armstrong. “A critical issue for us will be to figure out how lớn reduce carbon dioxide emissions from those energy sources. That is going lớn require carbon capture storage & utilisation. Lowering the cost of capturing the carbon is probably the toughest piece of that but we also need lớn figure out how to store it for geological timeframes.”

"By 2050 we will still be getting 75% of our energy from fossil fuels" – Robert Armstrong, director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative

Carbon capture involves scrubbing the carbon dioxide gas from the fumes leaving chimneys. Typically this involves expensive chemicals lớn bind the carbon dioxide and requires replumbing power plants so the mixture can be heated as part of the scrubbing process. But there are some new approaches being developed that make use of metal ions, which avoids the need to heat the chemical mixture.

Energy companies may one day control our home appliances, turning them on when the weather is sunny (Credit: Getty Images)

Some believe the problems we face with renewable energy can be overcome in more direct ways, such as closer monitoring of individual households’ energy consumption. By 20trăng tròn the European Union is aiming khổng lồ have sầu 500 million smart meters installed in homes khổng lồ monitor energy usage.

Detailed minute-by-minute information about demvà should help power companies manage grids better. “Artificial intelligence will be essential in analysing the vast amounts of data generated around the power grid and taking real-time control decisions,” says Valentin Robu, a lecturer in smart grids at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotl&.

It could also lead to some fundamental changes in the way we consume công nghệ. “We are not that far away from me asking my energy company for the cheapest possible tariff they can give sầu và them sending me some plugs that connect lớn my WiFi network,” says Leslie. “It will mean that you are no longer in control of your dishwasher or your washing machine.”

"It will mean that you are no longer in control of your dishwasher or your washing machine" – Julian Leslie, head of electriđô thị network development at the UK’s ‎National Grid

Instead, it will mean our energy companies will control when our household appliances run. They will be able khổng lồ turn them on when the weather is sunny và solar energy is plentiful or when demand is otherwise low. 

Such approaches would mean a fundamental move sầu away from the “power-on-demand” way of consuming energy we have sầu grown use to lớn over the past century. Instead when our fridges go through cooling cycles or appliances turn on could be determined by fluctuations in the weather or the time of day. Our dishwashers, for example, may run during the day while we are at work rather than at night.

“For years we have consumed energy whenever we like & paid a flat rate for that,” says Leslie. “We will have lớn start shifting our use of energy to when it is there và available rather than shifting the energy production khổng lồ match our use.”

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