SIUOxford: How Innovation is Solving the Energy Crisis

Author: Emil Fristed Edited by: Ruth Sang Jones

On February 21st,  SIUOxford threw an ‘enlightening' event in collaboration with Oxford Energy Society on how innovation can solve the energy crisis. The night saw three different speakers approaching this problem statement from fundamentally different vantage points. All three had their own way to frame ‘the energy crisis’, thoughts on why innovation is needed, and what we need to do to get there.

Dr Nina Skorupska CBE: How can the UK deliver on it’s carbon emission goals?

Innovation, people, and the democratisation of energy

Dr Nina Skorupska - who has worked with energy for more than 30 years, and is currently CEO of Renewable Energy Association - began by painting the big picture, talking about energy policy, and framing the energy crisis from a societal perspective / on governmental scale; how do the UK top administration deal with energy?

Problem: The UK have committed to ambitious goals in renewables and reducing carbon emissions (i.e. through the Climate Change Act and the Clean Energy Act). How do we reach these goals?

Takeaway: There’s no single answer for delivering on the carbon commitments. To solve the energy crisis we need innovation in science and technology, but also in people, and, importantly, in new types of business models.

When most people talk energy, they talk about power or heat, but throughout her talk Nina stressed how it’s about everything: the energy landscape, policy & awareness. It's about making people care. How can people live in this new reality? For example, out of the ~29 million houses in the UK, 25 million are today connected to the gas network; being connected provides convenience, but also poses a challenge in weaning people off the habit of having gas at home. For this reason many of the government's renewable energy pilots involving ~4 million houses, are performed with these houses not connected. How do we convince people to make the change? As another example, today the biggest driver for changing transport in cities right now is actually the air quality. This is important since transport is the biggest CO2 emitter in the UK at the moment! But again, a holistic perspective is required: changing to electrical vehicles in the cities might help air pollution, but if the electricity is powered by fossil fuels, it doesn’t really help much in the bigger picture.

Dr Skorupska also highlighted that from a technological perspective, there’s no single answer for delivering on the carbon commitments. It will take a combination of a variety of renewable energy sources (solar, wind, marine), storage solutions, and baseload/flexible generation. New innovations need to be integrated with existing infrastructure. But with innovation, manufacturing, and deployment, the cost curves are coming down. Maybe some renewables don’t need ‘hand-outs’ anymore; they are beginning to compete with traditional fuel - also on price. With this, she made the argument that we are at a tipping point in energy from a technological perspective. And we need to invest in the sector to make sure it tips the right way. And then, importantly, we need to think about the ecosystem, and how we get people to change, when we have the technology.

The business landscape is also changing. Nina herself comes from a world where everything in energy was centralised. But this centralisation comes with a cost. Over 57% is lost in transmission. The interesting time we are living in now is the democratisation of energy. Everyone is getting able to chose for themselves, and have ‘their own energy’ (the obvious example being solar panels on your roof). This shift from centralised energy to a democratised landscape also means that some of the biggest innovations in energy in the coming years will probably be in business models and markets.


Prof Bill David FRS: Ah, If I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here at all.

Lithium, Ammonia, and Elon Musk

Prof Bill David is also an expert in the enrgy sector, having an impressive 45 years of experience. In his younger years, he was part of the research group that developed the first lithium battery here in Oxford, and returned to the city in 2004 to work on hydrogen storage. In 2011 he moved into ammonia storage and sodium batteries.

Problem: The energy ecosystem is too narrowly focussed on a few ideas, especially lithium batteries. But is it really the best way to solve the energy crisis?

 Takeaway: Ammonia storage might be a more realistic and scalable solution for meeting rising energy demands, especially if we want something that also works in the less developed countries. This can perhaps work in combination with renewables, and maybe sodium batteries. We need a diverse approach. There is no single solution.

Prof David began his talk by making the case that the energy ecosystem is a one-trick pony too narrowly focussed on a few ideas. Arguably the most prominent and ‘hyped’ of these today are lithium batteries - as deified by Elon Musk’s new ‘Gigafactory’. But, there is an expected 521% increase in global lithium production between 2016 and 2020. This will put increasing pressure on supply to meet the rising demand. China has +60% of the market in this area. The UK is playing catchup, blindly following TESLA and China going down the battery route. At this point Bill pauses. ‘Maybe we should take a step back’ he suggests, almost demonstrably performing the gesture. There is an Irish saying that goes:

“Ah, if I was going there, I wouldn’t start from here at all.”

But where do we start then? Bill offers some alternative suggestions. If we begin somewhere different, with the idea that we want something that should be democratic and ubiquitous, one should look at the ‘global commons’ - things that are owned by all of us. In energy the three major global commons are: sunlight, air, and water. Can we use these global commons for energy storage? Yes. Kind of. With a bit of creative thinking. The major storage types in each of these areas are: 

-     Hot water heat storage (heat energised water).

-     Compressed/liquid air storage.

-     Hydroelectric storage (gravitationally energised water).

In addition to these ways of storing energy in ‘energised water’, he provided another means of doing so: Chemically energised water - more specifically ammonia storage. Ammonia can be synthesised artificially with the Haber-Bosch process, and provides an alternative means of storing energy. HU-CHEMS recently invested 1 trillion Won (£673M) in Malaysia to produce Ammonia, and the energy production of this plant together with one other plant, will produce ~1000 GWh/year, corresponding to ~30 Gigafactories, or 5 times the projected 2020 global lithium ion battery production. Prof David made a final point from a more human perspective- whatever energy solution(s) we end up making, we need those to work in third world countries as well. There aren't going to be TESLA chargers all over Bangladesh (at least not in the next couple of years). Ammonia, he argues, might be a more realistic, deployable solution in these countries. Democratise energy!

Dr Richard Kembleton: Decoupling energy consumption and carbon emission.

How fusion might achieve this and why it matters even if it doesn’t

Dr Richard Kembleton works as a fusion systems modeller at the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, and had yet another way to frame the energy crisis.

Problem: If we want the developing world to achieve better standards of living, we need to decouple energy consumption and carbon emission.

Takeaway: Fusion might be the solution long term. But it won’t be working properly for this until the end of the century. There’s not just one problem in fusion. We need innovation in many areas.

The US’ interesting recent environment policy aside, most reasonable people know that burning fossil fuels will eventually lead to bad things. One thing that get’s a lot of publicity is carbon emissions, which leads to global warming, rising water levels, and so on. Another is death due to particle intake, which is a big problem in the 3rd world, where they burn bad materials inside for heat and cooking.

If one looks at the relationship between primary energy demand per capita, and HDI (Human Development Index), there is a very strong correlation. In the top of both we have the OECD countries (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development). But other countries are moving up the HDI ladder. This means that they will probably also move up to the OECD in energy consumption - is this what we want? We have to expect large increases in energy demands. This lead to the main focus of Richard’s talk:

How will this rising demand continue to be met?

What is the impact of rising demand (on health, etc?). Short term? Long term?

And can fusion contribute to answer these questions?

 ‘We need to do a complete decoupling of energy consumption and carbon emission’, he stressed. If we look at the future energy markets, most modern models propose a mix of variable renewables, storage, and baseload. The problem is that suitable energy storage and baseload do not yet exist at appropriate scales. This is a problem that needs to be solved on two different levels. Short term, the problem needs to be solved to address climate change. Long term, the problem needs to be addressed to solve long term energy demands.

So is fusion the solution? Will it ever happen? In fact it does happen. Every single day. This is the process taking place in the sun that makes it all hot and bright. The problem is that a great amount of heat and pressure needs to be generated to actually make it happen.

Looking at the area of fusion here on planet earth, there is two big parties that the cool guys in physics go to. The first one is ‘JET’, a fusion experiment here in the UK. With JET, fusion researchers have been able to achieve the appropriate amount of heat and pressure needed to make the fusion process happen, and JET has on some runs generated as much energy as was put in. The other big party is ‘ITER’ which is being build in southern France, and is expected to be able to produce 10x as much energy as JET. Sounds great? WIll you be powering your iPhone by fusion energy any day soon? Unfortunately not. Even if these generators are able to generate more power than they consume, they are not equipped to extract that energy. In fact fusion has long been a physics experiment, and only recently are people beginning to look at the technology. This means in practice that the technological development is lagging behind the physics development. For an actual power plant, we need to look at entirely different things, such as power handling/exhaust, proof of fuel breeding and extraction, remote handling concepts (due to heat and radiation) - even the plant layout will be very different from ITER.

This means that we need innovation in a range of diverse areas: new resistant materials; new manufacturing techniques, such as 3D printing and powder metallurgy; tools that allow ongoing diagnostics, and can withstand radiation and plasma/heat; high temperature super conductors; robotics to do remote handling in challenging environments; and much more. It also means that fusion is not a short term solution to climate change. It’s a long term solution.

Dr Kembleton also stressed that having crossover applications of fusion is absolutely necessary to make the business model viable. If there’s no other thing in the world that uses the same supply chain, it makes it much more unviable. But if crossover applications are developed, it will take of some of the developmental load.

Richard ended echoing what turned out to be a main takeaway throughout the night: There’s no one problem. We need innovation in many areas to solve the energy crisis.

The talks were followed by an interactive panel discussion, where the audience engaged with the three speakers. The night ended with a buzzing networking session with wine and light food.