21 Apr 2015
There is currently great debate over the use of fossil fuels and whether we can continue to use them without causing catastrophic climate change. Geoffrey Maitland, IChemE President and Professor of Energy Engineering at Imperial College London, spoke about this topic at a recent public lecture at SCI.Jack Melling (pictured right with Geoff Maitland), Chair of the Board of Trustees, introduced the event Fossil Fuels and avoiding climate change – are they compatible? and welcomed Geoff to SCI.
Geoff began his talk by discussing the current energy landscape. Globally we currently use about 1TW (terawatt) of Nuclear energy, 2.4TW of wind, and 12.5TW of fossil fuels, with the future potential to use at least 25TW of the latter. This shows just how much we rely on fossil fuels and if we are serious about replacing them there is not just one solution, we will have to build up a range of energy sources and have a ‘mixed economy’.
However there are many factors which limit alternative energy routes. These include: the slow rate of developing new technology and the need to improve energy efficiency; the cost of renewable energy is still high compared to fossil fuels; and other energy options are not as well equipped at coping with intermittency and demand (wind energy is only available when it is windy).
Geoff mentioned that there are ample fossil fuels in place to last until 2070+ so we can still use fossil fuels for materials and, given the likely doubling in energy demand by 2050, will need to continue to use them for energy, although we should phase in other sources of energy as quickly as we can. To use fossil fuels more sustainably we should invest in removing carbon and engineer fossil fuels so that they have a similar environmental impact to renewable energy sources.
Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is crucial for Geoff and he strongly believes that capturing carbon dioxide before it reaches the atmosphere and storing it underground in reservoirs will enable us to continue using fossil fuels without causing catastrophic damage to the planet. As Geoff mentioned there are some myths surrounding CCS, including the fact that it cannot capture all CO2 emissions (we only need to capture 20%) and it can potentially take investment away from renewables. Geoff still believes that this is our best option in order to keep using fossil fuels and avoiding major climate change.
Engineers, not governments are the key to avoiding catastrophic climate change; their work involves three P’s – Planning the journey, Providing technical solutions, Public engagement. As we develop the first two, the public need to be made aware of the potential benefits and the need to implement CCS; governments listen to the public and will legally enforce changes that are seen by them to be beneficial and essential.
Finally a lesson for us all: up to 50% less CO2 could be emitted if we all as individuals used less energy.