Clean Energy Landscape

With the Cop21 talks in Paris ending earlier this month… and the outcome being a global agreement to limit temperature increase to 2 degrees celcius, I wanted to capitalize on this momentum and ask myself what I, as a technologist, can do.

The agreement made speaks to limiting temperature, supporting developing countries to maintain growth, and keeping visibility into actions and compliance by all memebers. While there is vagueness about how this will be implemented, there is worldwide agreement that technology needs to be advanced in clean energy and related areas.

As a concerned citizen of the world and one that wants to leave it as beautiful as I’ve found it, I want to know what I, as a software engineer/technologist do to help? How can I contribute my largest asset, my tech skills, to help bring about this change?

Why 2 Degrees

In fact scientists actually believe we should not raise temperatures more than 1.5 degrees above pre-industrial averages. The graph below shows our potential CO2 emissions pathways for this century and their long-term impact on temperature.

What Needs to Change?

To achieve the aim of limiting temperature increase to 2 degrees celcius, we need to move away from getting most of our energy from fossil fuels. We need change to occur across governments, private investment, and societal comprehension/awareness of the problem and more. While I care about all of these, and technology can play a role in bringing these changes about, the largest technological changes need to happen in the energy system itself. So, what needs to change here?

Our current energy system is made up of the sourcing/production, movement, storage, and consumption of energy.

There’s space in all of these areas for major improvement. Let’s look at the current situation for each of these, where things need to get to.

Energy Production

The bottom line is that we need energy and we’re going to need more and more of it. We do have alternative, clean sources of energy available: solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, biomass, and nuclear. But, today we largely rely on coal, oil and natural gas.

US energy usage breakdown 2014

Note that clean, renewable energy sources represent < 10%, with the bulk of that in nuclear (which is debatable in terms of cleanliness and long-term liability). These percentages need to shift.

What needs to change to bring these shifts about?

Energy Networks

Today, our energy grids are a relic of a 100+ year old system. The limitations of these networks represent where much innovation need to happen. Let’s look at each limitation and the changes needed.

Efficiency

In the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory graph above, note that ‘rejected energy’ or energy produced, but lost and never consumed represents 59% of all the energy produced in the US. This is a huge area for improvement.

Timing/Storage

Our current electricity grids work on a realtime system. As in, when you pull electritiy off the grid and into your home to power your TV.. that electricity is a result of energy recently created at a power plant (probably by burning coal or natural gas). The idea is that the power plant predicts how much electricity will be demanded by consumers during any given hour of the day and they burn the appropriate level of coal or natural gas to provide that and put it out on the grid.

Currently wind and solar energy don’t integrate well. Solar energy is produced during the day (and sunny days at that) and wind is even more unpredictable.. although can provide energy at night. But, the issue is that they cannot currently be efficiently stored for later conversion and distribution onto the existing energy grid.

Whats needed here are better ways of storing renewable, clean energy for future use. There are a lot of interesting things happening here, but I’m going to dive into that in a future post.

Energy Location/Movement

Similar to the idea above, currently energy needs to be produced somewhat nearby to where it’s distributed and consumed. Wind farms in North Dakota cannot, now, efficiently have their energy transported for realtime consumption in Chicago.

Innovation needs to happen in both enabling energy production in many different environments and in new energy transportation networks that can efficiently move energy around where it’s needed.

Consumption

It may come as no suprise, but the US and many other first world countries consume the most energy per person globally.

Part of the solution needs to be figuring out ways to use less dirty energy in our high consumption areas without a decrease in standard of living. If we look back at that Estimated U.S. Energy Use graph above, it shows that transportation is 27% of our annual energy usage. This is definitely an area to seek improvement and but it needs to move beyond this to more consumer areas and to the industrial sector as well.

These are definitely areas to seek improvement and watch as a technologist.

Takeaway

This blog post was an examination of the current clean energy landscape and the areas where we need to innovate to answer our energy dillema. If we truly need to ratchet down our CO2 to reach a temperature rise of under 2 degrees, we will need innovation across all these areas. And these are areas where a technologist can bring their skills. If not in the specific answers to say battery efficiency or energy grid waste, definitely in the consumer products and infrastructure that will be needed to adopt these advances across the US and around the world.

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