We are currently experiencing something very remarkable. This is something that is either deliberately overlooked, or simply not considered to be part of the debate by individuals organisations and movements such as Greta Thunberg, Greenpeace, and the Extinction Revolution. For some reason it is not making any headlines at all. Fantastic and unbelievable advances have been made in the combat against climate change.
Before we move on, it must be clarified that the situation that the planet is being led to is not good, and completely undeniable. Sea levels are rising, global temperatures have already started increasing to levels that everybody can notice. And this is not just due to the fact that this is being written in early June. Green spaces are disappearing, plastics and all sorts of other waste are appearing in the most unexpected places. For instance, plastics has been found in the Mariana Trench, the deepest part of the ocean, and a place that humans, clearly rarely frequent. Not one single species of flora or fauna on this planet it unaffected by human activity. not only this, but one million of the planet’s 8 million species of creature are under threat of extinction. This is going far beyond high-profile species of sometimes questionable utility such as panda bears, fennec foxes, and sand cats. Other species which are sometimes far less glamorous, but absolute linchpins of certain ecosystems such as bees, coral, and numerous species of fish might vanish. There are pressing and urgent issues that need to be handled. It is not all doom and gloom, however. This is what we will look at.
Carbon emissions are the main focus, but obviously not the only one. Beyond lies based on “clean coal”, or “freedom fossils” or whatever misleading terms people within the fossil fuel industry use, real progress if being made. For instance, a carbon-neutral coal power station has been designed based on a simple change in how it operated. Most power stations work using the same principle. Fuel is used to boil water, and the steam turned some turbines. It is then cooled to be heated again, hence the cooling towers found in many plants. Rather than release the CO2 into the atmosphere the new design simply used the CO2 to turn the turbines. To add to this, teams at the Drax power station in North Yorkshire have developed a way of putting CO2 back into the ground. Through carbon capture technology, many ways of storing CO2 are possible. New an innovative ways of generating power using fossil fuels is only part of the problem. The eventual aim is to never need to take any fossil fuels out of the ground again. Carbon capture technology allows CO2 to be taken back out of the atmosphere This results in negative emissions. The next step will be to find alternative material for the production of plastics, but this is another story. The problems associated with plastic production, use, and disposal are still great. Good substitutes to not exist for all types and uses. Alternative forms of power generation are a thing that have become, rather quietly, not only a good alternative to fossil fuels, but by almost any measure, superior by a large margin.
For example, this year the UK generated electricity for two weeks without using any coal at all since. This is the longest time since the 1880s. This astonishing fact does not mean that all of the coal power stations in the UK have been shut down. This is certainly not the case, and far from it. It tells us something much more meaningful. As can be seen in the data provided by Gridwatch, in the space of only six years, the share of power generated by coal went from being the primary source of power on most days in 2012, to barely being used at all in the first half of 2019. This transformation can only be described as revolutionary. it must be borne into mind that fossil fuels are still the most important source of power as natural gas consumption increased. Biomass, which is still polluting, even though the CO2 can be stuck in the ground, is also a new significant source of energy and this pollutes.
In terms of other renewables, mind-blowing changes are happening. These are such that power generation in the next decade could be completely unrecognisable as the traditional power plant becomes supplanted by something else. Driving this is the bottom line, the relative cost of power generation. Nuclear is no longer the cheapest form of electricity generation. Wind became cheaper than nuclear in 2017. Solar became the cheapest of all forms of power generation in 2019. Not only this, but at certain points in 2018 the cost of renewable electricity generation in the UK was negative Negative electricity costs do not even make sense. Taking into account the difference in CO2 costs, the comparison becomes farcical and the choice beyond obvious. The question is why solar has not taken over, especially if, the UK, being one of the least sunny places in the world can produce such figure. There is, of course, a significant caveat. This caveat, along with many renewables is the fact that renewable energy generation is often dependent on weather conditions. Solar needs sun. Wind needs wind. Tidal needs waves. Not every day is the same, therefore there can be significant seasonal or even daily variation in electricity production with various renewables.
The answer to this, like with a company that has fixed costs and variable income, is savings, or storage. Energy storage is something that has shown itself to be notoriously historically challenging. Many can remember how frequently batteries had to be replaced in stereo systems and Walkmans before rechargeable ones finally became cost effective. Following this reliability was and still is another issue. Everybody knows about how phone battery life becomes noticeably and the unusably low over time. Weight and cost are also significant, and now a large portion of the weight of many of our portable goods. Batteries are expensive, but nowhere near what they used to, and cost will fall. One thing that will lead a paradigm shift in our relationship with battery technology is the GigaFactory. This battery factory will increase global battery output by a at least a third. This factory will be on an unprecedented scale. this scale is even growing as firms such as Panasonic and Samsung as well as new factories planned from Europe and China. This is something not to be ignored. While Elon Musk gives an interesting show and attracts a lot of attention, it is not without reason. Flamethrowers might not be world changing, but making space exploration is, as it innovating new forms of public transport through the Boring Company and the Hypeprloop. Tesla is like the Apple of electric cars. While they did not invent the electric car. In fact, the electric car is over 100 years old. Electric cars were once more common than fuel-powered ones. Tesla managed to draw serious attention back to it. The costs of battery production are a tenth of what they were in 2010. We expect them to fall by a third every year.
Solar power, combined with the right battery technology will soon change the way that we view electricity production.