World Ecomomic Forum: Renewables brim with potential but need help from regulation

Lars Josefsson of Brandenburg University of Technology and Markus Antonietti of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology talk about the environment.

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Photovoltaic has the greatest potential today for cutting down on carbon pollution, says Lars Josefsson of Brandenburg University of Technology.

Technology, regulation, markets – what gives us the best hope of reducing greenhouse gases?

Technology is by far the most important factor to decarbonise the energy system – a sustainable future is only possible with commercialised, competitive products accessible on all markets. This is not to downplay the importance of regulation, which is also important, but if you want to regulate a fossil-free car fleet, for example, you better make sure that the technology is available first.

In this way, regulation has produced fantastic results for wind power and solar photovoltaic. Costs have been reduced and the technology is readily available. This shows what can be done when political will is in place. This has, on the other hand, been achieved through massive subsidies and brought about market distortions and unforeseen energy system costs.

Which technologies have the most potential today, and which are you tipping for the future?

The highest potential today lies within solar photovoltaic, especially if it can be combined with storage. Among other things, I believe that this can be the key to enabling decarbonised energy access to all people in the world. Technology for increased energy efficiency in buildings, transportation and industrial processes is at hand, but far from used to its potential. Longer term, I believe that advanced nuclear, advanced storage and carbon scrubbing technologies will be most important.

Advanced nuclear is a term referring to the next generation of nuclear power that addresses the problems that plague the present generation – for example costs, safety and waste. Advanced storage is badly needed to make electricity in transport the dominating technology, as well as to make intermittent renewables more useful. Furthermore, it is difficult to see that we will be able to reduce the use of fossil fuels in power generation quickly enough, hence carbon scrubbing technologies – which capture waste CO2 emissions – will be needed. The key to success will be technologies to commercialise the use of CO2.

Without a doubt, the next generation of biofuels, especially for heavy vehicles, will be needed, as electrification will take a relatively long time.

I would also like to mention the possibility of sustainable biomass – normally wood fibre that is produced with no negative environmental or social implications (for example, on being grown on land otherwise used for food) – for electricity generation. This is readily available and has a huge potential. It will mostly require that policymakers acknowledge the potential.

What are the biggest obstacles for low-carbon energy and how can they be overcome?

This is mostly a question of regulation. Often there are counter-productive policies in place, such as fossil fuel subsidies or too much regulation. For example, in the European Union, where renewable regulations differ from country to country and where different renewable subsidies are affecting the Emission Trading System. This becomes mutually destructive, leading to low credibility for the stability of regulation. Awareness of the available options makes the adoption more difficult. Many markets show large differences, but the use of performance standards seems to work well.

What is the most exciting thing to have happened in this space in the past 12 years?

The tremendous development of solar PV is exciting. The other thing I like to mention is that China is recognising its environmental problem and its responsibility to contributing to global sustainability.

What would you like to see happen in Abu Dhabi?

I would like to see mobilisation about two important issues in particular. These are designing a road map to accelerate the commercialisation of advanced nuclear and creating an action plan to decarbonise energy access in low-income households around the world.

Small-scale technology poised for big leap

From solar panel beach towels to turning CO2 into soil, Markus Antonietti of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology explains some of the potential opportunities to be gained from the development of nanotechnology.

Nanotechnology – the manipulation of materials on a tiny scale – is almost a mature area of science these days. In what areas of life do you see it having the most influence?

You’re going to see giant leaps in efficiencies in areas such as energy and water technologies. Because of nanotechnology, new batteries will have a density 10 times higher. That means your laptop battery will go from two to 20 hours. A small electric car would go from 60 kilometres per charge to 600km.

Nano also allows for the simple disinfection and purification of water. It is already possible to put dirty water in a plastic bottle and leave it in the sun for UV light to activate nano-particles that kill all the bacteria. It’s just like the disinfectant in your pool, except it’s done with light, not chemicals.

Is enough consideration being given to the risks of nanotech?

Yes, if not too much. Everything that is powerful has the risk to be dangerous. Nature uses nano all the time. Enzymes, for example, are nanostructures. There must be rules for good practices, of course – nano technologies should be confined to liquids and the insides of batteries, for example. If this is done properly, there is no risk beyond the usual (batteries can always explode, as they are stored energy).

Looking forward, where do you think nanotechnology has the greatest prospect for improving the state of the world?

The most urgent and most readily available is in the purification of air and water. I’ve already explained how we can purify water with nanotechnology, and the implications for the millions of people without access to clean water would be enormous.

Globally, nanotechnologies also provide an answer to our CO2 problem. The technology already exists to fix the atmosphere. On a global scale, we are able to turn CO2 in the atmosphere into soil. Soil is a nanostructure and the “humus” – or carbon content – in it can be created artificially. We can take waste biomass and by nanochemical conversion turn that waste (which is considered already bound CO2) into fertile soil. This happens all the time in nature – just look at the compost in your garden. Nanotech would simply allow the acceleration and intensification of what happens in nature.

This has advantages beyond saving our atmosphere. Over-use of soil is a major problem around the world. The kind of soil we are talking about producing from CO2 is very fertile. It could be used to solve this problem as well.

The best part is that all of this could happen immediately, if we simply spread the information in an understandable way. People do not read science journals, so they don’t even know that all of this is possible.

What single breakthrough in your field in the past year has excited you the most?

There are so many. If I must chose only one, it would be the 25 per cent light-to-electricity conversion of cheap Perovskite cells, which are the fastest-advancing solar technology. We are talking about nothing less than the democratisation of decentralised energy.

Solar has the potential to cure the entire energy problems of the world. So far, there have been investment problems that come with this. Cells are still too expensive. Making solar more simple in technology and in application has thus become a priority.

What if we could just roll out our solar panels like a giant beach blanket in the morning and roll them in at night or when it’s going to rain? Nanotechnology will allow such solar structures to be printed like a newspaper, and this would bring down expenses. Imagine a solar panel like that for €30 (Dh121) or even €3. Nano is taking us there.

If you could help your council achieve one thing in the course of its two-year term, what would it be?

The key to success is to find the balance between what I call software and hardware. The hardware, the actual technology, needs to be advanced and we need to have conversations about how to do that. But there also needs to be focus on education and getting information to the public at large. This is the software component. As I mentioned earlier, most people still don’t know about these technologies. Of course, without the content there is nothing to talk about. So both are important.

The main problems are no longer science problems, they are social problems.

* Courtesy World Economic Forum