Front-line advances in the low carbon energy transition
On the 9th September, Tevi’s Vicky Smyth interviewed Chris Coonick from WREN (Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network), Amanda Forman (Planet A Solutions) and David Bowers (BP Group Technology) as part of our ‘in conversation with’ series. The interactive Q&A session was moderated by Vicky Smyth and aimed to reconcile best practice approaches.
The ‘in conversation with’ series aims to facilitate knowledge transfer between SMEs, policymakers, experts in Cornwall and expert guests beyond the county. The interviews are designed to address topical issues and stimulate debate to develop effective solutions to combat Cornwall’s challenges in environmental growth and circular economy. This interactive session brought together expert practitioners to discuss cutting-edge developments in the low carbon energy sector.
Chris Coonick is the Technical Director for Wadebridge Renewable Energy Network (WREN) a not-for-profit organisation run by volunteers. WREN is focused on improving the energy efficiency of homes and businesses around Wadebridge and on being a catalyst for economic resilience. Since starting in 2014, the organisation has assisted with 104 installation of solar PV producing enough energy to power 1,120 homes. 61 homes have been fitted with renewable heat installations, producing enough to heat 279 homes. The organisation now has over 1,200 voluntary members. WREN’s target is to ultimately generate 100% of Wadebridge’s electricity from local renewable sources.
Amanda Forman is the Executive Director of Planet A Solutions, a community interest company focused on the conception, development, and implementation of solutions for energy users. Planet A provides business cases for technical challenges, conducts resource assessments to analyse energy usage and inefficiencies, and provide knowledge of bespoke renewable solutions.
David Bowers is an analyst within BP Group Technology, providing strategic insights regarding regional energy systems and power generation techniques. He researches new and alternative forms of energy for potential investment and measures to mitigate the harmful impacts of traditional energy production. He is also involved in energy system modelling.
The discussion first centred on WREN’s Energy Equality project, as Chris explained that WREN aims to both increase local renewable energy production and tackle energy poverty. The project is currently in the scoping phase and is looking to establish a system that utilises renewable energy production to rebalance the amount of money spent on energy and alleviate fuel poverty. Chris went on to identify several of the key challenges that Cornwall faces, resulting in elevated levels of fuel poverty. Such challenges include poor transport links, difficulties in retrofitting modern technology to old buildings and the many homes living off grid. Additionally, in March 2019 the Government feed-in-tariffs for Solar PV (subsidising and providing financial incentives) has since made it less attractive to consumers to install renewable energy supply systems.
WREN’s Energy Equity project centres on a peer-to-peer (P2P) trading system of locally produced energy. P2P trading involves people who generate excess energy from renewable local sources (prosumers) selling the excess energy to neighbours who lack energy (consumers) via a secure platform. WREN’s P2P energy trading platform would enable those who generate electricity from PV solar panels to trade their excess energy to others within their community without own generation, allowing those selling to receive better prices than from commercial outlets and those buying are charged less than from conventional suppliers. By removing the need for energy transfer, avoiding the need for the grid and removing the middleman within the system, the P2P trading system directs renewable energy in a sufficient and effective way to those in need whilst providing a greater incentive to those who have the space and funds to invest in renewable energy generation. WREN is looking to become the UK’s first community scale aggregator to facilitate the buying and selling of renewable energy across a community scale.
The speakers went on to discuss the potential for micro-grids to provide energy to those in need, integrate renewable energy generation and to subsidise the grid supply. A micro-grid is a group of decentralised electricity sources that is connected to the wide area macro-grid but can be disconnected to ‘island mode’. The creation of micro-grids have allowed the integration of new renewable technologies into existing energy systems around the world. Micro-grids allow areas that are constrained by access to energy to have renewable energy generation systems installed and relive network stress when connected to the grid. This discussion highlighted the potential for micro-grids to address many of the energy challenges faced by Cornwall.
Another topic discussed was the potential for hydrogen energy production to ease the transition to a low-carbon economy. The Climate Change Act 2050 emission reduction targets mean that carbon-free energy will become the norm. Many low-carbon electricity technologies already exist to ease this transition to a net-zero economy. Hydrogen can be produced in low-carbon ways from natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power including solar or wind. It is an attractive fuel option for electricity generation, and transportation. Hydrogen can also be stored at scale making it a viable low-carbon option during our transition to net-zero carbon. The use of hydrogen with wide-scale electrification with energy efficiency improvements has the potential to replace natural gas for power generation and heating, and liquid fuels for transport.
Amanda Forman highlighted two key projects working on incorporating hydrogen into the natural gas network in the UK – HyEnergy and HyNet – both of which are focused on reducing carbon emissions using hydrogen energy. Amanda stated that potentially “50% of the UK’s final energy production could come from hydrogen” given the investment and technological advancements.
Another essential carbon reducing measure is though effective carbon capture & storage (CCS). CCS is a method of reducing carbon emissions by preventing the carbon dioxide produced from the use of fossil fuels in energy generation and industrial processes from entering the atmosphere. David first outlined the three main CCS methods – pre-combustion capture involves reforming the fuel into a mixture of hydrogen and CO2, secondly post-combustion capture in air, and the lastly Oxyfuel combustion – involving burning gas in pure oxygen to generate pure CO2 making it easier to separate. Direct Air Capture (DAC) is another option that can be installed in a different location from the plants generating the emissions. He then went on to explain that the captured CO2 can be stored in emptied oil and gas reservoirs after the CO2 has been used to push, or enhance, the release of these fossil fuels from the ground. Saline aquifers several kilometres underground and carefully selected geological rock formations are also used to contain vast volumes of captured CO2.
The discussion then turned to methods of encouraging people to support and invest in the transition to low-carbon. Both Chris and Amanda highlighted the need for behaviour change amongst the public. Increased education is needed to promote the movement away from short-term thinking and a living more sustainably including investing in renewable energy production. Chris also indicated that Cornwall Council’s Climate Change Development Plan Document which is still under consultation and are looking for feedback and views on the action the council needs to take to address the declared climate emergency in Cornwall.
Finally, the discussion moved on to BP’s promise to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and their target of reducing emissions by 35% by 2030. BP is also committing to reducing the carbon intensity of products by 50% by 2050 and to installing methane measures at all major oil and gas producing sites by 2023. Whilst these target sound very promising, the speakers stated the importance of holding large corporations accountable to their promises and the need to drive sustainable change from the ground up. David added that BP is aiming to generate 50 gigawatts of wind and solar energy – the largest commitment of renewable energy of an energy company to date.
When discussing the potentially lofty goal of achieving zero carbon energy production in the UK Chris stated that the key is to create a realistic road map with small achievable increments that are flexible and adaptable to change but can be easily tracked. Chris also claimed that we are too comfortable with our current energy system and that we need to question our usage and be accountable for our harmful impacts. Amanda added that is less about setting targets and more about changing our way of living to become more outwardly looking and sustainable. David said that as Europe’s carbon emission impact is relatively small on the global scale, we need to demonstrate our progress to zero carbon, drive technological innovation and ensure effective negotiations with larger polluting nations.
Tevi would like to thank our guest speakers for their time and for generating stimulating discussion around the theme of front-line advances in the low carbon energy transition.
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