No silver bullet required – how we can make a positive impact on climate change with existing clean technologies
BY DAVID HUNT
If you are reading this magazine, chances are you fully appreciate that climate change is one of the most pressing issues facing humanity today. The overwhelming scientific consensus is that we need to take immediate and significant action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to prevent the worst effects of global warming. There is often a perception that we are waiting for some kind of ‘silver bullet’ technology that will solve the problem for us; hydrogen, fusion or some new battery chemistry. The reality is we already have the necessary clean technologies to make a huge positive impact in the fight against climate change, we just need to deploy them at scale and with speed.
An ode to solar and wind
One of the most cheap, available, scalable and beautiful clean technologies is solar power, for both electricity and heat. Solar panels have been around for decades and have become increasingly efficient and cost-effective over time. In many parts of the world, solar power is already cheaper than fossil-fuel generated electricity. The cost of solar panels has decreased significantly in the last ten years. According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), the average cost of solar panels in 2010 was around $4.00 per watt. By 2020, the average cost had dropped to around $0.30 per watt, a decrease of approximately 93 per cent. Solar power can be used to generate electricity for homes, businesses and even entire communities. It can also be used for heating and cooling buildings and for powering electric vehicles.
Another established and scaling technology is wind turbines. From the Netherlands of old, to the massive offshore wind farms of today, wind has been captured for power for a very long time, and modern wind turbines have scaled in size and output significantly. Like solar power, wind power is now competitive with fossil fuels in many parts of the world and is rapidly becoming cheaper. Modern offshore wind turbines have a power output of 8-12 MW. These wind turbines are much larger than the onshore wind turbines you may see driving along the motorway. The most powerful offshore wind turbine currently in operation is the GE Haliade-X, which has a power output of 13 MW and a rotor diameter of 220 metres. That’s Huge!
Heat pumps are another brilliant and efficient clean technology that has been around for years and are picking up significant momentum as we move away from gas to heat our homes and buildings. Heat pumps are devices that transfer heat from one location to another and can be used for heating and cooling buildings. They are much more energy-efficient than traditional heating and cooling systems and can be powered by clean electricity. Heat pumps can also be used to heat water for homes and businesses and can even be used for industrial processes. Replacing gas heating with heat pumps will have a massive impact, and contrary to popular myth, they work very well in cold countries, and have been installed in large numbers in Scandinavia for some years.
Much of this requires the ability to generate and store large quantities of electricity. Storage is important for many reasons, not least that electricity from solar and wind is, whilst more predictable than many think, variable and, at times, intermittent. Batteries are key to the electrification of everything. The good news is that like solar, the cost of batteries has decreased significantly and continues to do so, while, at the same time, batteries improve energy density (more power in a smaller battery). Battery gigafactories and investments in battery manufacturing capacity are scaling at a mind-boggling rate. Of course new innovation, making batteries cleaner and easier to produce and recycle, is happening at pace and needs to continue to do so, but we have the technology and resources to build sufficient for both the escalation of grid storage and, of course, for electric vehicles. Electric vehicles too are, as you will see on the roads, becoming increasingly prevalent and affordable, and all major automakers are investing heavily to support the global trend, especially with many countries and states banning the sale of ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles by 2025.
We don’t have to wait
Innovations are great and exciting, but we don’t need to wait for them to be developed in order to make a positive impact on climate change. The technologies we already have work and can be deployed at scale, quickly. Scale and speed are important, and it’s been great to see companies like 1Kommer5 and Enpal creating business models that make it easy and affordable for home-owners to install solar and heat pumps; both raising over £200m recently to help them to scale.
No silver bullet is required. We don’t have to wait – we already have the necessary clean technologies to make a huge positive impact on climate change. Instead, we need to focus on deploying the technologies we already have, at scale and quickly. I had the pleasure of being in Brussels last month to hear the announcement of an EU Net Zero Industry Act, an equivalent to the US policy the IRA (Inflation Reduction Act), both committing to both policy and financial support, with $billions to support the development of cleantech companies and technologies. Investing in clean-energy infrastructure, policies and support like this enables us to act now, and not to wait for the next technological breakthrough. We have the tools and the knowledge, let’s put them to work.
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