The Pathways To A Low-Carbon Future: Technology

by Vincent Diringer

Technology stands to play a major role in how our low-carbon future is shaped and how fast it can be implemented. Conflated as a part of the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths) field, technology works hand in hand with these other disciplines to create new innovations capable of improving our quality of life. As briefly outlined in an earlier ClimaTalk article (The Pathways To A Low-Carbon Future: Energy), international climate policy is narrowly linked to the technology we currently have, and what is being currently researched – but what exactly can we expect from technology, how can it help us, and is it really that important?

Let us break down how technological breakthroughs have often led to important global transitions.

Historical Context

Any major human historical development can be traced back to a technological advance [1]. The creation of new tools, the use of metals, the subsequent ability to create alloys, ways of processing or changing how we interact with food, textiles, and the environment before we began working with mechanisation. From there creating more complex machinery aimed at making efficient transport, manufacturing, and how best to improve everyday life. The industrial revolution, the Space Race, the internet, renewable energy – every major advancement in our history has come as a result of technology, the transition to low-carbon is no different [2, 3].

Where STEM fields are concerned, low-carbon solutions are a hotbed of innovation and research [4]. Technology has already helped us get to where we are now in terms of producing pathways for a low-carbon future, as illustrated by some of the innovative projects below:

  • Germany was experimenting with plans to transition old coal mines into hydroelectric storage for wind power [5];
  • Clean hydrogen created and used to fuel ferry services in the Orkney Islands [6];
  • Small-scale solar tech leading to electrification of remote parts of Papua New Guinea [7];
  • Electric vehicles have an efficiency edge against combustion engines in current average electrical grids [8];
  • Lithium-ion batteries can be scaled up to reduce the intermittency of renewables [9]; or even
  • Smart tech capable of making cities and homes more efficient through software [10].

While there are many more examples of the technological progress being made globally towards ushering in a sustainable future, here are a few that will have a major impact on society: 

Building the Future

Some of the biggest challenges that we face in terms of carbon reduction are the emissions relating to energy production and transportation [11]. As mentioned in the first article of the series, these two sectors are responsible for roughly 73.2% of global greenhouse gas emissions (2016), and any transition will need to tackle our dependency on fossil fuels [11]. Up to now, renewable energies such as wind, solar, or tidal power have been routinely dismissed by net operators and politicians due to their seemingly unfit intermittency to produce a stable basic load [12, 13, 14]. This has led to continued use of power plants capable of meeting those criteria – namely coal and gas. The high baseload, or continuous energy, that these energy sources could provide did outmatch renewables, but technology has developed and the arguments have changed since renewables were first dismissed in the 1960s [12, 15, 16]. 

The biggest fallacy is as follows: there is a need for continuous power generation, and the intermittency of renewables would make it impossible for it to be a viable option.

Renewable energy has become more efficient throughout the decades, and as we have improved it, so has the technology associated with it [12, 16, 17]. Paired with batteries – let they be the mechanical hydroelectric ones that were envisioned to be used in Germany’s old coal mines, or large-scale lithium-ion modules that surpassed expectations in Australia – renewable energy can absolutely contend with fossil fuel power plants for the basic load [16]. These batteries solve the biggest issue of renewables, their inconsistent nature, and turn it into a positive. By storing the excess energy they produce on good days, it can then be fed back into the grid during a lull. Diversifying the electric grid to ensure that not all power is sourced from one single form of renewable energy will also ensure constant production to some degree. 

A multitude of communities are starting to play with the idea of decentralising their power grids to create cheaper, more efficient energy that can more easily make use of renewable power by building their own micro-grids [18]. On top of giving them more control over their production source and reducing dependency on a national infrastructure, it could reduce carbon output related to grid maintenance [18]. On top of the utility companies experimenting with new technologies to create low-carbon opportunities for their consumers, there are reasons to think we are on the verge of a change in the status quo aided by the continued development of technology [19].

As aforementioned there are a range of different technologies being researched at the moment that could help with pushing forward a transition towards a low-carbon future, but our time is running out – and actions speak louder than words. The solution needed isn’t one-size-fits-all, and the sheer amount of projects being undertaken are certain to help find the best available option for any sector, issue, or entity. Technological breakthroughs have always preceded the next biggest chapter in human evolution – what will be the one that ushers in the new era we’re all awaiting?

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This concludes the second article of a multi-part series breaking down the current pathways to a low-carbon future. Stay tuned for more information regarding, transport, society, and many more.


Currently in the final year of a Masters in Biology & Science Communications and Society at Leiden University, Vincent has previously worked in Australia and Singapore as an environmental educator and field biologist. He is particularly keen on raising awareness on the issues faced by island communities in the face of climate change. An avid writer interested in sustainable development and climate policy, Vincent hopes to inform and inspire current generations to take more action towards protecting the planet.

References

[1] Erik Gregersen, NDL, “History of Technology Timeline”, Encyclopedia Britannica, URL: https://www.britannica.com/story/history-of-technology-timeline [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[2] Anadon, L. D., Chan, G., Harley, A. G., Matus, K., Moon, S., Murthy, S. L., & Clark, W. C. (2016). Making technological innovation work for sustainable development. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 113(35), 9682–9690. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1525004113

[3] Ram Nidumolu, C.K. Prahalad, & M.R. Rangaswami, 2009, “Why Sustainability Is Now the Key Driver of Innovation”, Harvard Business Review, URL: https://hbr.org/2009/09/why-sustainability-is-now-the-key-driver-of-innovation [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[4] Matt Rogers, 2019, “These 9 technological innovations will shape the sustainability agenda in 2019”, McKinsey, URL: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/sustainability/our-insights/sustainability-blog/these-9-technological-innovations-will-shape-the-sustainability-agenda-in-2019 [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[5] David Nield, 2017, “Germany Is Converting a Coal Mine Into a Massive Renewable Energy Battery”, Science Alert, URL: https://www.sciencealert.com/germany-is-converting-a-coal-mine-into-a-massive-renewable-energy-battery [Accessed April 19, 2021]

[6] Brian Donnelly, 2020, “Scotland to trial world’s first hydrogen-powered ferry in Orkney, The Herald, URL: ”https://www.heraldscotland.com/business_hq/18789377.scotland-trial-worlds-first-hydrogen-powered-ferry-orkney/ [Accessed April 19, 2021]

[7] James Ellsmoor, “Mobile phones are driving a collar revolution in Papua New Guinea”, Forbes, URL: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/09/08/mobile-phones-are-driving-a-solar-revolution-in-papua-new-guinea/ [Accessed April 19, 2021]

[8] International Council on Clean Transportation, 2018, “Effects of battery manufacturing on electric vehicle life-cycle greenhouse gas emissions”, URL: https://www.theicct.org/sites/default/files/publications/EV-life-cycle-GHG_ICCT-Briefing_09022018_vF.pdf [Accessed April 19, 2021] 

[9] Hornsdale Power Reserve, 2021, “Hornsdale Power Reserve”, NEOEN, URL: https://hornsdalepowerreserve.com.au/ [Accessed April 19, 2021]

[10] James Ellsmoor, 2019, “Governments look to ‘Smart Islands’ for high tech and low-carbon solutions”, Forbes, URL: https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/05/13/governments-look-to-smart-islands-for-high-tech-and-low-carbon-solutions/?sh=73a12f2c5922 [Accessed April 19, 2021]

[11] Hannah Ritchie & Max Roser,(2020), “Emissions by Sector”, Our World In Data, URL:  https://ourworldindata.org/emissions-by-sector [Accessed April 19, 2021] 

[12] International Renewable Energy Agency, 2015, “From baseload to peak: Renewables provide a reliable solution”,  URL: www.irena.org%2F-%2Fmedia%2FFiles%2FIRENA%2FAgency%2FPublication%2F2015%2FIRENA_Baseload_to_Peak_2015.pdf&usg=AOvVaw2IQc2gfZpg8XpSG0ng8U6h [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[13] Mark Kenny, 2017, “Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and ministers were told wind not to blame for South Australia blackout”, Sydney Morning Herald, URL: https://www.smh.com.au/politics/federal/pm-and-ministers-were-told-wind-not-to-blame-for-sa-blackout-20170212-guaxf0.html [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[14] Mitchell Ferman, 2021, “Despite natural gas failures during winter storm, Texas lawmakers target renewable energy in the aftermath”, The Texas Tribune, URL:  https://www.texastribune.org/2021/04/19/texas-renewable-energy-oil-gas/ [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[15] Toni Pyke, 2017, “The energy debate: Renewable energy cannot replace fossil fuels”, Development Education, URL: https://developmenteducation.ie/feature/the-energy-debate-renewable-energy-cannot-replace-fossil-fuels/ [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[16] Robert Fares, 2015, “Renewable Energy Intermittency Explained: Challenges, Solutions, and Opportunities”, Scientific American, URL: https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/plugged-in/renewable-energy-intermittency-explained-challenges-solutions-and-opportunities/ [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[17] GlobalData Thematic Research, 2020, “Renewable Energy: Technology Trends”, Power Technology, URL: https://www.power-technology.com/comment/renewable-energy-technology-trends/ [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[18] David Roberts & Alvin Chang, 2018, “Meet the microgrid, the technology poised to transform electricity”, Vox, URL: https://www.vox.com/energy-and-environment/2017/12/15/16714146/greener-more-reliable-more-resilient-grid-microgrids [Accessed May 12, 2021]

[19] Andoni, M., Robu, V., Flynn, D., Abram, S., Geach, D., Jenkins, D., … Peacock, A. (2019). Blockchain technology in the energy sector: A systematic review of challenges and opportunities. Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews, 100, 143–174. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2018.10.014

Categories Energy, Technology & Transport/Technology

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