Smart cities and the future of carbon capture
The UK Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) offers a broad definition of a smart city. According to BIS, it considers the concept a ‘process’ rather than a static outcome, where increased citizen engagement, hard infrastructure, social capital and digital technologies make cities more liveable, resilient and better able to respond to challenges. These challenges include environmental issues and how technology and innovation will lead to a better quality of life and a reduction in energy consumption within cities.
The effective management of energy production, distribution and consumption is one of the major hurdles facing cities of the future – particularly in the face of increased urbanisation. It’s thought that cities represent three quarters of energy consumption and 80% of CO2 emissions worldwide. They also house half the world's population, a figure set to rise to 75% by 2050. Clearly that brings with it a number of potential environmental problems such as CO2 emissions.
Dealing with CO2
Many cities have industrial hubs that generate significant CO2 emissions and pollute the urban environment, and locating somewhere to house these emissions is extremely important for smart cities of the future.
But there are businesses and projects out there trying to confront the issues that cities will have to deal with and more specifically, as far as carbon capture is concerned, how we can reverse engineer the presence of CO2 from ambient air. An example of one such project was that undertaken by a team from the University of Amsterdam and the Vrije Universiteit. As part of the iGEM 2017 initiative set up by MIT in Boston, this group looked into reimagining the way we look at C02.
The way most of us recognise CO2 is as a pollutant that harms urban environments – but what if that pollutant could be captured, stored, and then used as a resource to synthesise chemical building blocks? The team called this idea Carbon Capture and Utilisation (CCU). They looked at using CO2 as a viable resource and an alternative to oil by employing cyanobacteria to take up CO2 from the atmosphere before directly turning it into the valuable chemical fumarate. Essentially a form of photosynthesis, the team claim this process is fast and efficient because no arable land is required. Fumarate is used to produce certain plastics, food additives and medicines, but is currently made from petroleum with its estimated global market size expected to go beyond $760mn by 2020.
The pioneers of carbon capture
One of the leading lights in CO2 capture is Professor Klaus S. Lackner, director of the Lenfest Center for Sustainable Energy at the Earth Institute, Columbia University. Lackner has long maintained, and takes his inspiration from, the idea that tree leaves have already given us a successful natural prototype for capturing CO2 emissions.
Back in 2015 Lackner told Fast Company his calculations suggested the air capture device he was developing would be 1,000 times more effective than a single tree. “There’s no question it works,” he said. “Whether you can do it practically remains to be seen and proved.” This concept has been taken on since. Recently, the World Economic Forum and Scientific American named Harvard University chemist Dan Nocera’s artificial ‘leaf’ as one of the top emerging technologies of 2017.
A number of other scientists and entrepreneurs such as Catalytic Innovations, Opus 12, Carbonclean, Dioxide Materials and Bill Gates-backed Carbon Engineering are also working on technologies to make recycling carbon dioxide a profitable industry.
Carbon capture: Where are we now?
Swiss company Climeworks claims it is the first company in the world to commercially capture CO2 from ambient air using its own specially designed technology, and recently opened its first commercial plant at the end of May last year. Located at a Climeworks facility near Zurich, developers say the plant will capture about 900 tonnes of CO2 annually – the equivalent level released from around 200 cars.
The plant sits on top of a waste heat recovery facility that powers the process. Fans push air through a filter system that collects CO2. When the filter is saturated, the CO2 is separated. The gas is then sent through an underground pipeline to a greenhouse to help grow vegetables. However, according to co-founder Jan Wurzbacher, the collected CO2 can also be used elsewhere commercially. “Once captured, this CO2 can then be sold on the merchant market for the food and beverage industry and can be used for the production of synthetic renewable fuels and materials,” he said.
Speaking to sciencemag.org last year, Christoph Gebald, Co-founder and Managing Director of Climeworks, said: "Highly scalable negative emission technologies are crucial if we are to stay below the two-degree target [for global temperature rise] of the international community."
Climeworks is not alone in combatting and finding new uses for CO2.
Silicon Valley-based Global Thermostat has been making waves on the carbon capture front since 2010. Their power plant quite literally reverses the process of carbon production by sucking CO2 out of the air and then turning it into useful products for use in plastics and synthetic fuels.
Speaking to Forbes, Global Thermostat CEO and Co-founder, Graciela Chichilnisky said: “If you think of a dehumidifier, it takes water molecules from the air; our product does the same. But instead of taking water, we’re taking CO2. It’s a power plant that cleans the atmosphere. We call it (the process) ‘carbon negative’.”
While not everyone is sold on the idea of ambient air carbon capture, Chichilnisky said: “Our technology is very, very low cost. We don’t use electricity. We use low temperature heat and we can produce CO2 in any amount practically.”
Making CO2 a commercially viable product is certainly one half of the discussion, but the other is surely around the positive impact these innovations could have on the environment, and therefore, cities of the future. This is something that Global Thermostat’s Chichilnisky has considered: “We are writing the future because we are changing the use of energy.”
How technology kept energy flowing through the lockdowns
With the UK Government’s plan for leaving lockdown underway, organisations across the utilities sector are looking forward to returning to a semblance of normality.
The start of 2021 wasn’t what most had hoped for – after the lockdowns of 2020, the new year presented the UK with 'Lockdown 3.0'. But this time there was a difference. This was the first lockdown taking place during winter months, and for energy companies in particular, cold weather typically brought a spike in demand.
However, organisations had been through this twice before – albeit in warmer weather – and therefore many were in better positions to continue to provide excellent customer service despite the tight restrictions that were in place. With the lessons that had been learned from the previous 12 months, businesses have been in a better place with much greater understanding of how to ensure their employees can keep working.
Low temperatures = high energy use
The UK rarely sees winters as cold as the recent storm in Austin, Texas where during its coldest day, the state’s average temperature was just 11.8 degrees Fahrenheit – or -11.2 degrees Celsius. But that doesn’t mean that the months of cold British weather don’t cause their own problems. Particularly this winter with the majority of the country working from home, many would be cranking the central heating up and using more electricity for lighting during the darker days and evenings.
This rise in energy usage meant that suppliers were working harder than ever to ensure that homes were kept warm. During lockdown, completing maintenance in houses, offices, or any other site is trickier than usual, as companies have had to limit the number of workers they send to a single location. But as mentioned previously, lessons have been learned, and new technologies have been integrated by many companies to ensure that they could cope with the challenging situation.
How scheduling saved time
With the country moving in and out of lockdown in 2020, there was likely to be a backlog of jobs going into 2021 that didn’t get completed last year. Prioritising scheduling will have been necessary for many companies to ensure that this latest lockdown didn’t push them further behind.
Scheduling software is being adopted by a range of utilities companies to help speed up this process. These applications can identify a backlog of jobs in one geographical area and ensure that local teams can focus on these jobs first and move between them quicker. This is more productive than, for example, completing the tasks in order they were initially due, which could force teams to retrace their steps over the course of a week traveling to different sites and likely take longer overall.
Scheduling applications also help ensure that the right workers and resources are sent to the right jobs, reducing the number of repeat visits required to complete a repair. When it comes to compliance, having detailed schedules in place is also enabling companies to better meet strict SLAs when carrying out maintenance – this preparation ensures they have everything they legally require. Similarly, newly automated audits are speeding up this process, meaning workers can complete jobs and move onto the next site quicker.
While scheduling can of course always be carried out manually, companies that have integrated software which is designed to map out their jobs saves time, reduces the margin for error and eases the pressure on teams. Crucially, this has meant that customers haven’t been left waiting for long periods of time during the latest lockdown for essential maintenance to be carried out.
Using video to spread the workload
Another solution that has been making a positive impact on customer experience during lockdown is the increasing adoption of video-based remote assistance.
In the ‘new normal’ where limiting face-to-face contact is a priority, any technology that can reduce the number of people visiting multiple locations, and the amount of time they need to spend there, is beneficial. Video-based remote assistance is enabling gas and electricity maintenance workers to complete their jobs with less risk to themselves and others – be it workers from other organisations on-site, such as Highway Maintenance, or members of the local community.
A smaller team can attend a job, and should they require advice from a more experienced team member, they can use the video livestream to show a supervisor the situation they’re dealing with and complete the job themselves under guidance. This reduces the number of workers that need to attend a site at one time, thereby helping the business to deploy resources more widely, and maximising labour utilisation when potentially dealing with a reduced workforce during the most recent lockdown. The supervisors working remotely can assist multiple maintenance workers in one day without travelling between locations, helping to reduce any potential spread of asymptomatic illness.
What the future holds
While these technologies have been on the rise recently due to the restrictions of COVID-19, according to Gartner, the next few years will see field service management tools continue to transform the mobile worker industry.
Last year, the analyst firm predicted that by 2025, algorithms and bots will schedule over two-thirds of field service work for field service providers dependent on automated schedule optimisation, up from less than 25% in 2019. In the same time period, we will see over 50% of field service management deployments include mobile augmented-reality collaboration and knowledge-sharing tools, up from less than 10% in 2019.
As far as 2021 is concerned, solutions such as these will continue to help energy – and other utilities – companies supply all customers with a consistent service regardless of the seasons.
The latest lockdown may have been the most challenging as the stakes were higher during winter, but rapidly developing technology innovations combined with the government’s lockdown exit strategy mean that it shouldn’t be long before life returns to a semblance of normal. And with it, utilities companies will have the technology in place to boost efficiency and productivity beyond what we’ve seen before.
Marc Greggains is Director of New Business Commercial Sales at TotalMobile