It is becoming increasingly clear that the energy crisis we are living through is not going to be a flash in the pan. And as the latest IPCC report reminds us, there is no time to waste in cutting emissions, so a return to the fossil fuels of the past is not the answer.
But at the same time, as the Energy and Climate Intelligence Unit (ECIU) points out, “we have options across all sectors to at least halve emissions by 2030; all the tools that we need to tackle climate change and avert the worst impacts”.
While we need a lot more of what we’re already doing, it is also time for companies to get creative in order to find solutions. And also to think big. To get the best out of low-carbon technologies such as wind, solar, smart grids and electric vehicles, we need to think about them in a systemic manner, not just as individual solutions.
E.ON, for example, is teaming up with IBM’s quantum computing arm to manage the decarbonisation of the grid as it becomes more renewable and more decentralised.
Quantum computers are on the cusp of emerging from the realms of science fiction to start making a meaningful difference in the real world (as they have been for decades, but this time they really might be). Their main benefit is that they can bring much more computing power to bear on some of the world’s most complex problems, such as how to integrate hundreds of thousands of distributed, low carbon energy sources – from solar panels to electric vehicles – into the grid.
For example, as part of E.ON’s Vehicle to Grid (V2G) project, EV batteries are connected to the distribution grid to provide flexible storage. “In this way, fluctuations in the generation of renewable energies can be balanced out,” E.ON says. “The co-ordination and control of the system requires enormous computing power, which current classical computing systems are not capable of. A quantum computer has the potential to perform these necessary calculations in completely different ways that could be done in a shorter period of time.”
Other applications include plotting the most fuel-efficient routes for logistics vehicles and pharmaceutical companies being able to accelerate drug development by modelling how different drugs interact with each other, a process that could be crucial in the next pandemic.
Another potentially transformative technology that has seen encouraging progress recently (and like quantum computing one that has been more of a promise than a reality for many years) is nuclear fusion. While in nuclear fission, the reaction that occurs in existing nuclear power plants, atoms are split to create energy, fusion involves fusing atoms, which produces a huge amount of energy.
We know it’s possible because it’s what happens in the sun. Replicating it closer to home has been a tricky proposition, though. If it were possible, it would provide huge amounts of low-carbon energy without the risks of radioactive meltdown that are part of fission. Until recently, scientists had struggled to even produce as much energy as they were putting in to trigger the fusion. It was such an expensive and research-intensive venture that it was only governments – the US at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory – or groups of governments – the 35-nation ITER project based in France and the Joint European Torus (JET) based in the UK– that were working on this.
But in recent years, a few companies such as General Fusion, Commonwealth Fusion Systems and Helion Energy have raised significant amounts of money while Oxford-based First Light Fusion has just announced that it has produced energy for the first time, in what is seen as an important step forward for the sector.
That follows the news that in February, researchers at the JET produced enough power to boil about 60 kettles in a reaction lasting five seconds. Even though this was still less energy than the system used for the reaction, it was hailed as a “landmark” breakthrough, which gives an idea of how far there is to go until fusion becomes a commercially viable proposition – it is still decades away, at best. But if scientists can master the process, it could transform the energy sector globally.
Given the urgency of the climate emergency, there is no doubt that we need to tackle it now, turbine by turbine, PV panel by PV panel, EV by EV and with every efficiency measure at our disposal. But we also need moon shots like quantum computing and nuclear fusion that could, if they pay off, transform the world we live in.