This blog post was first published on Nation.Cymru by Robert Frater.
Covid-19 is currently hogging the Global catastrophe spotlight – the impact on individuals, families, and communities are real and visceral; an immediate lived experience that requires no great foresight to understand.
It’s understandable therefore that it dominates the news headlines. But what of the longer running crisis that it has pushed down the running order of the news agenda – that of climate change?
The impacts of this are becoming ever more evident – record high summer temperatures in Siberia, the thinning of ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland to name just a few. The consequences are likely to last much, much longer than the current pandemic.
There are many complex factors that contribute to climate change, but obviously the single biggest contributor to rising levels of CO is the combustion of fossil fuels. We all know that however efficient we get at the burning of coal, oil, or gas, it contributes to global warming – so why do we keep doing it?
The answer to that question is the challenge that Green energy must robustly solve if it is truly to make a difference. In truth, the reason that we are still addicted to those dirty hydrocarbons is that they are convenient; trapped energy that can be easily released as and when it is required.
So does Wales have any of the answers to that challenge? The answer is yes, but only if people make it happen.
The country already has great opportunities to utilise the current mainstream green energy technologies; Wind farms are already a familiar site and Solar is established; Wave power could be better exploited along the 870 miles of our coastline, and Tidal power offers energy production that is predictable generations in advance (it just needs the levers of power to be placed in the right hands).
All have some related environmental impact, but overall the benefits outweigh the issues.
The most significant problem with all these technologies is that that they produce electricity only when the conditions are favourable, not necessarily when you need it. This is why the problem with green energy is not generation, but storage; how can we store this abundant green energy so that it becomes as convenient as hydrocarbons?
One answer may lie in new research into artificial photosynthesis that has recently been published in Nature. This describes how a photo-catalytic sheet uses light to react carbon dioxide and water to produce formic acid and oxygen. Formic acid is a flammable liquid that could be stored and used much like the petrochemicals we have currently.
Artificial photosynthesis may offer a route to replacing petrol and diesel, but it shares a problem with a more established energy storage strategy – batteries. The efficiency of battery technology has improved by orders of magnitude over the last few decades, whether that be for our personal electronic devices, electric cars, or commercial energy storage.
The drawback for both technologies is the reliance on another set of finite resource – elements such as Lithium, Lanthanum or Rhodium to name but a few. Whilst some of these are abundant in nature, all require significant energy input for extraction and refinement, and mining processes rarely have a beneficial impact on the environment.
So where does that leave us?
Hydroelectric and bio-fuel power stations can provide ‘on-demand’ electricity but wholesale expansion of such generating capacity is problematic due to restrictions of geography and competition for agricultural land use. Ironically enough climate change may also make the long-term viability of these technologies uncertain, as they rely on rainfall as the starting point for energy generation.
Currently the most likely green energy storage solution is the generation of hydrogen by electrolysis. The electricity produced by renewable energy can be used to split water into its constituent elements – hydrogen and oxygen; the hydrogen is captured and stored for later use.
The concept of burning a gas for heat, power or as a fuel has a familiarity to it, as does the infrastructure required to facilitate it. The key advantage of hydrogen over our conventional gas supplies like LPG is that it only produces water when burnt – no smoke, soot, or carbon dioxide.
So where are we in terms of switching from a hydrocarbon economy to a hydrogen economy?
There is some obvious progress in ventures such as the University of South Wales research centre at Baglan where they research hydrogen technologies and create awareness of hydrogen as a clean fuel source, and the Wales Hydrogen Trade Association which was launched in February to represent and advance the hydrogen economy.
But whilst these initiatives are welcome do they address the challenge of how you start making a hydrogen economy tangible to ultimate decision-maker- how do they convince The Consumer?
Hydrogen needs to be as convenient as oil is now for both the public and the consumer. It needs bravery, resolve, and an example from government, large and small, not just grants and kind words.
Invest in infrastructure is needed – we need to run public transport on hydrogen, and offer incentives to business that can demonstrate their commitment to the technology e.g. by giving them an advantage in contract tendering processes.
If we are shameless and reward people for switching, ultimately it will be a win-win. Think of the reductions in carbon emissions; think of the health benefits of reduced air pollution. Think too of the energy security for Wales of using green energy and water.
So how do people make it happen in time to make a real difference?
Ask questions. Ask industry leaders, ask religious leaders, ask your boss. Ask them how they intend to develop the hydrogen economy; ask them when; ask them what needs to change to make it happen; ask them who they need to influence to make the transformation.
Then ask the same questions of those seeking election at any level. Don’t appeal to their better nature – appeal to their self-interest. Tell them that their best interests are served by making it happen, tell them that it is the price of your vote; tell them you have a long memory and don’t give second chances.
The change is there for the making. You have the power. Make the right choices.