Sustainable Energy: The current state

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 12 minutes

Throughout COVID-19, we’ve witnessed our environments morph alongside the pandemic. We saw dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice in 2021, and the world stopped to consider whether the lockdowns we all had been through were influencing nature. Recent reports have shown they were – but not in the way you may have been expecting.

Conservation International’s Nature + Coronavirus brief highlighted a growing trend in May 2020 of media coverage reflecting positively on national lockdowns and their effects on the environment. Nearly two years on, and we know now that it could never have been that simple. A decrease in tourism across the globe stole money from communities that desperately needed the funding to support local conservation, leading to an increase in poaching. Biomedical waste and pollution skyrocketed as more masks, vaccination syringes, and gloves were dumped than ever. An increased need for water was seen as the world adopted hygiene protocols encouraging washing your hands for extended periods of time. Greenhouse gas emissions – while dropping for a brief period – reached record-setting levels in 2021.

By Chris Pidgeon

Reading time: 12 minutes

Throughout COVID-19, we’ve witnessed our environments morph alongside the pandemic. We saw dolphins swimming in the canals of Venice in 2021, and the world stopped to consider whether the lockdowns we all had been through were influencing nature. Recent reports have shown they were – but not in the way you may have been expecting.

Conservation International’s Nature + Coronavirus brief highlighted a growing trend in May 2020 of media coverage reflecting positively on national lockdowns and their effects on the environment. Nearly two years on, and we know now that it could never have been that simple. A decrease in tourism across the globe stole money from communities that desperately needed the funding to support local conservation, leading to an increase in poaching. Biomedical waste and pollution skyrocketed as more masks, vaccination syringes, and gloves were dumped than ever. An increased need for water was seen as the world adopted hygiene protocols encouraging washing your hands for extended periods of time. Greenhouse gas emissions – while dropping for a brief period – reached record-setting levels in 2021.

We are also approaching a global energy crisis which has already experienced the cost of energy in some parts of the world skyrocket. Society will seemingly reach a point very soon where ignorance and delay can no longer be tolerated; 2022 must be a year where we begin to accept that the pandemic is likely here to stay, and there are other issues at hand that cannot be avoided.

So, what are our collective courses of action? What can be done during the hardships of a global pandemic to, say, decrease our carbon footprints? One avenue that is evidently on the rise is sustainable energy production and consumption. The IEA – International Energy Agency – reported in 2021 that the global growth rate of sustainable energy increased by a massive 45% in 2020. A 90% increase in global wind capacity additions was also sighted, as well as a 23% increase of new solar installations.

Both public and private entities are clearly beginning to take their contributions to climate change more seriously. Australia aims to have 100% renewable energy capabilities by 2025. Energy law reforms across Europe and China have seen the utilisation of clean energy in these parts of the world soar. In fact, the entirety of the EU aims for a 55% reduction of emissions by just 2030. Sustainable energy is amid a surge in popularity, usage, and adoption, and this is likely to continue in 2022.

As always, technology drives innovation and societal change. It will be new technologies that make sustainable energy a more viable option, not just for businesses but for households and the public. Cheaper, more efficient sustainable energy solutions will be key, especially those that reduce the often-expensive initial investments required to harness or produce it. Most are aware of the growing adoption of wind and solar energy, and the storied history of hydro energy. However, modern science is pursuing many new technologies, proponents of each claiming that they may just bring about a revolution in energy.

A pair of scientists from India’s NIIT University published a paper in 2021 demonstrating the potential for sustainable energy production from living plants. By harnessing their natural ability to generate energy through photosynthesis, the paper shows that common household plants such as cacti, aloe vera, and sansevieria – able to generate 0.95V each – could one day be used to power batteries, home generators, and other small-scale energy operations.

Of particular interest to the world of climate scientists and engineers is hydrogen – its capability to power fuel cells and create electricity is renowned and is completely emission free. However, our current methods to produce hydrogen most often involve fossil fuels, producing tonnes of carbon dioxide. Hydrogen can be obtained from water, but this process is inefficient and costly. Students at Hong Kong Polytechnic University are proposing a solution and path forward through ammonia-based fuel cells. Ammonia is a natural hydrogen storage device, and through a simple chemical reaction the hydrogen can be released and used, carbon-free. These ammonia fuel cells are far off being commercially viable and still require plenty of research and development, but with enough time, this technology could become increasingly useful in many different fields, including electric vehicles.

Scientists of Ukraine are pursuing exciting new methods of creating sustainable hydrogen energy production, including the usage of biomass and agricultural waste to produce “green hydrogen”. Torrefaction, a revolutionary new process of heat-treating biomass in an oxygen-free environment, is producing fuel for power plants and factories made entirely from plants and other wasted living matter. This process also produces valuable solid gases and other chemical products that would otherwise require large amounts of emissions to produce. They are also addressing the issue of agricultural waste by refining their creation of biogas. Biogas – a sustainable, clean energy created from the fermentation of animal waste – is yet another avenue for the future of energy, and the work done here will make this natural gas more readily available and significantly cheaper.

Ukraine has significant investments in the race for hydrogen power – they are currently second in the European Union for renewable energy potential, and a great deal of this prowess comes from hydrogen. Together, four regions of Ukraine have enough capability to produce energy for half the EU.

Helion Energy, a Washington-based research company, recently secured 2.2 billion US dollars to pursue the revolutionary technology of nuclear fusion. Fusion – as opposed to nuclear fission, the traditional method of nuclear energy that produces tonnes of waste and radiation – promises to be the next big form of energy production. It is, in fact, the way stars like our Sun continuously generate heat. It will join the ranks of solar and wind as the world’s largest providers of sustainable energy. However, the technology behind fusion is still many years off, and will be incredibly costly to build, commercialise, and maintain.

India, Ukraine, USA, and Hong Kong are just four of the many countries around the world that are investing millions of dollars and thousands of man-hours into sustainable energy, a trend that is predicted to continue as demand increases. This demand is spawned from a cultural shift among younger generations that now wish to pursue many more sustainable options in their day-to-day lives. 90% of Gen Z voters in one study believed that “companies must act to help social and environmental issues”; a further 75% will actively investigate a company’s ethical standings. Electric vehicles are becoming far more common, almost all household goods have a vegetarian or vegan counterpart, free-range meats and other animal products are widely available, and eco-friendly cleaning products provide a safer alternative to those using harmful ingredients.

Many modern companies, therefore, now promote a ‘new attitude’ towards sustainable practices to entice these sorts of buyers. Words and phrases like “clean”, “green”, “environmentally conscious”, “organic”, “plant-based”, and so on, are seen every day. Consequentially, companies are now driven more so than ever to pursue investments in sustainable energy. It won’t be enough to simply support it. Companies will likely be forced to demonstrate the direct applications of sustainable energies to remain commercially viable and relevant. Gen Z and Millennials are voting with their wallets, and companies are now listening.

Interestingly, in this new world of the sustainable energy revolution lies another revolution that may change the way much of the planet utilises all these new forms of energy. The energy industry has identified a growing movement in the way energy is traded between companies and sold to the public. A traditional centralised energy model has an intermediary (such as a power company) granting you permission to access their energy network in exchange for payment. According to researchers from Canada and the UAE, a new form of ownership over energy could be possible using blockchain technology, which would move energy production and consumption towards a decentralised model. In this model, energy generated from a household’s solar arrays could be traded to neighbours who use the same grid for a price or for no cost at all. Blockchain and artificial intelligence could be utilised in these sorts of energy trades to implement trust and transparency between traders. Like the way we imagine our currencies in the future, a digital, data-driven revolution in energy may just be coming our way, too, with sustainable energy and practices at its core.

The immediate future holds a great deal of change for much of the world’s societies and the way we use our energy. A pivotal way to recover from COVID-19 and the damage it has wreaked across our environments will be through the many advances being made in sustainable energy. Some of the potential technologies we may see harness simplicity and nature itself, while others employ the magic of modern science and technology to perform miracles. Climate change and the energy crisis will prove to be some of the biggest challenges we’ve ever faced as a global community. What holds promise for our survival and continued success is that we seem to be approaching a vested cultural desire for sustainability. 2022 will likely be the year where we start to see these desires having a substantial impact on the world.

 

Sources: 1. Nature + Coronavirus Brief, conservation.org 2. Current plastics pollution threats due to COVID-19 and its possible mitigation techniques: a waste-to-energy conversion via Pyrolysis. Environmental systems research, doi.org 3. How the coronavirus pandemic is affecting water demand, Pacific Institute 4. Covid-19 and climate change, medialibrary.climatecentral.org 5. Renewable Energy Market Update 2021, iea.org 6. 100% renewable energy on the grid by 2025, AEMO target, Mozo 7. Sustainable energy: What to expect in 2022, Forbes 8. Renewable and sustainable electrical energy harvested from living plants: An experimental study, 2021 International Conference on Electrical, Computer, Communications and Mechatronics Engineering (ICECCME 9. Carbon-free sustainable energy technology: Direct ammonia fuel cells, Journal of Power Sources 10. Innovative technologies for the creation of a new sustainable, environmentally neutral energy production in Ukraine, 2020 International Conference on Decision Aid Sciences and Application (DASA) 11. Helion secures $2.2B to commercialize fusion energy, TechCrunch 12. Undivided: 2019 Gen Z Purpose Study, conecomm.com 13. Enabling Trustworthiness in Sustainable Energy Infrastructure Through Blockchain and AI-Assisted Solutions, IEEE Wireless Communications, Wireless Communications

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