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Green tech transition needs long-term planning, not eye-catching ideas

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Clear understanding of the consequences of moving to sustainable technologies is needed if the billions planned to be spent on helping economies recovering from the current pandemic are to have lasting results.

Across the globe, hopes are being pinned on development and investments in green technologies and sustainable solutions to fuel economic recovery from the Covid-19 recession. The World Wide Fund for Nature has estimated that an annual £90bn is waiting to be unlocked by the ‘net zero’ transition in sectors such as the built environment, electric vehicles and low-carbon goods manufacture.

But it’s not a straightforward switch of investment. We’re in a critical transition phase and to obtain any substantial benefits from a low-carbon world there has to be realism about the practicalities involved. Public attitudes tend to be as simple as ‘green is good’, when the reality is more that ‘green will be good’. A fine-grained understanding of the consequences of introducing more sustainable methods and technologies is needed.

Sudden leaps into green tech can lead to more problems. For example, an international move to 100 per cent renewable energy sources could be made relatively quickly. But this kind of transition would result in lack of capacity and more expensive energy supply. Suddenly, energy supplies would be at the mercy of the intermittent nature of renewables and the demand for storage. There are, as yet, no technological answers to the need for mass battery storage. It’s been estimated that the UK alone would require all the available resources of lithium on the planet to provide the necessary battery buffer.

Making a real transition will demand thought, testing, attention to the full picture of impacts and a commitment to finding what works for the long-term, not eye-catching ideas that aren’t future proof. Sometimes that means finding interim solutions with established technologies that allow for a managed process of carbon cuts without the shocks of breaks in supply.

Finding ways to make carbon capture and storage (CCS) a more effective transition technology is just one example we’re investigating at Cranfield University. The CoERCe II research project is developing a carbon-capture unit for decarbonisation of carbon-intensive systems like commercial biogas burners. Improving the calcium-looping approach to CCS, using a more advanced ‘supercritical’ carbon dioxide cycle, and creating a more reliable tool for assessing the costs and viability of CCS could help reduce carbon-capture costs by 25 per cent.

Practical nuts and bolts issues associated with delivering green tech are also being addressed head-on. For example, electric vehicles are the future norm, but progress in consumer acceptance is being hampered by a lack of charging infrastructure. With UK government funding, Cranfield is setting up a peer-to-peer energy-trading app that allows individual EV users with surplus battery energy, as well as local business owners of charging points at a shop or café, to trade with nearby EVs in public car parking spaces.

Offshore windfarms are a substantial part of the renewable energy programme, but maintenance is expensive and inefficient, relying on sending out ships and their crews in response to unreliable warnings from automated systems. Drones are being developed to make inspections of wind turbines remotely, using artificial intelligence to better understand complex fault patterns, and intelligent physics modelling to reduce costs and improve performance levels.

Another key area for green-tech development is the need to turn high-potential principles like the use of low-carbon hydrogen as the clean fuel of the future into a working proposition. Cranfield’s HyPER project (Bulk Hydrogen Production by Sorbent Enhanced Steam Reforming) is constructing a state-of-the-art 1.5 MWth pilot plant at Cranfield to test an innovative hydrogen-production technology with the potential to produce high-purity hydrogen at a cost up to 30 per cent lower than conventional steam methane reforming methods. The world’s first hydrogen-fuel-cell-powered flight of a commercial-grade aircraft – believed to be as significant a development for aviation as the first flight of a jet engine – took place in September 2020 at the R&D facility of ZeroAvia at the Cranfield Airport.

Consumers increasingly want to make green choices, businesses are switched on to the need for green credentials to secure their future viability, and governments need to deliver on carbon-reduction targets. But actual transition – the changes to choices and behaviours and our way of living – will only happen when the details of technologies and all of their implications have been worked out and tested, and the best options can be introduced.

Ana Soares is professor of biotechnology engineering at Cranfield University and lead of the Cranfield Grand Challenge in Green Technologies.

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