I suspect many of you reading this post will have spent the past few weeks enjoying and/or suffering your way through the recent heatwaves. Switzerland has largely been spared so far, but many other countries across the globe have been hit by prolonged spells of hot weather, thanks to some eccentric behavior from the jet stream.
The rising mercury is all very well of course when you can relax – maybe with a cold beer. But it’s not so great if you’re stuck in a long meeting or on packed public transport with no air conditioning, or if you live in a city that has become a “heat island” (nicely explained by NASA), meaning the effects from the soaring temperatures are magnified.
Going back to beer for a second, there was even a shortage of it during the World Cup! In Russia it seems the fans were thirstier than expected, while across Europe a shortage of carbon dioxide disrupted production for some of the biggest brewers.
But I’m being flippant: we have all seen enough headlines to know these rogue hot spells can also have devastating consequences. And with some people starting to ask if the unusual weather patterns are a sign of climate change, it’s probably a good time to take a look at some of the potential solutions. Here are some of the interesting stories I’ve come across recently.
1. Although there are various schools of thought about when the world’s fossil fuels will run out, there’s little argument that, one day, they will be exhausted. I believe it’s our generation’s collective responsibility to tackle the problem, and reduce our carbon emissions at the same time.
So here’s an intriguing idea: what if we could replace or supplement our use of natural gas with one that has zero emissions? Say hello to hydrogen, number one on the periodic table and its lightest element. Already in use in Germany’s gas distribution grid, as well as refuelling stations for electric vehicles across Europe, it is now being trialled in the UK as an alternative to natural gas. If successful and rolled out nationally, the claims are that the country’s carbon emissions could be reduced by up to 18%.
2. Despite the growing use of alternative energy sources, scientists and academics including Vaclav Smil say we are not transitioning away from fossil fuels quickly enough. He thinks the real breakthrough could be in energy storage. By conserving energy and its by-products, and reusing or redistributing it when and where it’s most needed, this would help combat the main limitation of renewable energy sources like wind and sunlight, which are not consistently available.
Batteries are big news, and what I find really exciting is that some innovators are starting to think beyond the product itself, by building the new applications and business models that will bring clean energy solutions to the masses. One of these, EV8 Technologies, launched recently. It is creating a massive virtual power plant of electric vehicles across places like airports, shopping centers and hospitals, to help drivers save and even make money from running their vehicles. They will effectively be able to use their car as a battery, choosing when to charge up in the most cost-effective way, and even selling power back to the grid when it’s needed.
3. The downside to battery use is that even the most efficient ones are unable to store energy for much more than a few hours – and they remain very expensive. Luckily, some of our finest scientific brains have been working on another prospect, which comes quite literally out of thin air.
Liquid air energy storage (LAES) essentially works by cooling air until it turns to liquid, then storing it in tanks until electricity is needed again. Very cool! The thinking goes back almost 40 years, but the first grid-scale application launched just last month.
Only time will tell how viable these solutions prove to be, and indeed a technology like LAES might not be needed for a number of years. But although I tend to take an optimistic stance on most things, this is one area where I believe we really don’t have any time to lose. So I’m keen to see how these, and other innovations, can help us power the things that matter in a cleaner and more sustainable way.
Olaf Swantee | CEO at Sunrise Communications AG