Did you ever think about how energy will be delivered in the UK in 2050?
Most people think of energy in terms of charging up their mobile phone or plugging in the fan on shot summer’s day. But usually they have no idea how power gets to their home or what is used to generate it.
Traditionally it’s been coal and gas in the UK but all that is changing, and it’s changing fast. Earlier this year the UK had its first full day ever in which it didn’t use coal at all. That’s good news for the environment as coal is much more polluting than almost any other energy source.
Gas is a cleaner burning fuel than coal (or heavy fuel oil, which went out of the energy mix in the 1980s) but emissions of methane into the atmosphere remain a problem, and methane is a much more powerful Greenhouse gas than carbon, which is the main atmospheric contaminant from coal.
So the race is one to find better energy alternatives that will do less damage to the environment, and will also protect the planet for future generations.
Most people assume that the big decisions on how to deliver are taken by government, and politicians certainly have a voice. But cities are increasingly setting the pace when it comes to developing innovative solutions to the energy challenge.
Hydrogen is one of the most hopeful new forms of energy, and the city of Leeds has become a laboratory for switching from natural gas (methane, a molecule which consists of one carbon atoms surrounded by a pyramid of four hydrogen atoms) to hydrogen, which consists of two tiny atoms of hydrogen and no carbon.
Hydrogen is the simplest molecule and it is simple to generate. Remember school chemistry? Passing an electric current through water can split the H2O into hydrogen and oxygen, which is what we breathe, and is therefore exactly what you want to emit into the atmosphere.
But there are problems. Because hydrogen molecules are so tiny, many of the pipes used to transport natural gas around the UK are not suitable for moving hydrogen. So the whole pipeline network in Leeds is gradually being relined with a special finish that stops the hydrogen molecules from escaping.
Leeds is one among several “smart cities” in the UK that are using computerised technology to control energy flows and use the energy more efficiently. In Milton Keynes, the new town famed for its many roundabouts, the council has adopted new smart technologies to make everything more efficient, from the flow of traffic to the power systems keeping local hospitals and schools running.
If you haven’t already got a smart meter in your home, you will soon. The government has told the power companies to make sure everyone can see how much electricity their homes are using.
In fact, the generation of smart meters currently being rolled out by the government is not very smart at all. My meter tells me how much power is being consumed at any moment in time, but it does scandalously little more than that.
The next generation is already on the horizon, and will synchronize with Internet apps that allow you to keep track of how much electricity you have been using over time. Grid Edge technologies are all the rage among investors, and should over time develop to allow consumers to drill down on a room-by-room and even socket-by-socket basis to see whether your toaster, kettle or fridge are burning a hole in your pocket. That will allow consumers to control their electricity use, leading over time to greater energy efficiency.
It gets even smarter than that! Soon, households will be able to contract with power companies to take part in Demand Side Management programs. If it’s a cold winter’s day and the national electricity grid is becoming overloaded, DSM will allow a power company to turn off your fridge for an hour or two and will pay you for the privilege. If you have a solar panel or two on your roof and are able to feed back power into the grid, even better, you could end up receiving a regular stipend to help pay your bills.
If your radiators are on over the winter, the chances are in the UK that they will be fuelled by a gas boiler. Gas means “natural gas” or methane, and contains carbon. So when it gets burnt to create heat for your boiler, it jets the waste carbon off into the atmosphere.
This is exactly what a power station does when it generates electricity, which is why we have put so much effort into building renewable fuel sources for power generation. It is relatively easy to generate power in other ways than combusting a fuel. Wind turbines can create electricity by using the movement form their turbine blades and solar panels can condense heat from the sun and convert it into electricity. So renewables have been successfully incorporated into the power mix in the UK.
But decarbonising heat is a much bigger challenge. Heat is needed for comfort in cold weather, but also for cooking. So finding low carbon sources of heat is now a priority, and at this stage noone is quite sure which technologies will be the winners. We are at the stage where a bewildering array of possibilities and acronyms exist, some of them reviving older ways of doing things and others that are brand new.
Only the future will tell which of these succeed. But before you start thinking of weird and wonderful technologies, pause for a moment and reflect on how you could use less heat and power right now. Vast amounts of heat are lost through the roof of a house, and even the walls and windows are notoriously leaky. Putting in insulation in the walls, loft and double-glazing windows can cut heat-loss in half. So don’t wait for the Tardis to land. Acting now will save money, and you can still receive a range of government and council subsidies for putting in energy-saving insulation in your home.