Written by: Adarsh Patil
Edited by: Abhishek Chari
Humanity’s energy needs have been increasing on a global level, more than doubling in the past three and a half decades. The major energy sources that we have rashly harnessed to support this increase are fossil fuels. During the past two decades, it has become increasingly evident that relying on fossil fuels for most of our energy needs continues to contribute massively to global climate change. The excess heat trapped in our world due to the runaway increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels is destabilising our world at an unprecedented scale. This threatens the safety and well-being of humanity, as well as the biodiversity around us that we take for granted. In this difficult situation, can humanity come up with creative solutions that balance our requirement for energy with survival?
International agreements and discussions focussing on sustainability of our planet have gathered momentum in the past few years. Of recent importance are the 2015 Paris Agreement to rein in climate change by reducing CO2 emissions, and the 2021 Glasgow United Nations Conference (COP26). In tandem with the acceleration of international consensus on climate change, the search for ‘greener’ alternatives to replace fossil fuels has also speeded up. Such alternatives may offer the best hope for humanity and planet Earth.
But how can ‘green’ energy sources and technologies be developed and utilised for maximum impact?
To tackle the increase of CO2 and other greenhouse gases, while ensuring sustainable development, we need to focus on those sectors of human activity that consume the highest share of energy from fossil fuels. These are the transportation sector (including rail, road, air and waterways) which leads global energy consumption, closely followed by the buildings sector and then the manufacturing sector. Shifting the bulk of energy use in these sectors to renewable and ‘green’ energy sources – that do not contribute to climate change – is of the utmost importance.
By doing this, we can wean ourselves off from our troubling dependency on fossil fuels. But, each of the equally important sectors of human activity is constrained in different ways when it comes to energy usage. So, there is no easy ‘one size fits all’ solution. Rather, sector-specific combinations of policy and technology improvements need to be adopted, if we are to meaningfully address their varied energy challenges.
Transportation – Looking at the numbers from even a few years back, in 2016, cars accounted for close to half of global energy consumption (44%) within the transportation sector. This large energy demand from cars presents a potentially impactful opportunity to accelerate our move towards ‘greener’ sources of energy. An increasing number of gasoline powered car manufacturers such as Mercedes Benz, Renault, Nissan and others are joining the battery-powered EV (Electric Vehicle) market. This shows that electrification of passenger vehicles might indeed happen at a scale that can have major energy impacts.
On combining renewable energy sources of electricity with EV technology, the overall efficiency of passenger cars can be around 40-70 percent. However, the adoption of these vehicles is hampered by their lower range when stacked against those using a fossil fuel powered internal combustion engine.
This problem can be solved by establishing electric fuelling infrastructures as shown by Tesla and other companies. While Tesla has established a huge network of superchargers in the United States and Europe, its delayed entry into developing markets such as India and mainland China allows other technologies such as Fuel Cell Electric Vehicles (FCEVs) to step up and provide an alternative. These cars use hydrogen as a fuel; when combined with oxygen, it generates electricity (and water vapour as emissions) to drive the motor more efficiently than in gasoline powered ICE cars.
Plus, if you aren’t a fan of the eerie silence in the cockpit of an electric or FCEV car, you might enjoy Toyota’s development of a revolutionary combustion engine. It replicates the nostalgic sound and feel of a gasoline-guzzling engine, but only using hydrogen as the environment-friendly fuel.
Developing sustainable energy sources for heavy-duty transportation vehicles is not as straight-forward as for cars. High energy requirements for heavy duty trucks and the low power output to weight ratio of batteries make them unviable for such applications. On 28th May 2020, an electric powered Cessna 208B Grand Caravan became the first all-electric passenger flight with 30 minutes of flight duration, albeit with a capacity of only 4-5 passengers. An Airbus A380 flying 600 passengers can travel only 1000 km with electric batteries against the 15000 km distance it can cover using current aviation fuel. Doesn’t paint a good picture, does it?
Hydrogen on the other hand, has very low energy capacity on a volume basis, making it non-feasible as fuel for long-haul flights. But there is good news on the horizon for fuel cell technologies that utilise this element. Researchers are tackling this problem of hydrogen by storing it in molecules/substances (organic molecules, molten metals/salts, ammonia) that have higher densities.
Meanwhile, a different technology altogether has the potential to replace the source of jet fuel or kerosene from fossil fuels with a renewable source of catalytically transformed biomass. By doing this, we don’t need to spend extra energy to drill and remove crude oil from deep underground. Instead, ‘waste’ biomass that is readily available on the surface – municipal, agricultural or forest residues- can be converted into high-grade fuel for airplanes. This extra energy ‘credit’ in turn reduces the total ‘CO2 emissions’ or ‘carbon footprint’ for this energy source. Another advantage is its availability from local communities, which leads to lesser dependence on a centralised source of energy.
In a nutshell, while electricity and hydrogen can power short distance journeys in the near future, a similar technological maturity has not been achieved for longer and bulkier transportation. More research and testing is needed to find an optimal sustainable solution for long-range, heavy vehicles. Although the movement of humans and various goods consumes the largest proportion of energy, don’t discredit the energy consumed when we aren’t on the move….
Buildings – The buildings sector was responsible for almost a third of global energy demand in 2017, consisting of residential and commercial needs. Residential needs include the energy demand for amenities such as heating, cooling, lighting, water heating and the operation of consumer products, while commercial needs include powering shopping centres, data centres, restaurants, hotels, schools and other facilities.
A welcome trend in this sector is the expanding role of renewable power sources, including photovoltaic cells that capture solar energy, wind farms, hydropower and nuclear energy. A total of 260 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy was added globally in 2020 despite the COVID-19 pandemic, with solar and wind energy accounting for almost 90% of this supply. But, solar and wind energy, though available in abundance, are intermittent in nature – they wax and wane in power, even over the course of a single day.
This sort of fluctuation does not mesh well with how we have all grown accustomed to an uninterrupted supply from electrical grids to places of work, leisure and rest. So, a big step needed in this sector is developing improved methods of storing the electricity generated from renewable sources – so that power can be delivered consistently to the grid over long periods of time.
Some of the existing solutions include pumped storage hydropower, where water is pumped to a higher elevation during periods of low electricity demand and released back to generate power, and electricity storage in solid state batteries. But their widespread use is hamstrung due to a long list of reasons, to which we can definitely add the relatively high cost of lithium-ion batteries. So, despite the existence of such solutions, fossil fuels are still used to meet around 70% of overall energy demand, including an increasing contribution from coal-fired power plants.
Three main developments are needed in order to usher in a quicker clean energy transition in this sector: research efforts to develop better electric storage solutions, policy creation and enforcement from government agencies to accelerate the transition towards cleaner, dependable energy sources and greater willingness among people to adopt new technologies in their everyday lives, such as LED lighting fixtures, and other energy efficient home appliances .
Manufacturing/Industry – Adding to the energy requirements of travel and habitation, we also use a variety of industrially made products. Some of these fall into the essentials category, such as soap, detergents and cookware whereas some others like certain kinds of electronics, jewelry and toys can be classed as non-essentials. Raw materials need to be refined and converted for all of these products to appear in their final form; this is what makes up the manufacturing/industry sector.
Within this sector, iron and steel manufacturing, along with the cement industry, are the highest consumers of energy; followed by petrochemicals. The machines and equipment running in the factories consume tremendous amounts of energy, out of which almost 70 percent is supplied by fossil fuels such as natural gas, oil and coal. As economies grow, so will the demand for materials and the energy needed to manufacture them. Hence, radical innovation and investment will be required to either replace fossil fuel energy sources or engineer carbon neutral manufacturing processes.
A working example that holds great promise is the HIsarna test installation that began work on the TATA Steel site in the Netherlands in 2010. It is estimated that industrial implementation of this reactor type and its associated processes can lead to reduced onsite CO2 emissions and energy consumption by at least 20 percent. A similar but larger installation will be built at TATA Steel’s flagship Jamshedpur site in India.
Huge steps are also being taken to make CCUS (Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Sequestration) affordable, in order to reduce the CO2 emissions from the iron and steel manufacturing industry and effectively remove excess CO2 from the atmosphere. Companies such as Carbon Engineering, Climeworks are the prominent players in this field. However, the mantle of replacing fossil fuels as energy source in this industry can ultimately be taken up by hydrogen which can be produced completely using electricity derived from renewable energy sources.
In the context of India, rising population and urbanisation will lead to a high energy demand in the coming years. Currently, solar energy contributes a meagre 4 percent towards the total energy requirement, against the 70 percent sourced from burning coal. However, India’s total capacity for harnessing solar energy has increased from 2.6 GW to 42 GW in the last 7 years. Continuing on this trend, the contribution of solar power to India’s total energy requirement could reach 30 percent by 2030.
While such a rising trend of adopting renewable sources for electricity generation will indeed help India to reduce its CO2 emissions, the emissions contribution from its industry and transportation sector will wipe out this offset. This is why the battle to fight climate change needs to be fought on multiple fronts, even when engaging with one kind of energy source such as hydrogen. For the transportation sector, a recent press release by India’s National Thermal Power Corporation Renewable Energy Limited (NTPC REL) to set up the country’s first Green Hydrogen Mobility project in Ladakh can act as a benchmark for other regions to follow suit, if implemented successfully. Meanwhile, the commitment of Indian multinational conglomerate JSW Group to use green hydrogen in the steel-making process also bodes well for similar initiatives being adopted in the industry sector.
Scientific efforts around the world have produced several technologies that can move us toward a ‘greener’ future, sustained by renewable energy sources. While many of these transformative technologies are still undergoing development in laboratories or being piloted at small scales, some are ready for societal adoption and use. These ready-for-application technologies range from power generation systems that can support entire communities, such as energy farms powered by wind or solar power, to products that can be adopted for use by individual consumers, such as electric vehicles.
The August 2021 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has been described as “code red for humanity” by the UN Secretary-General. So, both the research and adoption of such technologies need to increase massively if we are to have any chance of reversing the detrimental changes to the Earth’s climatic systems. But, even if we can dismantle barriers of expertise and knowledge, political conflicts continue to complicate cooperation on issues of planetary importance. So, from this point on, we need united action: not just from researchers, scientists, politicians or industrialists, but from all people regardless of professional divides or allegiances. Nuanced and creative solutions are the need of the hour, and they need to be shaped and supported by collective action from the voting public.
Can we find the ingenuity and courage to truly care for ourselves, and the only planet we call home, before it’s too late?
The featured image was made using using the free word cloud generator www.wordclouds.com and is based on the text of this article.
Representative images for transportation, buildings and manufacturing/industry have been sourced from www.nounproject.com and attributed to their respective creators – Transportation by Rflor, Building by Ragal Kartidev and Manufacturing by Siipkan Creative.
The embedded video titled ‘Unveiling the Sound of a Hydrogen-Powered Engine’ is sourced from the Youtube channel of Toyota Times Global.
Adarsh Patil is currently a Phd candidate/Doctoral Researcher in the Sustainable Process Engineering Group at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands. His research is focussed on the design and development of an efficient chemical reactor, using experimental data and modelling.