Prof Nigel Brandon, head of Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab, reveals how he is helping the UK switch to a low-carbon, all-electric economy. Berenice Baker reports.
Engineers and scientists tend to respond to government energy targets in one of two ways. They either dismiss them as fanciful and unachievable, or roll up their shirt-sleeves and set about the challenge with relish.
Prof Nigel Brandon, executive director of Imperial College London’s Energy Futures Lab, falls firmly into the ‘shirt-sleeves’ camp.
Since its launch in 2005 the lab has raised about £45m of funding for new energy research activity and helped foster a lively community of scientists, engineers and industrial representatives, all determined to address the monumental energy challenges we face.
Its latest initiative, the Planet 2050 programme, is born of a recognition that the scale of the problem — the UK Committee on Climate Change is calling for an 80 per cent reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 — demands some radical solutions. ‘We can’t achieve that 80 per cent cut in CO2 through business as usual, or even through applying technology that we’ve currently got,’ said Brandon, formerly of BP and Rolls-Royce and now Shell Professor of Sustainable Development in Energy.
‘We need new technologies and we need to think carefully about how we use them, coupled with demand reduction and behaviour-changing activities. We also need to think about new ways of designing and engineering our energy system.’
One of the primary aims of the programme is to explore and develop the technologies that will enable the UK to make the switch to a low-carbon, all-electric economy.
‘So long as we make our electricity from suitable sources, from nuclear power, wind, wave or solar energy, or even from fossil fuels, provided we address the carbon capture and storage question, then we’ve produced a very low-carbon content electricity,’ he added. The vision is that new sources of clean electricity will enable us to use electricity in a new way — not just to power existing infrastructure but, ultimately, to wean us off the use of fossil fuel in our cars and gas in our homes.
‘You could argue that you should use more low-carbon electricity than gas for heating, even though the overall efficiency may be lower,’ said Brandon. ‘It all comes back to how you’ve made the electricity in the first place. If you’re optimising on the basis of carbon reduction, you get a greater reduction by going down the electrification route.’
He added: ‘If you’ve got low-carbon electricity, what fossil fuels can it displace? We rely extensively in this country on gas for our heating. What are the opportunities to displace gas with low-carbon electricity?’
Working in London, Brandon has particularly illuminating insights into the challenges and opportunities facing a large, long-established city.
‘It’s a wealthy city and on the transport side you can make changes more easily [the Tube, for instance, could be switched to a low-carbon electricity supply] than on the building side, where you’ve got a lot of established building stock, though both refurbishments of old stock and new-build offer opportunities to use less carbon.’
Brandon has a clear vision of how a low-carbon future would look — or sound. ‘If I were to open my office window in 2050 I’d like to not be able to hear very much at all. One of the attractions of moving to an electric transport infrastructure is it would be quiet,’ he said.
‘We’d be able to completely rethink how we’d ventilate our buildings — one of the barriers to using more natural ventilation is the noise in the street.
‘We’d also have more naturally lit buildings, so we wouldn’t have to have the light on during the day. It would also be a much cleaner environment, as we’re not dealing with particulates and other emissions from vehicles.
‘I would expect to see far more extensive use of clean electrical generation within the built environment, so there’s more dispersed electrical generation, and a much smarter system where we’d monitor and control energy use much better. From a user’s perspective, it’s a better quality of life and a far more pleasant living experience.’
Excluding existing electrical systems, transport is a particularly challenging sector.
Here, said Brandon, different solutions may be better suited to different types of journey. For instance, while battery-powered vehicles may make sense in an urban context, today’s battery technology still has significant power-density limitations, and a biofuel/electric hybrid may be a better short-term option for longer journeys.
‘When you get into even longer journeys by aeroplanes, you may eventually use a bio-derived aircraft fuel,’ said Brandon. ‘As we haven’t got to that point, this may be where we reserve our precious hydrocarbons for those applications until we can manage it by any other means.’
This exemplifies the transitional approach the Planet 2050 programme champions, using the best technologies available to contribute to CO2 reductions immediately then, as new technologies emerge, adding them in to contribute to even deeper reductions in the future.
‘We need to recognise that an 80 per cent reduction in CO2 can’t be achieved simply by applying what we currently have. We have to continually evolve,’ said Brandon.
Beyond the key technology challenges, he hopes that the programme will also help stimulate the behavioural changes that are essential to a low-carbon future.
‘To deploy solutions in the near term, it’s a leadership challenge — actually demonstrating to individuals and to businesses that we need to move now using the technologies we already have,’ he added.
One example is the shared or partial ownership of electric vehicles championed by Prof John Polak, the head of Imperial’s electric mobility project.
‘John’s right to highlight that you need to look at this holistically,’ said Brandon. ‘Transport sharing is part of demand management — in other words, can you make less journeys and have less vehicles on the road? It’s important to look at both sides and not take as read the growth curves for energy demands.’
Brandon hopes Planet 2050’s influence will spread beyond London and even the UK.
‘We’re looking to establish a hub of activity but we recognise the need to integrate that into other activities nationally and internationally.
‘We are already involved with programmes in other parts of the world, including in the US, China and elsewhere in Asia.’
He emphasised that engineers have a pivotal role to play in supporting the Planet 2050 vision. ‘It’s a holistic concept and the engineering will involve systems integration and the integration of parts of the energy supply chain.
‘Planet 2050 is very much about putting engineers at the heart of the challenge.’