By Jo Barstow, British Science Association Media Fellow


Climate change is never far from the headlines these days, and renewable energy innovation is a clear necessity for securing the UK’s future energy supplies.  However, the last few months have seen the government plan to cut subsidies for household solar panels and onshore wind, whilst offering vocal support for North Sea oil and shale gas extraction.

It’s therefore not surprising that climate change and the future of energy was a hot topic at this year’s British Science Festival. An event that celebrates innovation, the Festival showcased a variety of exciting new ideas to solve our energy shortfall and reduce Britain’s carbon footprint. As I explored the issue, though, I became aware of an undercurrent of concern for the future. Is the UK in a position to shift to renewables before it’s too late, or are we due to face the consequences of government inaction?

Fixing the energy shortfall

One group leading the way in energy futures research is the Durham Energy Institute (DEI). Presenting at the Festival, Professor Andy Aplin explained that since 2003 the UK has been using more energy than it produces. This shortfall means an increasing reliance on fuel imports from other countries. Despite attempts to increase renewables in the energy mix, more than half of the UK’s electricity is still generated using fossil fuels.

Researchers at the DEI are looking for ways to plug the energy gap whilst reducing carbon emissions. One option is to keep burning fossil fuels for as long as they last, but capture and store the carbon produced instead of releasing it into the atmosphere. It sounds like a good solution, but Durham PhD student Mark Brodie told me that only 30 million tonnes of carbon are captured and injected into the ground annually, compared with 30 billion tonnes released into the atmosphere each year. For carbon capture and storage to be a viable option, he said, “we need a significant commitment in the short term.”

Other researchers at Durham and elsewhere are working on innovative methods to harvest energy from the sun, wind, tides, and even nuclear fusion. It may be a running joke that nuclear fusion is always thirty years in the future, but Rosalind Franklin award lecturer Dr Ian Chapman from the Culham Centre for Fusion Energy is optimistic about the newly-designed ITER reactor. ITER, under construction in southern France, is a prototype that aims to be the first fusion reactor to generate more energy than is required to start the reaction process.

Harvesting heat

In a chilly UK winter, heating homes makes a significant contribution to our carbon footprint. The Durham Energy Institute’s Dr Charlotte Adams explained, “Half of our energy demand is for heat. We currently use a lot of gas to produce that heat.” According to Dr Adams, there could be enough energy to heat the UK’s homes for up to 100 years hiding beneath our feet. Although the UK is not known for its geysers, there is huge potential to extract geothermal energy from hot underground water courses. However, funding is a problem: “The big obstacle is the up front cost and risk”, explained Dr Adams. Drilling wells is expensive, and with the possibility each time that a well might not hit a suitable heat source, investors are reluctant to gamble.

The growth of the online world over the last few years has created the need for huge data storage facilities, which must be aggressively cooled using fans and refrigerating systems in order to disperse heat from the servers. Could that excess heat be used to keep us warm? Dr Jon Summers of the University of Leeds has teamed up with the Iceotope company in Sheffield to investigate. “You can make data centres energy efficient using traditional [cooling] methods, but you can’t get access to that heat “, he told me.

Anyone who has dropped their smartphone in the bath knows that electronics and water don’t mix, but the key to heat harvesting is bringing cooling liquids directly into contact with electronics. Dr Summers and his team submerged a server rack in an insulating liquid, then used the heat transported by that liquid to run radiators, achieving up to 80% efficiency. However, most data centres are located in rural areas, miles away from the homes and businesses that might benefit. Relocating data centres to cities could allow this technology to be exploited.

The consequences of inaction

As indicated in the most recent IPCC report, failure to curb our carbon emissions will result in increased global warming. The resultant climate disruption will be devastating for poorer countries, and the UK will not escape unscathed. One worrying prediction is that global rainfall patterns will become much more extreme, with increased risks of drought or floods in different regions.

However, the UK government seems reluctant to drive a shift to renewable energy sources. I asked Paul Rogers, Professor of Peace Studies at the University of Bradford, why this might be. “The trouble with climate disruption is you’ve got to have governmental and inter-governmental involvement at a high level”, he told me. “The neo-liberal view is that you cannot have huge government interference in economies.”

Addressing the Festival, Professor Rogers suggested that we might even face climate wars if action is not taken to prevent further global warming. Crop failures and food shortages due to drought are likely to become more frequent in the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa, and deadly storms like Typhoon Haiyan, that hit the Philippines in 2013, may become commonplace. Natural disasters like these are likely to result in refugee crises on a scale far greater than the one we are currently experiencing.

Is this doom-laden scenario inevitable, or could we still avert disaster? Professor Rogers remains optimistic, reminding me that challenges on a similar global scale have been overcome in the past; climate change ought to be something we can handle. Certainly, if the presentations at the Festival are anything to go by, the UK science community possesses enormous inventiveness. If the political will to support these endeavours is forthcoming, the UK could lead the way in transforming the future of global energy.

Dr Jo Barstow is a 2015 British Science Association Media Fellow. Her Fellowship was funded by STFC, and she was placed at the Conversation. She is a post-doctoral researcher in Planetary Physics at the University of Oxford.

Image credit: K.H.Reichert via flickr.