#TNOfood 12th July & Rio+20: The end of the future?
The UN Secretary General, Ban Ki-Moon, warned at the beginning of last week’s Earth Summit in Rio, “if we really do not take firm actions [on climate change], we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future“.
It shouldn’t surprise us that hundreds of bigwigs and politicians from around the world cannot agree on anything. Radical change doesn’t happen through consensus, it happens through a few informed very smart people deciding to do something different.
So there is hope for humanity. And it’s here and now, you and me, in Birmingham. The New Optimists Forum will be exploring at Aston Business School on 12th July what’s on the cards here. Join the conversation via twitter #TNOfood.
There’s a particular opportunity for Birmingham. And it lies in creating a distributed energy supply system.
Most Brummies don’t know that Professor Andreas Hornung and his colleagues are already building, literally building, the beginnings of such a system.
The EBRI (European Bioenergy Research Institute) is more than research in the ChemEng lab Nobel laureate Harry Kroto recently opened. It’s also a demonstrator power plant rising between the Guild of Students and the Sack of Potatoes pub in Gosta Green.
Demonstrator? There’s one already in operation at Harper Adams University College.
Then, by 2030, we could have built an “thermal ring” of perhaps a dozen of them around the city supplying a major chunk of what we need in the city centre, for social housing, swimming pools, libraries, crematoria . . .
The process will burn the waste the million of us produce, diverting it from landfill and generating heat, electricity, hydrogen (for fuel cells) and biochar (which dug into some soils will bind with nitrates and phosphates thereby reducing the requirement for fertilisers).
It’s not just about the jobs that this technology could generate for the city as reported in the Birmingham Post a couple of weeks bacj here.
Nor is it just about making a significant contribution to us meeting short-term energy needs; i.e. keeping the lights on over the next decade or two.
It’s about how we put in place an carbon-neutral energy system (or, in this instance, carbon-negative energy system) that our descendants and their societies can rely upon.
Nationally, we’ll still need big power plants, at least for some time yet. A distributed system, however, works to any city’s advantage.
Birmingham, like cities all over the globe, doesn’t have its own power source. We import all but a zillionth of our energy requirements in 2012. Imagine a local supply.
Imagine a local energy supply if, no when there are national outages.
You can’t build a stonking great power station, nuclear or not, in a conurbation. But you can build a distributed energy generation system.
We have post-industrial, derelict or semi derelict sites aplenty. We have the detritus of a million people, 3.7M or so in the conurbation as a whole. Both considered problems to be solved; both resources in this game of energy generation.
It doesn’t take massive investment either. The plant on Aston’s campus is £16.5M-worth of prototype investment, a price that will plummet rapidly. Already one of the Aston power energy generation systems comes in at a mere £1.5M, the price of not-the-poshest house in the city or significantly less than a banker’s bonus in London — and within the reach of every community here.
As importantly, a distributed system is highly flexible. If one or several parts of the system fail, the rest remains in operation. (Think of the economic impact of single-source disaster such as Fukushima across the whole of Japan, let alone the local tragedies.)
What’s proposed here is not just a biofuel revolution, such as that at Aston University. It’s about distributed energy from a wide range of sources — wind, solar, water, tide . . . Maybe not much opportunities for those energy sources within the city boundaries, but the technology to deliver it is within the city’s capability.
As we learned at the Science Capital meeting here in Birmingham on 13th June, local physicist turned entrepreneur Graham Hygate set up Fine Energy Ltd to deliver wind turbines for farms and small businesses where garnering energy from wind is possible. There’s also the Centre for Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Research doing more than research; there are cars and boats running on their technology.
Aston VC Professor (now Dame) Julia King began her 2009 Boulton and Watt Commemoration Lecture by quoting Matthew Boulton: “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have, POWER“.