Sustainable energy: a systems-led approach
Even in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak, our attention is continually brought back to the climate crisis.
In the news, we’ve seen headlines about reduced pollution, cleaner urban waterways and fewer greenhouse gas emissions. They demonstrate that change is possible and, through our actions, we can make a difference.
So how can we help sustain the positive changes we’ve seen? A significant part of this will be achieved through earnest dedication to net zero carbon by 2050.
To date, the government’s energy initiatives have lacked imagination and foresight. Ground and air source heat pumps, for example, continue to be encouraged despite being wholly unsuitable for existing stock, expensive and limited in their ability to meet future demand for truly energy-efficient buildings.
‘Active Buildings’ are one potential low/zero carbon solution: a holistic, systems-based approach, which takes into account the implications of the climate emergency and net-zero targets.
Evolved from the passive-model, Active Building design focuses on energy efficiency and a degree of energy self-sufficiency, responding to growing demand on the National Grid. It aims to support societal shifts both away from gas-powered heating and toward electric vehicle (EV) adoption.
This design model takes a broader view of tackling low carbon, with consideration given to building fabric, smart systems, integration with the wider grid network and more. In this way, it is a model designed to answer and withstand the challenges of the climate crisis.
Defining the system
The systems-based approach which defines Active Buildings is underpinned by six criteria:
Passive design and building fabric: Designing for occupant comfort and low energy use, according to existing passive principles. This includes consideration of orientation and massing, fabric efficiency, natural daylight and natural ventilation. Fundamentally it’s an integrated engineering and architectural approach.
Energy-efficient systems: Energy-efficient and intelligently controlled systems minimising loads, including HVAC, lighting and electrical transportation. Built-in monitoring and standard naming schemas further underscore meaningful data capture which enables optimisation and refinement of predictive control strategies.
On-site renewable energy generation: Incorporation of renewable energy generation where appropriate. Selecting renewable technologies holistically, dependent on site conditions and building load profiles.
Energy storage: Electrical and thermal storage which mitigates peak demand, reducing requirements to oversize systems and enabling greater control.
Electric vehicle integration: Active Buildings should integrate electric vehicle (EV) charging capabilities where possible. As technology advances, bi-directional charging will allow EVs to deliver energy to buildings as required and vice-versa.
Intelligent management of micro-grid integration with national energy network: Active Buildings must be capable of managing their interaction with wider energy networks (e.g. through land shifting, predictive control methods and demand-side response).
The benefits for property managers and homeowners will go beyond saving on their energy bills. Enabling buildings to generate, store and release energy has the potential to empower tenants, giving them greater control over their energy and even the potential to trade energy themselves.
There are still challenges to be overcome, especially the construction industry’s understanding of retrofit. The easiest place to start will be with future builds, whether housing, offices, schools or otherwise, to develop solutions that can be used to address the existing stock.
We know the problem and we have a potential solution. As the climate emergency is increasingly recognised, how can we not afford to take up the mantle?
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Carbon dioxide removal revenues worth £2bn a year by 2030
Carbon dioxide removal revenues could reach £2bn a year by 2030 in the UK with costs per megatonne totalling up to £400 million, according to the National Infrastructure Commission.
Engineered greenhouse gas removals will become "a major new infrastructure sector" in the coming decades - although costs are uncertain given removal technologies are in their infancy - and revenues could match that of the UK’s water sector by 2050. The Commission’s analysis suggests engineered removals technologies need to have capacity to remove five to ten megatonnes of carbon dioxide no later than 2030, and between 40 and 100 megatonnes by 2050.
The Commission states technologies fit into two categories: extracting carbon dioxide directly out of the air; and bioenergy with carbon capture technology – processing biomass to recapture carbon dioxide absorbed as the fuel grew. In both cases, the captured CO2 is then stored permanently out of the atmosphere, typically under the seabed.
The report sets out how the engineered removal and storage of carbon dioxide offers the most realistic way to mitigate the final slice of emissions expected to remain by the 2040s from sources that don’t currently have a decarbonisation solution, like aviation and agriculture.
It stresses that the potential of these technologies is “not an excuse to delay necessary action elsewhere” and cannot replace efforts to reduce emissions from sectors like road transport or power, where removals would be a more expensive alternative.
The critical role these technologies will play in meeting climate targets means government must rapidly kick start the sector so that it becomes viable by the 2030s, according to the report, which was commissioned by government in November 2020.
Early movement by the UK to develop the expertise and capacity in greenhouse gas removal technologies could create a comparative advantage, with the prospect of other countries needing to procure the knowledge and skills the UK develops.
The Commission recommends that government should support the development of this new sector in the short term with policies that drive delivery of these technologies and create demand through obligations on polluting industries, which will over time enable a competitive market to develop. Robust independent regulation must also be put in place from the start to help build public and investor confidence.
While the burden of these costs could be shared by different parts of industries required to pay for removals or in part shared with government, the report acknowledges that, over the longer term, the aim should be to have polluting sectors pay for removals they need to reach carbon targets.
Polluting industries are likely to pass a proportion of the costs onto consumers. While those with bigger household expenditures will pay more than those on lower incomes, the report underlines that government will need to identify ways of protecting vulnerable consumers and to decide where in relevant industry supply chains the costs should fall.
Chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, Sir John Armitt, said taking steps to clean our air is something we’re going to have to get used to, just as we already manage our wastewater and household refuse.
"While engineered removals will not be everyone’s favourite device in the toolkit, they are there for the hardest jobs. And in the overall project of mitigating our impact on the planet for the sake of generations to come, we need every tool we can find," he said.
“But to get close to having the sector operating where and when we need it to, the government needs to get ahead of the game now. The adaptive approach to market building we recommend will create the best environment for emerging technologies to develop quickly and show their worth, avoiding the need for government to pick winners. We know from the dramatic fall in the cost of renewables that this approach works and we must apply the lessons learned to this novel, but necessary, technology.”
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and International Energy Agency estimate a global capacity for engineered removals of 2,000 to 16,000 megatonnes of carbon dioxide each year by 2050 will be needed in order to meet global reduction targets.
Yesterday Summit Carbon Solutions received "a strategic investment" from John Deere to advance a major CCUS project (click here). The project will accelerate decarbonisation efforts across the agriculture industry by enabling the production of low carbon ethanol, resulting in the production of more sustainable food, feed, and fuel. Summit Carbon Solutions has partnered with 31 biorefineries across the Midwest United States to capture and permanently sequester their CO2 emissions.
Cory Reed, President, Agriculture & Turf Division of John Deere, said: "Carbon neutral ethanol would have a positive impact on the environment and bolster the long-term sustainability of the agriculture industry. The work Summit Carbon Solutions is doing will be critical in delivering on these goals."
McKinsey highlights a number of CCUS methods which can drive CO2 to net zero:
- Today’s leader: Enhanced oil recovery Among CO2 uses by industry, enhanced oil recovery leads the field. It accounts for around 90 percent of all CO2 usage today
- Cementing in CO2 for the ages New processes could lock up CO2 permanently in concrete, “storing” CO2 in buildings, sidewalks, or anywhere else concrete is used
- Carbon neutral fuel for jets Technically, CO2 could be used to create virtually any type of fuel. Through a chemical reaction, CO2 captured from industry can be combined with hydrogen to create synthetic gasoline, jet fuel, and diesel
- Capturing CO2 from ambient air - anywhere Direct air capture (DAC) could push CO2 emissions into negative territory in a big way
- The biomass-energy cycle: CO2 neutral or even negative Bioenergy with carbon capture and storage relies on nature to remove CO2 from the atmosphere for use elsewhere