April 15, 2024

I, Science

The science magazine of Imperial College

How will the energy industry reach energy security at a time where the population is growing?

The global energy landscape is changing dramatically and people are realising that our reliance on fossil fuels cannot last forever. Recent publicity of the extent of the damage that non-recyclable plastics are having on the environment highlights how much we depend on fossil fuels. However, at this critical time, recent events have shown that attitudes are starting to change for the good. The 5p plastic bag charge, as well as the plans of many high street eateries to ban plastic straws and stop selling bottled water, shows a positive effort to reduce our reliance on non-renewable products. The energy landscape is a complicated place, with many vested interests from different groups like industries, government and pressure groups. So, in the age of energy uncertainty, how will the way we consume energy change?

One of the biggest questions facing the energy industry is how to get energy security at a time where the population is growing and more people around the globe are switching on to the grid. There are two main prongs to this question: 1) existing oil-and-gas companies, such as Shell and BP, have business models that are reliant on the use of fossil fuels, but are under pressure to de-carbonise, 2) renewable sources of energy, such as solar and wind, are becoming more popular, but there are issues with reliability, efficiency and aesthetics.

Considering first the role that the oil-giants play in the energy landscape, recent statements highlight that oil companies are starting to change their economic strategies. For example, at the end of 2017, Shell announced that it is doubling its investment in renewables and aims to halve the carbon footprint of the company by 2050. Whilst oil and gas will remain the main focus of the business, the commitments highlight a shift in attitude by one of the largest global players in the oil and gas industry. Meanwhile, BP are also showing their increasing interest in renewable technologies, by announcing a $200m (43%) stake in Light source, a solar company, which is one of the largest in Europe. Whilst BP’s strategy appears to be a little more conservative than the bold statements of Shell, these are interesting times these large companies.

The other part of the answer to the question of energy security is the emergence of renewable energy suppliers as competitors in the electricity market. Renewable energy sources have received some negative press, with wind being regarded as noisy and ugly and solar being relatively expensive for homeowners, despite incentives from the government. Other issues with renewable energy is the inability to align electricity production with times of peak demand. All that being said, the technology has progressed rapidly over recent years and with that, prices are dropping rapidly. With the lowered cost of renewables, green energy suppliers are now competing head-on with the mainstream energy suppliers, by providing competitive tariffs and the satisfaction that the energy is, in some cases, 100% renewable. In the UK, some of the top companies like Bulb, Ecotricity and Good Energy, are growing in popularity as an increasing number of people move away from the Big Six. Around 24% of the UK’s electricity now comes from renewable sources (source: http://electricityinfo.org/fuel-mix-of-uk-domestic-electricity-suppliers/) and it will be interesting to see how this figure grows in coming years.

Moving away from energy supply and focusing on energy usage, another contributor to energy uncertainty is the increasing focus on batteries and fuel cells as alternative transport. Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs) are now considered normal, with increasing installation of charging points around cities and motorways service stations. The rise of Tesla vehicles on the roads is noticeable and, with the economies of scale, the cost of hybrid-electric or pure electric vehicles (EVs) is constantly dropping. With the increase in electric vehicles, there naturally comes an increasing demand on the electricity grid. And there are questions arising about how the National Grid would be able to cope

with the demand if all road users switched to EVs. However, smart charging (where the electricity supplied to a plugged-in EV is regulated depending on the real-time grid demand) is being trialled and experts predict that UK-wide introduction of smart charging could save up to £2.2bn by 2050.

However, whilst an EV is perhaps more ideally suited to the user who travels short distances and can allow the vehicle to charge for a long period, for long distance travel, other solutions are starting to look competitive. The use of hydrogen as a fuel in cars, buses and trains is an idea that is growing in popularity. Fuel cells, devices that convert hydrogen and oxygen to water and produce electricity, were invented in the 1800s, but only now are we starting to see the sort of power and durability that is necessary for long-term operation. In addition, the recent news from Chris Grayling, the transport secretary, that he believes we should be investing in hydrogen for rail transport, shows that fuel cells are slowly becoming a competitor, especially for long distance travel. Following in the footsteps of Germany, who say that the first hydrogen trains will be running in the state of Schleswig-Holstein by 2021. Hydrogen-fuelled trains have a range of more than 600 miles on a single tank. Switching the rail network to hydrogen would avoid the need to electrify the rail network, instead the hydrogen trains could simply run on the existing track network.

One final piece of the energy puzzle is the fact that hydrogen can be produced using an electrolyser by the electrolysis of water in the reverse process to that in a fuel cell. Thus, at times of low energy demand and high energy supply from renewables, the excess electricity can be used to turn water into hydrogen and oxygen. Chemical storage is a very efficient way of storing energy, since no energy is lost until something is done to the chemical, in this case hydrogen. With increasing research into the area of electrolysers and hydrogen production, this will be yet another landmark in the rapidly diversifying, energy landscape.

Jennifer Hack is studying for a PhD in Fuel Cells at Imperial College London

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