Our routes to the future?
The UK’s first female Prime Minister, a chemistry graduate, emphasised the dangers of Global Warming a generation ago. Although one British company immediately developed a solar power initiative, it has taken 30 years for the cost of photovoltaic solar and wind-power to fall below the level of power from fossil fuels. A transition to renewable energy now makes economic sense.
Both PVsolar and wind, together with energy storage (for periods of windless darkness), are needed for full transition. Storage is now the main challenge. Batteries are expensive for long-term storage, and locations for pumped-water storage are limited, but Britain has a widespread hidden advantage. About 80% of households are on mains gas, which was earlier up to 60% hydrogen. Electricity from sun or wind can be stored as 'green' hydrogen, produced by electrolysis. Sheffield is to host the world's largest factory for Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) electrolysers. To remedy intermittency of sun and wind, hydrogen stored at community level can be used in three ways:
(i) for electricity again, in fuel cells for vehicles or domestic combined-heat-&-power;
(ii) burned in domestic gas supplies for cooking and heating;
(iii) as a feedstock for producing liquid syn-fuels (e.g. methanol).
Nuclear power and pumped water storage are available to handle other intermittency issues. Indeed, Britain hosts not only the state-funded Joint European Torus but also commercial work for a small-scale fusion reactor, to give nuclear power with less radioactive waste than from fission reactors. For now, does your home have as much insulation as it should? Is your lighting LED?
Towards a Hydrogen Society?
The challenges to transition are mainly in terms of governance. SolarPV has an advantage for households, provided they can export electricity at the price they pay for it. The cost of PVsolar systems is then repaid in 5-10 years. Although there is encouraging smart-grid development, notably at community level, will the UK soon encourage energy utilities to provide a fair ‘strike price’ for micro-generation, offer loans to install systems, and reward communities that do so?
A wider challenge is to persuade citizens to transition globally. Countries need to be prosperous enough to make transition affordable for citizens. Wars, whether with projectiles or trade, do not help. Wealthy countries need to focus aid carefully, on providing technology affordable in poor communities, along with economic governance to support its adoption. The UK has strategic industry to help transition everywhere. Moreover, we need to trade goods and services to pay for our essential food imports.