David Bott, director of innovation programmes at the Technology Strategy Board (TSB), the government advisor on new technology, details the work that the TSB are undertaking to solve green energy problems and make new technological advances.
In transport, we have evolved to a situation where society is reliant on the internal combustion engine fuelled by either petrol or diesel – they believe it is the right choice mainly because that is what we have! Certainly, the energy density of this combination is good – so good that we have for many years taken the easy accessibility of the fuel and the flexibility of the engine for granted – and why there are about 34 million of them on our roads.
As we work with the Automotive Council to build a roadmap of what the future might hold, the evolution of our current way of doing things will remain in the mix for years to come – but it will probably change out of all recognition. Already the “series” hybrids are coming onto the market – where an internal combustion engine runs either at peak efficiency or not at all, providing power to the batteries which, in turn, power the electric motors.
Having driven a few prototypes, it is an odd experience but one that offers an important development pathway. The fact that the engine can be replaced by a fuel cell within the same overall power train, or left out completely for low range duty cycles, offers flexibility in development too! It also allows us to make the most of the existing infrastructure for delivery of petrol and diesel fuels that has taken about a century to build up.
If we move to wholly electric cars, then we will need extra capacity on the grid to transfer all those extra electrons! If we move to use hydrogen as a fuel, we will need a way to distribute and store it locally, so that we can enjoy the convenience we currently get with petrol and diesel! We also need to remember that it takes more than cars to make a transport system. The roads and the way we manage traffic on them are an important factor in how we get as efficiently as possible from A to B. And then there are mass transport systems, where the same sorts of question play out but with larger price tags and possibly wider impacts!
Energy is another area where we are already seeing the need for lots of change. At our current rate of growth in energy consumption we would need to add about 4GWh a year, about the equivalent of two large power stations, and if we do move to more electric personal transport, it is estimated we will need a total capacity of about 450TWh a year by 2030. Coal and oil fired power stations have a big practical advantage in that we can turn them on and off when we need to. As we move to more renewable power sources, we have much less control.
It sounds obvious, but both onshore and offshore wind depends on having wind, and although the costs are coming down, it is currently more expensive than traditional sources of energy. Tidal offers predictability (as long as there is a moon at least) but the peak occurs twice a day and changes time every day. Meanwhile, we steadfastly go to work and come home at the same times and use electricity in predictable ways. Local generation of electricity, or using the batteries in all those electric cars to store electricity that can be easily produced and harvested when it is needed, requires a control system of remarkable sophistication.
The houses we live in and offices we work in are still hugely inefficient in their use of energy. Most were designed and built before energy was an “issue” and are almost certainly run sub-optimally as systems. Although there are many components that allow homeowners to minimise their use of energy, they aren’t necessarily designed to integrate with one another and it requires a fair amount of skill and effort to build (or retrofit) a single house to achieve the sorts of energy savings we need over the next few decades.
Perhaps the dark horse of this picture is communications. Our increasing reliance on all forms of communication to interact at the personal, professional and commercial level is beginning to register on the dial – it already contributes about 2% of carbon dioxide emissions and that figure is estimated to grow at over 5% a year as we rely more and more on digital services to underpin our whole commercial base. Yet we also use digital information to control systems for maximum efficiency!
As we have built technology roadmaps in all these areas (and more), we see overlaps and similarities and some of our activities are beginning to reflect that insight. Now, as we explore how a Technology and Innovation Centre might contribute to the solution in many of these areas, by consulting widely across many areas and having to evaluate the responses under a common framework, the interlinking of all these areas becomes more and more compelling.
The truth is that all these systems are intermeshed. Without energy, most of our society would not function. We use it to keep our houses and buildings warm (or cool), we use it to power the transport that is a prerequisite for a modern society, we use it to power the hospitals that keep us healthy and we use it to power the communications systems over which we socialise and (increasingly) do business. What we are now grappling with is how we can build more links between these different aspects of society’s challenges, support higher levels of integration and address this “mega-challenge” in bite-sized chunks!