31 March 2007
Science can extend our use of the very small or very large. In 1970, my science teacher explained how, in a remarkable breakthrough, electronic circuits would soon be etched on silicon. 37 years and a micro-revolution later, we now live in a mature information age - Googling almost anything, snapping photos in mega-pixels, and carrying around our entire music collection in our pockets.
Science and technology are very beguiling. No wonder, governments look for techno-fixes faced with the awesome realities of climate change. Yet any technology applied at huge scale to our planet could simply create drastic problems if we do not thoroughly understand it. We must ensure that politicians do not go down hi-tech routes just to put off the awkward day when they will have to cut economic growth that is at the expense of the environment.
Photo: This solar motor is working a pump capable of delivering 1,400 gallons per minute.
The conundrum is that we have little time to tackle climate change, and we must also proceed carefully - new technology must be evaluated against the 'big picture'.
For example, the 'green fuels' myth of large scale biofuels production is now widely questioned as a consensus grows that current crop fuels help little with tackling climate change and are actually making things worse. It was crucial, big picture thinking that caused the environmentalist George Monbiot to call this week for moratorium on all biofuels targets and incentives.
What about another myth - 'clean coal'? If it were not for China's uncontrolled, economic growth, we probably would not be even considering coal as a fuel for the future. Recent reports that China's largely coal based emissions have doubled between 2001 and 2007 are totally scary, as is China’s build of around 40-50 Drax or Tilbury scale power stations every year. This trajectory of coal based growth is literally capable of killing us all.
Modern boilers can help efficiency by about 20% - that is, China could build 400 new power stations instead of 500 over the next decade to achieve the same energy growth. That's still 400 too many!
Enter carbon capture and storage (CCS) - trapping CO2 and pumping it into underground spaces eg old oil wells. It’s being trialled below the North Sea. But where could the CO2 produced this year, the next, for the next 50 years from many hundreds of power stations be stored?
In theory, there is actually enough space – the Stern review says enough for nearly a hundred of years of current fossil fuel emissions, possibly more. Proponents argue that it could be safely stored and without significant leakage but how can we be sure for hundreds of years? And even if it is, can we start storing it quickly enough and is it affordable?
In 2005, the EU and China launched a project "to develop and demonstrate in China and the EU advanced, near-zero emissions coal technology through CCS" by 2020. That's 13 years before mature technology – or 500 Chinese coal power stations too late. Remember Stern said that we have less than "10 years to act".
Each CCS demonstration project adds several hundred million dollars to the cost of a power station. The IEA are recommending that 10-15 such projects should be in place by 2015 at an estimated extra cost of $2.5 to $7.5 billion - just to demonstrate commercial viability.
That money could be used better by developing non-carbon based energy now by much greater investment in technology that is already viable – wind, solar and tidal – and crucially make 'quick wins' in reducing carbon emissions before 2020.
CCS may make coal 'usable', but big power stations will always waste up to 60% of energy as lost heat. By contrast, small-scale combined heat and power systems can use that heat for homes and buildings – such decentralised energy is very efficient.
Very large-scale extraction of coal will wreak major environmental damage eg blowing away complete mountains.
If we were starting from scratch, we wouldn't touch fossil fuels and would create entirely renewable energy systems. One such is concentrated solar power (see http://www.trec-uk.org.uk/) that could produce as much electricity as the world currently uses in less than 1% of the world's hot deserts – it needs urgent consideration and research funding - China could use it too.
Just on Thursday, it was reported that UK CO2 emissions from the power sector soared by 6% rise last year due to 'the roll to coal' – the switch from expensive gas to cheaper coal. The Government must reverse this urgently.
They must focus UK and EU research, money and effort on renewables that deliver emission savings now. Then we should transfer those technologies to the Chinese ASAP.