“Energy is the golden thread throughout all the Sustainable Development Goals”, stated Dr Kandeh Yumkella, former Director General of the UN Industrial Development Organisation (UNIDO), in a lecture hosted by Trinity on February 10th. Throughout his lecture, Yumkella emphasised energy as being a key enabler to the accomplishment of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which describe the UN’s overarching missions of health, food security, education, and clean water and sanitation. Both a reduction in energy demand as well as a complete transition to sustainable energy are necessary for the achievement of the SDGs. And although difficult, this is not impossible.
“It is theoretically possible to achieve a hundred per cent renewability in our energy and fuel sources”, says Luca Coscieme, former Research Fellow in Trinity’s School of Natural Sciences, now Research Program Manager at the Hot or Cool Institute, and co-author of a recently published study called REEF, or Renewable Energy Ecological Footprint. The study provided evidence that a complete transition to renewable energy is theoretically possible, and then explored the practical changes which would need to be made in order to realise such a sustainable future.
Speaking to The University Times, Coscieme told us a bit more about the exciting findings of his research. “The project is basically found on a different use of the ecological footprint, which is an indicator that is mostly used to measure our current impacts and to calculate the balance between how much we consume and how much planet Earth is giving us.”
Coscieme’s team took the idea of the ecological footprint and transformed it into a tool for scenario-making, which allowed the researchers to assess how the aforementioned balance could change depending on modes of consumption and alternative technologies.
Besides the finding that a transition to renewable energy was theoretically possible, another key takeaway of the project, according to Coscieme, was the narrative which the project supports. It is a narrative that strays from the “focus on urgency and emergency and assessing the problem”, a common occurrence in dialogues about climate change. The narrative of urgency is very important. However, it is missing a component: that is, the narrative of an optimistic and achievable vision.
The project is basically found on a different use of the ecological footprint, which is an indicator that is mostly used to measure our current impacts and to calculate the balance between how much we consume and how much planet Earth is giving us
“We need to visualise and to create a vision for what the future we want”, says Coscieme, “and it is important to be more forward-looking with positive narratives”. Without having a common vision or narrative of the future (one which is not wrought with the doom and gloom often associated with environmentalist musings), we cannot expect to properly envision the solution.
In terms of the practical obstacles which stand in the way of a transition to sustainable energy, Coscieme highlights two main challenges – our consumption levels and the demand for land. “The reduction of our absolute levels of consumption, especially in high-income countries”, Coscieme says, must be achieved for the transition to renewability. Coscieme also explains that this is entirely possible, as those of us in the Global North consume way above our actual needs. Coscieme also notes, of course, that this obstacle alone represents a great challenge, as “we are living in an economic system that is entirely built on growth and increasing consumption”.
Another hardship that renewable energy proponents face is that “a considerable amount of land would need to be dedicated to the production of renewable sources of energy, and, of course, land is increasingly sparse”, Coscieme says.
Dr John Gallagher, an assistant professor in environmental systems modelling, in the School of Engineering says that his “main interest is the life cycle of our relationship with energy”. For Gallagher, and many others studying renewable energy, we cannot approach sustainability with the simple introduction of renewable energy technologies – renewable energy alone will not solve our problems.
We are living in an economic system that is entirely built on growth and increasing consumption
Gallagher explains that there are many things to consider when exploring the human relationship with energy. In particular, Gallagher’s interests reside with the future-proofing of renewables. “I think for us to move forward, we have to look at what challenges are coming”, he says.
Without future-proofing, renewable technologies might come with a hidden price – harbingers of further environmental degradation and pollution. For instance, certain kinds of batteries rely on cobalt, which is a rare and toxic mineral that is predominantly mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. The mode by which cobalt is extracted is regarded as highly unethical, for social and ecological reasons, including the use of child labour.
Gallagher sums this up, saying, “We cannot develop renewables and ignore future generations of people, as we have done in the past.” Gallagher adds, “It’s not about dealing with today’s problems – it’s about dealing with tomorrow’s”.
Another aspect that Gallagher emphasizes is that of the circular economy. “We are dealing with improving efficiency of energy and introducing renewables very well, but one of the challenges on the horizon, and what I feel is important, is the circular economy.”
To that, Gallagher adds, “Renewables have to be circular. And the big challenge is: can we do that effectively, without creating legacy problems down the line?” This coincides with his interests in the futureproofing of today’s technologies.
We cannot develop renewables and ignore future generations of people, as we have done in the past
As mentioned earlier, Gallagher works in the School of Engineering at Trinity. As such, his research tends to be very practical. “It is about working with industry, working with people who develop renewables, and supporting them in making sure they have this vision or capacity to be future-proofed.” There are a lot of nuances to sustainability, and the transition to renewable energy from our dependency on fossil fuels will not be simple. “It’s a big term, sustainability”, Gallagher succinctly puts it.
Indeed the range of academics in Trinity whose research is centred on the field is vast, with Prof Sarah McCormack, an associate professor in civil, structural and environmental engineering also carrying out research in this area. McCormack’s aim is “to make sustainable energy more affordable”. She is currently working on a large, EU-funded Horizon 2020 project on “how to integrate combinations of different sustainable energy technologies seamlessly into buildings”.
When asked about the main challenges facing those in the field of sustainable or renewable energy, McCormack says, “In an Irish context, our main challenges for sustainable energy are grid access and energy storage”. As McCormack explains, Ireland has a particularly fruitful supply of wind energy resources (as anyone who has been outdoors in Ireland can attest to). As a result, wind-powered electricity is by far the cheapest form of energy in Ireland, even cheaper than gas.
However, despite the relative ease in procuring wind energy in Ireland, “the grid is at capacity and extensive grid infrastructure improvements are required to allow a higher penetration of wind to help us achieve our targets”. That is, some fairly major changes to the electrical grid are needed in order for the generation of wind energy to match current demand.
It is about working with industry, working with people who develop renewables, and supporting them in making sure they have this vision or capacity to be future-proofed
McCormack also provides further information as to the issues of storage of wind energy stocks. Storage is particularly important with regards to renewable energy technologies which rely on specific environmental conditions to work optimally. Technologies which use wind and solar energy, for example, may be more affected by stochasticity.
As McCormack says simply, “the wind does not always blow and the sun does not always shine”. On those days when the wind is calm and the sun is shrouded by clouds, it is important that there are back-up stores of energy so that people do not have to wait for electricity until the sun comes back. McCormack says, “More storage solutions are needed, not just electrochemical [for example, batteries], but also hydrogen and thermal energy storage, where daily storage is needed but also seasonal.”
Despite the challenges that must be overcome with respect to energy storage and grid access, McCormack says that she is “very optimistic that a sustainable energy transition is possible. However, it needs strong political will and leadership nationally and internationally”.