Engineers are at the forefront of designing and developing the technologies that will support society’s drive towards Net Zero. But it’s not all about novel technologies – by applying circular economic principles, we can help assure the transition to a Net Zero world through existing technologies too. To reduce our environmental impact, we need to be considering how we can re-use, remanufacture and recycle assets, be they technology, equipment or infrastructure, from the outset.
The UK government’s Sixth Carbon Budget advises ministers on the volume of greenhouse gases the country can emit in the four-year period between 2033 and 2037. With the goal of a 78 per cent reduction in emissions between 1990 and 2035 it proposes four key steps towards Net Zero: an increased adoption of low-carbon solutions, particularly in transport; the expansion of low-carbon energy supplies, including offshore wind and green hydrogen; a reduction in demand for carbon-intensive activities and less waste of existing resources; and land and greenhouse gas removal, through planting woodland and restoring peatland.
But with a huge, complex – and in many cases, aging – generation and distribution infrastructure in the UK, addressing the energy trilemma of delivering secure, environmentally sustainable, and cost-effective energy systems is a major challenge. A circular economic approach could help to offer a solution for power generation and distribution businesses, enabling them to reduce their demand for scarce resources and to maximise the use of their current resources.
A circular approach
So, what is the circular economy? The ‘take-make-waste’, linear economy of the 1970s and 1980s produced and used materials, then disposed of the waste as landfill, assuming (wrongly, in many cases) that it would eventually decompose. While today’s ‘reuse’ economy reduces waste by recirculating many types of used material, the UK is still some way from a circular economy, in which zero waste is generated, and everything is recycled in some shape or form.
How can you help maintain and prolong the life of your organisation’s assets?
The circular economy is based on three key principles, according to global thought leader on the subject, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. These are: to design out waste and pollution; to keep products and materials in use; and to regenerate natural systems. The Foundation’s ‘Butterfly Diagram’ depicts interactions between users and consumers, renewable energy sources, and the finite materials available to us, and shows a process whereby manufacturers and service providers maintain and prolong, reuse and redistribute, refurbish and remanufacture, and finally recycle, their equipment and infrastructure.
Maintaining and prolonging energy assets: benefits and digital solutions
Focusing on the first two of these – ‘maintain’ and ‘prolong’ – there are both environmental and business benefits to be gained from maintaining and prolonging the life of energy generation and distribution assets. Maintenance and life extension activities can support power sector organisations to meet the challenge of the energy trilemma, as a reliably functioning asset helps ensure energy security and safety, while also meeting customers’ needs and expectations. From an environmental point of view, maintaining an existing asset, and extending its life, helps avoid the need to draw upon the planet’s limited resources – whether mineral, chemical, biological, or energetic – to replace it. And from a business point of view, extending the life of assets safely allows you to maximise the return you obtain from it. It also contributes to the affordability element of the energy trilemma, as with a reduced need for equipment and infrastructure investment there is a lessened requirement to increase customer’s bills.
So how can you help maintain and prolong the life of your organisation’s assets? One solution is to develop a digital asset management strategy, using tools such as digital twins to support the assessment of components’ remaining life, and to test out the consequences of a range of approaches to maintenance without the need for costly downtime. At Frazer-Nash, for example, we have worked with a global supplier of gas turbines to develop digital twin tools for its equipment. By making use of newly available operating data from a networked engine management system, the company was able to gather and collate operational experience from its asset, and better predict its engine life in the field. Digital twins can help underpin rapid and informed decision-making, and enable significant improvements in managing the costs, risks, performance and availability of integrated systems, or isolated plant and machinery, throughout their life cycle.
Reusing and redistributing energy assets
When energy assets do require replacement, some components of the system may not have reached the end of their useful life, and may thus have residual value – both from the environmental viewpoint of maximising the use of scarce resources, and from a financial resale perspective for your business. As your asset ages you can ask: ‘How can I achieve my desired outcome by adapting my existing resources?’ This might mean refurbishing equipment, replacing only those parts that are exhausted and reusing others; or there may be enough remaining life in the asset to make it of interest to another company that has more limited requirements of it.
The potential business benefits to energy companies of taking this approach could include reduced costs and resource use, as well as additional revenue from the sale of equipment. By only replacing the worn-out parts of your equipment, you may even find that the implementation of changes to your system can be undertaken more quickly. The concept of reuse might also be applied to waste products from your energy generation activities – for example, the excess heat generated by a nuclear power plant might be used to produce hydrogen or support a district heating network.
Digital twins can help underpin rapid and informed decision-making
To help avoid adopting the take, make, waste attitude, in designing energy products organisations could embrace a modular approach, that allows elements (or all) of the equipment or system to be reused, either in your own organisation or by others. By considering your asset’s decommissioning at the design phase, you are better able to determine and understand its residual value as it approaches the end of its life.
Putting circular economic principles into action
Wind turbines, for example, have a finite lifespan with an estimated 14,000 wind turbine blades due to reach the end of their usable life within the next two to three years. These turbines could potentially be refurbished, either to extend their working lives, or to be sold ‘second-hand’ for use in economies where a wind industry is in development. The recently launched SusWIND initiative, being led by the UK’s National Composites Centre, aims to discover and demonstrate viable ways to recycle composite wind turbine blades; to explore the use of sustainable materials and processes in developing composites for blades; and to innovate in design to future-proof the turbine blades of tomorrow.
Applying circular economic principles to your energy asset management isn’t just good for the environment, it can make sound business sense too. As engineers, if we start to consider this approach from the initial design stage of our products and systems, we can make a real difference in the push towards decarbonisation.
Nial Greeves, Energy Director, Frazer-Nash Consultancy