Engineers Ireland president Dermot Byrne examines the rapid developments in low-carbon heating, electric vehicles and nuclear power. But even with these and other new technologies, can we turn the tide against climate change?
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engineers-ireland-president-dermot-byrneDermot Byrne MEngSc, CEng, FIEI, the president of Engineers Ireland for 2016-17, presented his presidential address to a near-capacity crowd in Clyde Road on 20 September. His speech was entitled ‘Ireland’s Energy Challenge: A Personal Perspective’. The first part of his speech looked at past energy transitions and the factors that impact on their speed of completion. In this concluding part, he asks what energy transitions now have to take place, and how quickly, if we are to leave the world a better place for our children and grandchildren.

The first of these is the transition to zero carbon in our electricity supply. In reality, this transition is already well under way, kick-started by the 2007 Energy White Paper (Delivering a Sustainable Energy Future for Ireland).

The setting of a target for renewables (initially 33% but subsequently increased to 40% of total electricity supply) had the effect of galvanising the industry – EirGrid, ESB Networks, developers and the Commission for Energy Regulation – to pull out all the stops, overcome all barriers and, critically, invest billions of euro. We are now above 25% with a real prospect of achieving the 40% by 2020. It should not and cannot stop there.

Further down the road, certainly before 2030, coal and peat-fired generation will cease, taking two very large carbon emitters out of the equation.

A combination of the drive for end-use efficiency and the shift to a services economy means that the link between GDP and load growth has effectively been broken. Nevertheless, there will be load growth, driven by developments such as data centres and the electrification of the heating and transport sectors.

So, from where will new generation sources come? Costs of wind and solar power are coming down, and the technical challenges associated with lack of system inertia are being addressed. In the absence of further high-volume energy storage, a combination of interconnection and low-load-factor gas will be used to manage intermittency. Biomass will certainly be part of the mix.

In the longer term, is there a future for nuclear power in Ireland? Unfortunately, but perhaps understandably, the recent White Paper avoided the issue by simply stating: “Nuclear power generation is currently prohibited by legislation.” Understandable, because we know that debate on this tends to be highly emotive and highly politically charged.

Nuclear power


Wylfa nuclear power station at Cemaes Anglesey North Wales Uk

Wylfa nuclear power station in Anglesey, Wales, began decommissioning last December

For my part, I believe that the global challenge of climate change requires a global response, and part of that global response must include nuclear energy at scale. The reality is that, as of today, some 30 countries worldwide are operating 444 nuclear reactors for electricity generation and 63 new nuclear plants are under construction in 15 countries.

Nuclear power plants provide about 10% of the world’s electricity production. In the EU, that number is just short of 30%. I welcome the recent UK decision on Hinkley Point as representing a vote of confidence in nuclear power as an essential part of a global portfolio of energy sources.

The technology here is not standing still. There is already a lot of research and development work underway in new fission-reactor technologies, in enhancing safety across the full nuclear-power value chain, and in the development of new and smaller modular reactor concepts.

A particular ongoing focus is the development of sustainable solutions for the management of radioactive waste. In the longer term, fusion technology is seen as a potentially attractive energy solution for clean and large-scale electricity generation towards the end of this century.

For Ireland, I believe that at some point in the future, as the transition to a low-carbon energy system gathers momentum, it is conceivable that nuclear power could become an attractive option. However, for this to be considered a realistic policy option, the following would need to have happened:

  • Next-generation fission reactors (such as Generation – IV reactors) would need to have established a record of successful commercial and safe operation, and would need to be available in sizes appropriate to a relatively small country such as Ireland;
  • Sustainable and proven solutions for the management of fissile materials and radioactive waste would need to be available;
  • Demonstrable public support, based on a detailed understanding of the benefits and risks within an overall policy context, would need to be evident.

This latter requirement will be the most difficult of all, but it will not happen until we begin to have a proper grown up debate on the issues.

So, to summarise on the electricity supply sector, I believe that we have made a great start and that the ambition to get to zero carbon is entirely achievable even with the technologies available today, provided we stay the course.

But of course, electricity supply represents only about 20% of the carbon emissions from the energy sector. Of greater importance at this stage are the heating and transport sectors – representing 21% and 26% of non-Emissions Trading Scheme GHG emissions respectively – due to their scale and the lack of any significant progress heretofore. We really need to get serious about these sectors. So what are the prospects?

Heating sector


Taking the heating sector first: the number of residential homes in Ireland is about 1.7 million, and they account for 44% of final thermal energy use, even greater than industry at 35%. First and foremost, we must increase the energy efficiency of these homes through a process of deep retrofit, and then replace their heating systems with low-carbon heating systems.

The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) estimates that a sum of €35 billion will be required over 35 years to make the existing housing stock low carbon by 2050, at an average cost of €20,000 per retrofit. This requires investment decisions to be made by consumers. As the White Paper on ‘Ireland’s Transition to a Low Carbon Energy Future 2015-2030‘ says: “The success of energy efficiency depends on the response of energy consumers. Ultimately, it will be decisions by individuals that will make houses warmer, businesses more competitive, and public services more cost efficient.”

Low carbon heating systems are increasingly becoming available, supplied either through the electricity or gas grids, evolving over time to zero carbon as the electricity and gas grids themselves decarbonise. I believe that people are willing to invest in their homes – in the past seven years, some 300,000 homes (17.5%) have undergone some degree of retrofitting to become more energy efficient.

Selling the benefits in terms of comfort and capital appreciation, together with incentives – be they grants or access to affordable financing – will help to accelerate this process.

At the enterprise level, there are some great examples of companies that are blazing a trail in relation to energy efficiency and carbon reduction. Engineers Ireland, in our ‘State of Ireland‘ report, highlights one such company – Astellas Ireland Ltd – which operates a modern pharmaceutical finishing company in Kerry where it employs 350 people.

It have achieved a 92% reduction in carbon emissions through the installation of a biomass boiler, a wind turbine and a solar water-heating system – and, critically, in the process they have reduced overall manufacturing costs and increased its competitiveness.

This success story needs to be replicated throughout the country and, in this regard, I want to commend the work of the SEAI who are actively driving this agenda.

Transport sector


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John Walsh (aged 100), who recently bought a Nissan Leaf EV

Turning to the transport sector, one of the key differences between this sector and the electricity supply sector is the element of behavioural change and customer choice involved. Customers have to want to change from oil-based transport and/or be incentivised to do so. This requires attractive alternatives to be available.

A modal shift from cars to public transport, to bicycles and to ‘Shank’s mare’ – supported by policies and investments to make such shifts attractive – can play a role. The roll-out of bicycle lanes in Dublin and the Dublin Bike Scheme are good examples. However, the real challenge is to transition out of oil in the passenger car and the heavy vehicle fleets, and this brings me to the topic of electric vehicles (EVs).

I have to confess that I am somewhat biased, as I did my master’s degree on the UCD electric car way back in 1972/’73. Anyone who came through UCD back then will remember the unusual mustard-coloured, fibreglass car parked in the courtyard of what is now Government Buildings (registration HZO 888).

I get a real kick when I see the vision becoming a reality, with reports that over a million EVs will be purchased globally this year. The range of vehicles on offer from the major manufacturers continues to expand, and the research and development effort devoted to battery technologies continues to hammer away at the two major obstacles to large scale adoption: cost and range.

It was inspirational to read a few weeks ago about Clonmel man John Walsh who, in his 100th year, has just bought a new Nissan Leaf EV. This is a man who learned to drive in his father’s Model T Ford over 80 years ago! In his own words: “I’m convinced that we have to do something about global warming and pollution. I’m a late convert to environmental protection and a bit of a late starter driving an electric car, but this is my way of playing my part.”

I had a minor epiphany during the summer, when I came across a cottage at the very end of the Dingle peninsula with a gleaming red Tesla outside, hooked up to an ESB Networks charging point on the side wall of the house. There was somebody not too worried about range anxiety.

But apart from these innovators and early adopters, the real question is how quickly will the market for non-oil fuelled passenger cars take off, enough to make a real difference to reduced carbon emissions, and what are the market dynamics that will play out in getting to this position.

Globally there are about one billion passenger cars on the road, and growing rapidly. These billion cars account for about 18 million barrels per day of oil, or roughly one fifth of total oil consumption. By the end of this year, about two million of these cars, or 0.2%, will have a plug, up from 6,000 in 2009.

Technology adoption curve


In terms of the product or technology adoption curve, the current market is being driven by the innovators and early adopters, people who are willing to pay over the odds, and by Government subsidies in support of climate-change policies.

Of course subsidies cannot go on forever, especially as the sale of EVs continues to grow exponentially. The subsidies at this stage of market growth are critically important in driving up volumes and driving down costs.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, the real lift-off will happen when the total unsubsidised cost of ownership drops to that of oil-fuelled cars. That depends on the cost of the battery, which currently accounts for about a quarter of the total cost.

However, battery prices fell 35 per cent last year. Projecting the battery cost curve forward, the report estimates that the point of mass market lift-off will occur in the mid-20s, and that by 2040 sales of electric cars will account for 35%.

When it comes to heavy vehicles, using compressed natural gas (CNG) offers a real opportunity to reduce emissions from diesel-fuelled trucks and buses. Importantly, the introduction of CNG to the heavy vehicles fleet is a gateway for the future introduction of renewable gas into the transport sector.

Renewable gas in the form of biomethane is an upgraded form of biogas, and is produced through the anaerobic digestion of organic matter. Where renewable gas is used in CNG vehicles, emissions are CO2 neutral, helping to address targets for renewable transport. Renewable gas can be produced from agricultural wastes, thereby also helping to address emissions from the agriculture and farming sector.

So, in thinking about the dynamics of the energy transitions that must take place in the electricity supply, heating and transport sectors, are they happening fast enough, and can they be accelerated? Are the enabling factors the same enabling factors that influenced previous transitions? To recap, these were:

  • A ‘burning platform’ for change;
  • Availability of the enabling technologies;
  • Clear customer benefits; and
  • Clear policy direction and implementation.

Climate change – a burning platform?


I believe we have a clear and unequivocal platform for change in the challenge of global warming. Certainly enough to spur policy makers into action, as we have seen at global, EU and national levels. But is it a ‘burning platform’? Is it universally felt as such across all levels of society to the extent that there is a shared sense of urgency?

Unfortunately not, and the paradox here, as I have already mentioned, is that by the time it is felt as a ‘burning platform’, it may be too late. Consumer behavioural change must be sold on the basis of clear consumer benefits, as much as on the need to protect the planet.

That brings me to the availability of the enabling technologies, and the need to continue to invest in energy research and innovation. What a low-carbon future is like, say, in 2050 and beyond, nobody really knows at this stage.

There are a myriad of ways of meeting our low-carbon goals, using different combinations of new and innovative materials, technologies, processes and systems, many of which have not even been conceived of yet. This is why energy research, development and innovation is so important.

As new knowledge is created, as new materials, new systems, new technologies come on stream, we as a society can make the right policy choices to get us to where we need to get to; where our demand for energy services across transport, heat and electricity are met securely, competitively and sustainably.

And we, as consumers, can make the right investment decisions that improve the quality of our lives in a carbon-neutral way.

Broader global transition


sefate-dermot-byrne-vita-chair-and-damanich

Dermot Byrne in East Africa with local women Sefate and Damanich, as part of his work with Vita

The energy transitions I have been talking about need to happen not just in Ireland, but right across the world. Other countries are at different stages in their transitions. It is estimated that about 1.3 billion people worldwide do not have access to electricity, so their ‘rural electrification’ transition is barely beginning.

Vita, an Irish development agency that I am involved with, is rolling out a programme of improved cookstoves in parts of East Africa. Throughout the world, large scale investments are still being made in highly inefficient subcritical coal plants, which risk locking in carbon emissions for decades.

A recent International Energy Agency investment report states: “Globally, energy investment is not yet consistent with the transition to a low-carbon energy system envisaged in the Paris Climate Agreement. A combination of accelerated technological innovation and an investment framework aimed at encouraging rapid, large-scale deployment of low-carbon technologies will be essential to steer the transformation of the energy system in a timely way in order to jointly achieve climate and energy security objectives.”

We in the engineering community have a central role in all of this. We do ‘technology’ – it is what we’re good at. Ireland has a very vibrant energy research and innovation ecosystem, as I discovered recently when I chaired an expert group on energy research for the department. This, in turn, is giving rise to a surge in related innovative products and services – and high quality jobs – right across the energy value chain.

But I believe we can do a lot more. We should make sure our voice is heard in policy formation, bringing a strong evidence base and energy modelling capability to bear. Institutions such as Engineers Ireland, and our sister organisation the Irish Academy of Engineers, can and will play a major role here in distilling the collective experience of the engineering community, and making it available to policy makers.

Beyond that, I think we have a further role and that is to get involved in communicating the reality of the ‘burning platform’. As engineers, we tend to stand on the sidelines and stick rigidly to ‘the facts’. I believe we also need to engage at an emotional level, and with conviction.

We are an emotional people. We see the worst of it in our descent into populism in relation to issues such as Irish Water, or NIMBYism in relation to the development of necessary infrastructure. How can we not get emotional when we know with considerable certainty what is going to happen to this planet of ours if we don’t take action soon?

How can we not get emotional when we see the effect that flooding has on large sections of our population year in, year out? How can we not get emotional when we see the effects of drought in large sections of Africa, and the resultant impact on migrant flows across the Mediterranean?

I mentioned at the outset [in the previous article] Mark Ruddle’s reference to the First World War as a war of engineering. I believe that we are engaged in another ‘war of engineering’ – this time, the enemy is climate change.

http://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/climate-change-1024x576.jpghttp://www.engineersjournal.ie/wp-content/uploads/2016/10/climate-change-300x300.jpgDavid O'RiordanElecclimate change,energy,Engineers Ireland,heat,Irish Academy of Engineering,renewables,transport
Dermot Byrne MEngSc, CEng, FIEI, the president of Engineers Ireland for 2016-17, presented his presidential address to a near-capacity crowd in Clyde Road on 20 September. His speech was entitled ‘Ireland’s Energy Challenge: A Personal Perspective’. The first part of his speech looked at past energy transitions and the factors...