If you’ve been feeling down about the state of the global environment, particularly after COP26 in Glasgow, this Eco Chat episode is for you. I’m sharing a presentation I delivered to around 200 doctors last month at the Doctors for the Environment iDEA 2021 conference. I was invited by Dr Kate Wylie to share a message of innovation and progress so conference attendees could leave the conference with a feeling of hope. I hope the presentation has a similar impact on you too.
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Transcript of Conference Presentation
Dr Kate Wylie:
So welcome Laura, she’s our next speaker. Laura’s an environmental engineer and an award-winning sustainability educator. She has experience in conducting climate risk assessments and has completed climate change studies for multiple defence, resource and mining, and transport and infrastructure projects. She’s inspired and educated tens of thousands of people globally to adopt a greener lifestyle through her Eco Chat podcast, which is how I met Laura, and is very much involved in encouraging people with their individual actions and how that can be translated into the wider world.
Thank you all for tuning into this presentation. So yes, I am a senior sustainability engineer and I work part-time as an engineer and I also deliver sustainability education online and run my Eco Chat podcast, which is in the sixth or seventh year now. So I’ve worked in environmental management and sustainability for, gosh, about 23 years now. And I… This might sound surprising after just coming off Richard’s presentation, but I am actually quite positive right now about the future of our planet, mostly because when I entered the space, when I was studying environmental engineering over 25 years ago, we were such a small cohort coming through. And I was like that one or two people in a big company trying to drive change. There’s so many more of us now, the voices are getting louder, the community and the public are getting on, and there’s lots of people doing really great things.
I’m going to share some of the positive stories today. And also there’s a lot more policies in place by governments, particularly at a state and local level that are moving ahead. So during the next 20 minutes, I’ll share some of the main engineering solutions to climate change. I’ll be specifically covering the problem that we’re seeking to solve, the very real challenges ahead of us and solutions that we currently have that are being implemented at a phenomenal rate within my home state of South Australia, Australia as a whole and globally. And by sharing these solutions with you, I hope that you too can just grab, even if it’s just a glimpse of hope about our future and feel positive about the future of humanity and our planet.
Of course, we’re more and more familiar with the bad news stories and there’s plenty of them out there, but I do want to leave you today with just a little seed of hope and we will have time at the end of the presentation to answer any questions. So let’s dive in.
The climate change problem
Before I do cover the solutions, I do want to recap what the actual problem is. Now, I’m sure you are all familiar with greenhouse effect and what is actually causing climate change, and it essentially is that burning fossil fuels for the last 100 or so years has put the Earth’s energy equilibrium out of balance. So we have solar radiation in the form of light waves coming through our atmosphere, some of this energy is radiated back into space and some of it’s trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere and it warms it up.
The problem is our layer of greenhouse gases just gets thicker from the burning of fossil fuels and more of that outgoing infrared radiation is trapped. So as a result, our global surface temperatures and indeed our oceans as well are increasing in temperature rapidly impacting natural systems and presenting us with the future of guaranteed scarcity, instability, and strife, and not just a future and in actual present as well. You can just see from that graph down the bottom, there’s steady increase in global surface temperatures over the last 120 odd years. So that’s our problem.
the climate change challenge
Now let’s take a look at the challenge should we choose to accept it. Essentially, we need to bring the 51 billion tonnes of greenhouse gases that are emitted globally each year down to zero.
But that’s not all.
We need to keep it at zero as our global population continues to increase and as the developing world seeks to increase their standard of living. Getting to net zero means that we need to essentially zero out every one of the categories, so greenhouse gases that are emitted during our manufacturing and construction (which is the way we make things essentially) through to our generation of electricity, in the agriculture sector, in the transport sector, and also how we heat and cool our buildings as well as our refrigeration systems.
So that’s the challenge, we need to reduce by 51 billion tonnes a year.
I am delivering a presentation on the solutions to climate change, but I just want to have a little caveat here because we can’t actually solve climate change. The horse has bolted on that one. And as a result, we, and future generations will be living in a world, we’re currently living in a world with environmental conditions that are permanently altered. The best we can do is to keep the changes within a manageable range, prevent the disaster that will result from the unchecked rise of emissions.
So we must stop emitting greenhouse gases by 2050, and ideally earlier than that, by 2040, and we have to half global emissions by 2030 to have even a half decent chance of being net zero by 2050. We’re still barely just inside a zone where we can starve off the worst and manage the remaining long-term effects of climate change.
And this really, COP26, is really the last point in time when we’ll be able to do this. That’s why this one is just so critically important for humanity. That is our challenge. And to put this challenge into perspective, I really love this quote from Bill Gates, “We need to accomplish something gigantic that we’ve never done before, much faster than we have ever done anything similar. To do it, we need lots of breakthroughs in science and engineering. We need to build a consensus that doesn’t exist and create public policies to push a transition that would not happen otherwise. We need the energy system to stop doing all the things we don’t like and keep doing all the things we do like. In other words, to change complete and also stay the same.” Should be simple, right?
Solutions to climate change
Okay, so let’s take a look at some of the solutions.
Essentially the main engineering solutions for climate change fit under the following three areas, that’s decarbonizing the electricity grid, decarbonizing manufacturing, so that’s how we make things, decarbonizing agriculture, transport heating, and cooling, and last but not least, increasing carbon sequestration. And that is how we basically suck out carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. Because even if we stop emitting greenhouse today, our global air temperatures are still going to increase for many, many years, basically due to the sink of greenhouse gases that are already in our atmosphere. So we need the technology to also suck it out.
Now, emissions from electricity generation and manufacturing, together, they make up around 60% of global greenhouse emissions, which you would’ve seen on an earlier slide, and that’s why they are the critical ones to tackle first. And essentially, they’re the only two that I’ve got time to talk about in 20 minutes. So we’re going to focus in on those ones.
1. Decarbonize the Electricity Grid
Now getting all of the world’s electricity from clean source won’t be easy, but the good news is that we do have the technologies and many governments and businesses worldwide are rapidly driving the transformation. It may not be our federal government, but definitely there are state governments in Australia that are well ahead on this one and are leading the way. Coal sadly is still king on a global stage for now, but it’s not going to be there for much longer. Little pieces of the pie here, like our renewables, that’s currently sitting at… Well renewables and hydro together are about 27% on a global stage. They are increasing their pieces of the energy pie every single year. One of the challenges there is that electricity is very cheap from fossil fuels because essentially we just dig it out of the ground or pump it out of the ground from wells and we burn it and we get energy. And this process is very heavily subsidised around the world by governments, including our own. And we’ve built all our infrastructure on this way of doing things.
So there are obviously costs involved in changing that as well, and fossil fuels are still widely available. So it’s not going to be easy. We’re up against some hard barriers. When you’ve been making money from a certain thing for many, many years, there’s a lot of resistance to change that. But change is happening. The transition to green electricity will have some hiccups along the way, but the benefit is so worth it.
We are in love with electricity, yet most of us don’t realise how much it means to us until it’s taken away, even for four days. Now, those of you not in South Australia might have heard about the multi-day power outage across the state five years ago in September, 2016. It was caused by an extreme weather event that damaged transmission and power distribution assets.
Now it was in the fourth day of the power outage. I was living in a town in regional South Australia. It wasn’t until fourth day, when power was restored to my home in our town, all the contents in my chest freezer had thawed. My mobile phone had been flat for a couple of days, and even if it wasn’t flat, it would not have worked since the town’s mobile phone tower had gone out and the backup generator had run out of diesel. Whole town had run out of diesel too from people buying all the diesel to run their generators. Work and communications with the outside world were put on hold for four days. And most people in the town were in the same boat. The statewide power outage was a four day novelty and inconvenience for my family.
We welcomed the electricity when it did come back on, however, it highlighted that the transition is going to have some hiccups along the way, but the benefit is so worth it. And South Australia is reaping the benefit of this transition now. Decarbonizing the electricity grid is the most single most important task we must do to avoid a climate disaster. And that’s figuring out how to get all the benefits from cheap, reliable electricity without emitting greenhouse gases. I should change this next point to when we get to net carbon electricity because I believe we can do it. So it’s not if, but when we get there, we can use it to help decarbonize many other activities, just like how we travel and manufacture goods. And that is why decarbonizing the electricity grid is the most important factor. It’s more important than reducing emissions from manufacturing, which is actually responsible for emitting more emissions because once we decarbonize the grid, it flows onto all these other processes as they can then use green electricity in their processes. I hope I’ve said that clearly enough.
Whatever methods we use to get to zero carbon electricity in the future will have to be as dependable and nearly as affordable as the ones we use today, i.e. those cheap processes where we just dig it out of the ground and burn it. So we’ve got to make it more dependable and it’s not going to be as cheap, but at least we can try and make it as cheap. Well, maybe it can be as cheap. Essentially our solution will involve a combination of renewable energy generation and electric storage technologies to overcome the intermittent energy issues associated with some forms of renewable energy, such as wind and solar because they don’t run all the time. So that’s what the solution is, it’s going to be a combination.
This graph from Energy Australia shows the incredible uptake of renewable energy output in Australia over the past 25 years. As you can see, if we go back to the turn of millennium, solar wasn’t even on the map until about 12 years ago. Solar in our electricity grid is as old as my 12 year old son! As of 2020, almost a quarter of Australia’s total electricity generation was from renewable energy sources, an increase from zero at the turn of the century. So we have come a long way and we are going to continue coming a long way.
I know some of these slides are going to be busy and I’m not going to talk through every one. They’re really here for those of you who would more detail, but wind power is the most efficient technology to produce energy in a safe and environmentally sustainable manner. It is zero emissions in its day-to-day process, however manufacturing of wind farms does have emissions. It’s local, it’s inexhaustible. The wind doesn’t run out, it’s competitive and it creates wealth and jobs in regional Australia. From an engineering perspective, we harness the energy from wind using a turbine to convert air motion into electricity. It’s got spinning blades attached to an electromagnetic generator that produces electricity and the wind causes the blades to spin. One of the big benefits is this doesn’t tie up the land just for energy production and many landholders throughout Australia who have got wind farms on their land, are welcoming the revenue that having those wind farms is bringing in. They’re not just relying on a bumper crop to feed their families if you know what I mean. So wind turbines are helping land owners to drought-proof their farms, reduce their stock and actually improve the land management and environmental condition of their farm as well. There are some downside issues, but these really pale into insignificance if you consider the noise and the aesthetic issues from a coal fired power plant. There is a little bit of noise with wind farms, the aesthetics, not everyone likes how they look. There’s an impact on local wildlife with some bird strikes. But again, nothing like the amount of birds that are killed by cats each year or by number of birds that fly into buildings. So trying to put that in perspective, and there are scientists working on how to reduce the risk of bird strikes on wind farms.
The biggest issue with wind energy is that the wind fluctuates and it doesn’t always blow. So on a day like today in Adelaide where there is no wind, the wind turbines aren’t really going to be very productive. That’s the main issue with wind.
Solar photovoltaic cells are the fastest growing electricity generation type in Australia. As you saw back in 2009, we had none of it really in our main grid from big solar farms. Of course, rooftop solar existed. Solar energy converts light or heat from the sun into other forms of energy that we can use. The sun is the world’s most abundant source of renewable energy and Australia has some of the best solar resources in the world. So we’re really stupid if we’re not tapping into it and using it. Benefits of solar, once you’ve installed the solar farms, is loan maintenance, absence of noise emissions, and again, we can just tap into this plentiful resource of sunlight that we’ve got in Australia, in spades.
The issues with solar are that it doesn’t electricity at night and solar farms require a large amount of space. The panels, they’re not super efficient and the efficiency of panels hasn’t really leapt ahead in the last 10 or so years with the increasing technology. There’s efforts to try to make them more and more efficient, but there’s kind of a limit to how efficient they can make them. High initial cost of solar is also a factor. There is a pollution cost associated with the manufacturing and disposal of old panels. However, there’s companies now just specialising in the recycling of solar panels. And of course the manufacturing process uses significant volumes of water. But solar is part of the solution, particularly when we have solar resources in so much abundance in Australia and wind as well.
Again, from a South Australian perspective, I just went down the Eyre Peninsula on recent school holidays and I was gobsmacked by the amount of solar and wind farms. I already knew this was happening because I see it in my day-to-day work, all the applications and tenders to perform environmental audits and get the approvals for all these sites. But to see them in action, you’re driving from essentially Port Pirie down to Whyalla and even further along, you cannot go anywhere without seeing a wind farm anymore in this area of South Australia. The South Australian government is really serious about turning what was previously called the Iron Triangle, the industrial towns of Port Pirie, Port Augusta and Whyalla, into the Green Triangle of South Australia and indeed Australia and it’s happening now.
You may have also heard that South Australia has the big battery, of course there’s a lot of political wins from it, but this was the positive thing that came out of the statewide power outage in 2016. The political mess that came out of it and the Premier at the time, Jay Weatherill faced much criticism from the Federal Government and other State Governments. Well the criticism caught the attention of Elon Musk and Tesla went into a deal with South Australia to build the world’s largest battery energy storage system at the Hornsdale Power Reserve.
A battery system is it’s an electrochemical device that charges, so it’s collecting energy from the grid or a power plant during times of low demand. It’s grabbing all the energy from the wind farms and the solar plants during the day, and then discharging that energy at times of peak demand during the evenings or during, who knows, a 49 degree day in Adelaide’s summer, when everyone wants to turn on their air conditioners at the same time.
The South Australian Hornsdale Power Reserve’s is the world’s largest lithium iron battery. It’s currently undergoing another expansion and this is all really made possible due the technologies versatility and it’s falling costs. The use of batteries is expected to increase over coming years and costs are expected to keep decreasing. Benefits of large scale battery systems are they provide flexibility; we can respond faster than any other energy storage or generating technologies to help maintain grid stability. So essentially these battery systems can turn on and off in fractions of a second, responding to demand from the grid. They can be located in a range of areas and installed in small or large quantities for different uses. And I know for a fact there’s approvals for other batteries in South Australia. There’s lots happening in this space!
The issues with batteries are that they have high installation cost, some low energy density and there’s complex maintenance involved. There’s fire risks, but nothing that you’re not used to dealing with in an industrial environment. Batteries are nice and quiet and they sit there and they look pretty, almost look like beehives, don’t they? Batteries are such a blight on the landscape.
Hydrogen is what’s got state, federal governments very, very excited in Australia at the moment, and for good reason. Hydrogen is rapidly emerging as a clean energy commodity of the future. It’s an excellent carrier of energy with each kilogram of hydrogen containing about 2.4 times as much energy as natural gas.
Hydrogen energy can be released through combustion such as you can cook on a stove with hydrogen gas or as electricity using a fuel cell. In both cases, the only other input needed to make hydrogen is oxygen. And the only other byproduct is water, making it a unique among liquid and gas fuels in that it emits absolutely no carbon dioxide emissions when it’s burned. And for these reasons and others, hydrogen has captured the attention of investors and developers the world over and Mr. Ziggy Forrest wants to jump on the bandwagon, of course he does. There’s lots of money to be made in hydrogen. The South Australian government and other state governments, and indeed the Australian government are very, very serious about hydrogen. Australia’s Chief Scientist predicts the economic benefits to come to Australia from hydrogen as well.
There’s a massive potential for Australia for hydrogen to be one of our biggest export markets. And I know South Australia definitely looking at that, producing green hydrogen from all the solar resources in the green triangle area, getting it into these cells and out on our ships straight to Japan where the demand is going to be. You’ve got to bear in mind, Australia has this large space that we can generate green electricity. And when we can transfer this energy into cells, we can place these batteries or fuel cells on ships and export them to the countries that don’t have that space to generate their own green power.
There’s a tipping point that’s been hit right now with the reduced cost of solar and wind and combined with electrolyzer technology (the electrolyzer is what’s used in the production process to basically produce the hydrogen) has created this tipping point where renewable hydrogen is now a growing viable carbon-free fuel for both Australia’s domestic and export markets. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but I just want to highlight that the hydrogen fuel cells that the… Hydrogen has so many applications, the fuel cells can power trains, trucks, and buses. So essentially hydrogen can replace diesel as a fuel and hydrogen can also supplement or indeed replace natural gas in domestic gas networks that warm our homes and cook our meals. So that’s why everyone’s so excited, we can essentially cut out diesel and gas with hydrogen once we just get the technologies over the line and there’s pretty much 100% confidence that the technologies will get over the line in the time that we need it.
Some issues with hydrogen include the cost, but with research, development and innovation that will be coming down; investment will be bringing that down.
There are some issues with decarbonizing the grid, more on a global perspective. Some regions don’t have the decent renewable resources or the ability to generate sufficient quantities. So we’ve got to move lots of clean energy from where it’s made such as Australia to where it’s needed – to cloudy windless locations or small countries that don’t have the space for solar farms. So there is a lot of infrastructure that’s going to be required for that. And also at play is the fact that some countries don’t like relying on other countries for their power, just for political reasons as well. There’s lots of issues there that will need to be solved.
I’ve spoken about decarbonizing the electricity grid, and then I’ve got one slide to wrap up our manufacturing, because I’m keeping an eye on the time. And as I said, I’m just honing in on these two because they make up 60% of our global greenhouse emissions. There is a very simple pathway to net zero in manufacturing. First one is to electrify every single process possible, so that might be electrical mine trucks in the iron ore mines for example. And then we need to get the electricity that’s charging up all those trucks or indeed every process in the factory from a decarbonized power grid, so using green energy. Using carbon capture to absorb any remaining emissions and also using our materials much more efficiency in our processes as well.
2. Decarbonize Manufacturing
Pathway to net zero in manufacturing:
1. Electrify every process possible
2. Get electricity from a decarbonized power grid
3. Use carbon capture to absorb the remaining emissions
4. Use materials more efficiently
The area we really need to solve is focusing on green steel manufacturing and sustainable concrete technologies. The world’s demand for steel and concrete is only going to continue to increase. Quite a substantial amount of greenhouse gases are generated when we make steel and when we make cement. The production of steel and cement releases at least their same weight equivalent or almost double in carbon dioxide emissions.
Every tonne of steel produced releases 1.58 tonnes of CO2.
Every tonne of cement made releases 1 tonne of CO2.
This problem needs to be solved quickly.
Although we have a number of cost competitive low carbon solutions today, we still don’t have all of the technologies we need to get to zero emissions globally. Areas that we still need innovation and development to either decarbonize or just make a lot more sustainable.
And to get these technologies ready soon enough to make a difference and to hit that net zero by 2050, we really need a lot of support from government and private investors. Governments really need to increase clean energy and climate-related research and development over the next… Just this decade alone by about a factor of five to make a serious dent. They also need to make bigger bets on high risk, high reward climate R&D projects. We need to have a lot of courage and really try and solve these problems that need solving and matching research and development with our greatest needs. So starting research with the end use in mind, not just doing research for researchers’ sake and to write a paper. Much of this will come from governments and universities working with industry from the beginning to overcome barriers and speed up that innovation cycle. That cycle was traditionally early stage innovation by governments and universities, and then later consultation with industry and business; it needs to be that relationship right from the start. And business can play a big roll in that too with getting the investment back into universities.
So just to wrap up, we need to stop emitting greenhouse gases by 2050, ideally sooner. We need to halve global emissions by 2030. Figuring out how to get all the benefits of cheap, reliable electricity without emitting greenhouse gases is the single most in important task we must do to avoid a climate disaster. Decarbonizing the electricity grid is key to decarbonizing other sectors. Renewable energy technologies exist and are being deployed rapidly, despite what you might think or see. Many new technologies are still needed to get to net zero emissions globally. The world’s engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs are facing a significant challenge and supportive government policies and substantial investment are required to ensure success. So that’s it from me on the engineering solutions to climate change. I’d welcome you to stay connected with me on the platform that suit you most. Thank you very much.
Dr Kate Wylie:
Good on you, Laura. Thank you so much. That was a whirlwind look at engineering solutions. I just thought and yeah, if we could all show our appreciation to Laura by using our clap emojis, et cetera. What I found most wonderful about that is that you, after Richard’s talk, which was we need government action, but we’ve had that sort of cynical mind to it. And then you’ve given us the solutions absolutely are there. And we really… And we do have state support, which is really nice to remind us all about, but fundamentally we have solutions, we just have to get on and do them.
I hope you have a deeper understanding of climate change, and the problems we need to solve to bring global emissions to net zero by 2050 and keep warming below 1.5°C. Together with policy, entrepreneurship and engineering will help get us there, so please support these initiatives wherever you can to help create a better future for us all and make green mainstream.
If you’re ready to reduce your emissions, your household waste, live toxin-free and embrace a more sustainable lifestyle with the support of Laura, join the Self Sufficiency in the Suburbs community today!
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