Reducing Carbon Emissions through Innovation

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its Assessment Report in three enormous publications. The first publication – often called "Working Group 1", or WG1 for short – describes the current understanding of the physical mechanisms of climate change; the second – "WG2" – discusses the possible consequences of future climate change for ecosystems and for humans, and how humanity might adapt to the negative impacts; the third – "WG3" – explores the technical, behavioural, and economic options available for reducing greenhouse-gas emissions emissions so as to reduce the magnitude of climate change in future decades and centuries.

It is WG3 that hits the bookshelves this week. (Like all the IPCC's work, WG3 will be available free online too.)

While WG1 and WG2 can make for worrying reading, WG3 is the "good news" ending to the Climate Change Assessment Report story: the good news is that successful climate change action is possible. I'll say more about this good news in a moment, but first let me make clear what I mean by "successful climate change action".

Action to limit climate change requires emissions rates to fall, and to fall, eventually, to zero. (This was one of the key messages from last September's WG1, and corporate leaders including Royal Dutch Shell and Unilever recently advocated limiting cumulative emissions to one trillion tonnes of carbon.)

Thus action to limit climate change requires humanity to make the transition, eventually, to a net-zero-carbon system for delivering everything. "Everything" means transport, thermal comfort, food, light, buildings, gadgetry, and all the other stuff that society synthesizes or constructs for itself. "Net-zero-carbon" means that all the processes for delivering 'everything' either make negligible greenhouse-gas emissions or, if they make positive emissions, are balanced by sufficient negative emissions to genuinely neutralize those positive emissions. "Negative emissions" could potentially be delivered by technologies for capturing CO2 from the air and burying it in the ground, and by permanent reforestation of unforested land.

For the energy system, which is responsible for the lion's share of current emissions, the good news story comes in three strands. The first piece of good news is that successful climate action is possible through a combination of: demand reduction in transport, buildings, and industry (through improved energy efficiency, technology changes, and lifestyle changes); replacement of carbon-emitting energy sources by genuinely zero-emissions energy sources – albeit at a scale much greater than many people imagine (as many authors have emphasized, and DECC's 2050 Calculator helps to visualize); and negative-emissions technologies, which suck greenhouse gases back out of the air. (I discussed negative-emissions technologies in my book's final chapter "The last thing we should talk about", and they are available in the 2050 Calculator's "Geosequestration" lever.)

The second piece of good news is that many of these actions can deliver co-benefits for society: saving energy saves money, which can be good for economic growth; well-insulated homes are cosy and enhance health and well-being; electric vehicles and hybrid vehicles can reduce air pollution (which is currently a major environmental health risk); and a "green tax shift" (which reduces taxes on good things like labour and raises taxes on bad things like pollution) can increase employment.

The third piece of good news, on which the rest of this piece focuses, is that the costs of successful climate change action can be driven down by innovation. Today, many of the low-carbon technologies required are too expensive for mass-deployment; it is credible that innovation can deliver both incremental improvements and step-changes in costs such that the low-carbon energy system becomes cheaper than the fossil-fuel one.

Lots of innovation is supported by the private sector, but often early innovation-support comes from the public sector – from public bodies like DECC and its partners in the Low Carbon Innovation Coordination Group.

Let me give you some examples of promising innovations, starting with some demand-side inventions supported by DECC.

VacuumTubeWindow by Vale Window Company - being developed with £334k of DECC support
edge-lit Luminaire ; Fern-Howard - £185k from DECC
← DECC is supporting the development and testing of a vacuum tube window by Vale Window Company in Mansfield. Roughly one third of winter heat-loss goes through windows, so these windows, which are expected to out-perform triple glazing, could help reduce the cost of upgrading the UK's building stock.
As existing buildings are retrofitted to higher energy standards, they become more airtight, but adequate ventilation must be maintained (to keep the occupants alive, and to remove moisture). With support from TSB and DECC, Ventive are developing an invention by building retrofit architect, Tom Lipinski, which enables passive ventilation with heat recovery. →
Edge-lit LED luminaires. Hampshire-based manufacturer Fern Howard aims to develop an attractive luminaire with a pleasing, uniform, well-optimised light output. Thanks to the inherent efficiency of the LED light source, energy savings of 33% are expected, compared with best lighting systems currently available.
Ventive:  Passive Ventilation and Heat Recovery system (PVHR) - supported by £220k from DECC

And let's not forget innovation in transport. The winner of the biggest prize in aviation history – NASA's 2011 Green Flight Challenge ($1.35M, sponsored by Google) – was the remarkable all-electric Pipistrel G4. →

The challenge was for an aircraft to fly 200 miles in less than two hours and use less than one [US] gallon of fuel per occupant, or the equivalent in electricity. The first and second place teams, which were both electric-powered, achieved twice the fuel efficiency requirement of the competition. The winning four-seater Pipistrel, an aircraft originally developed in Slovenia, flies faster than 100 miles per hour and does so more efficiently than a four-seater car delivering 120 miles per [imperial] gallon!

Pipistrel G4 NASA photo Pipistrel G4 nasa photo
PipistrelTaurusG4 NASA photo
There are also exciting and promising innovations on the supply side.
Artemis Wind Digital Displacement Technology - developed with £1M of DECC support
Artemis/MHI: SeaAngel nacelle
← Edinburgh-based Artemis, with DECC support, developed a lightweight digital hydraulic transmission to replace the traditional failure-prone gear box in wind turbines; they are now wholly owned by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, who are producing the enormous Sea Angel turbine using Artemis's technology.
DECC is also supporting Fife-based 2B-energy to develop a two-bladed offshore turbine that is projected to bring down the price of offshore wind to 10p per kWh. →
2Benergy: £7.5M of DECC support
← Global climate change action is unlikely to happen without carbon capture and storage (which means modifying fossil-fuel-burning power stations so that most of the carbon dioxide that would normally go up the chimney is captured and safely stored in the ground), and DECC is supporting several innovation projects to drive down the costs of CCS. C-tech innovation limited and the Universities of Southampton and Warwick are developing a CCS test rig for development and testing of better carbon-capturing chemicals.
AllamCycle - NET Power
← And NET Power are developing a transformative power-conversion design with the aim of making CCS power stations that are smaller, cheaper to build, and more fuel-efficient than standard power stations.
In a future low-carbon energy system, there will be an increased need for technologies that balance supply and demand, especially in scenarios with lots of intermittent renewables. It is therefore exciting to see innovation in technologies for storing energy.
Isentropic prototype heat pump ; investment of £15M from ETI
BathCountyPumpedHydro, visualizing comparative scale of Isentropic equivalent facility
Isentropic Ltd, with ETI support, are making a remarkable pumped-heat electricity storage system with the same efficiency as hydroelectric pumped storage, but a much smaller spatial footprint.
Sunamp 50kWh prototype heat store
One of the most strongly-varying components of energy demand in the UK is the demand for heat in buildings. Using phase-change materials, Edinburgh-based Sunamp are developing heat stores for houses; these will allow heat pumps to be powered solely by low-cost electricity, and will allow a heat-pump-based heating system to deliver more responsive and more efficient peformance. (The photo shows a first prototype of Sunamp's heat battery - the production version will fit inobtrusively under a kitchen counter!) →
electrolyser stacks - ITM power - &pounds; 714k of support from DECC
← Sheffield-based ITM power are developing lower-cost electrolysers for turning electricity into hydrogen, which can then be stored for use in transport or heat, as well as for conversion back to electricity.
These are just a few snap-shots from a fantastic world-wide portfolio of research, innovation, design, and engineering. With continued and sustained support for this inventive and creative community, the low-carbon transition will not only be possible – it could be inspiring and fun too!

David MacKay FRS - Chief Scientific Advisor, DECC
Sustainable Energy - without the hot air
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Last modified: Mon Apr 14 15:47:41 BST 2014