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Science communication is important in today's technologically advanced society. A good part of the adult community is not science saavy and lacks the background to make sense of rapidly changing technology. My blog attempts to help by publishing articles of general interest in an easy to read and understand format without using mathematics. I also give free lectures in community events - you can arrange these by writing to me.

Friday, 22 September 2017

Disruption of Fossil Fuels by Renewable Energy will Mitigate the Most Severe Effects of Climate Change - Talk at Glasgow University

Summary:  Climate Change is one of the great challenges of the 21st century.  Emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG) from the combustion of fossil fuels (FF) have contributed greatly to climate change.  A transition to non-carbon emitting renewable energy (RN) will help to mitigate its most severe impacts. Historically, disruption (substitution) of existing energy sources by new ways of generating energy have delivered huge benefits to the society.  Economic viability of the new sources has been a prerequisite for successful disruption. Renewables - particularly Solar and Wind energy  - are reaching technological maturity, and in many cases can now compete with fossil energy in cost terms.  I shall review the current status of climate change and claim that for the next three decades most energy will still be produced by burning FF.  Substitution of FF by RN is gathering pace and I shall discuss a technology substitution model to demonstrate how a disruptive innovation (renewable energy in our case) replaces an established incumbent.  
The Stone Age did not end because we ran out of rocks.... The era of extraction-resource-based energy sources (oil, gas, coal and nuclear) will not end because we run out of petroleum, natural gas, coal, or uranium. It will end because these energy sources... will be disrupted by superior technologies, product architectures, and business models.
                                         ...Clean Disruption by Tony Seba
“We are now hitting a crossover point where solar, without subsidies, is starting to beat out all other sources of energy.'                                        ...Ramez Naam, Energy Analyst
Our planet has been warming - most scientists believe it is due to the additional carbon di-oxide we are putting into the atmosphere.  Actually the CO2 levels are higher now than they have ever been over the past half million years.

Ice ages happen when the mean global temperature drops by about 5C from what it is now.  There is a good likelihood that by continuing to burn FF as we do now, by the end of the 21st century, global temperatures could rise by 4 or 5C.  This will fundamentally change how the Earth will look (next slide).  Vast areas will turn to desert - how will we feed 10 billion people then? - not to mention relocating billions of people due to sea-level rise and droughts.   

We produce most of our energy by burning FF.  This is not going to change in the near future.  In fact the projections suggest that FF consumption will increase by a third in the next 25 years putting even more CO2 in the atmosphere and aggravating global warming.  These projections take us firmly towards an expected warming of 4 or 5C by the year 2100.

Another interesting observation is that about 25% of the CO2 produced is absorbed in the oceans. This makes the oceans more acidic -- the extra acidity affects the formation of shells and we might be reaching a stage when it is having a real effect on life in the sea.  

Essentially, we are stuck in the situation that even though it is clear what needs to be done to reduce emissions; a technology to replace FF, in a big way, is still not available.  RN - Solar and Wind energy - are reaching maturity and are ready to take off.  They are intermittent sources of energy and really require a way to store generated energy so that it is available when needed. Sufficiently good storage options are still not available and soon this might restrict the adoption of RN energy to replace FF.
For RN to be able to replace FF, it is necessary that they are economically attractive.  This is indeed happening and both Solar and Wind energy costs have fallen enormously over the past 30 years and they now compete very well with energy produced by coal and natural gas. In fact if one factors in the cost of removing CO2 from the atmosphere then FF energy turns out to be very much more expensive than Solar or Wind energy.    

Let us look at a simple model that describes very well the substitution process of an incumbent technology by a disrupting technology.  The model (Fisher Pry model) is of general applicability and points to a common process by which disruption builds up in time.  

Fisher Pry model (1971) considers that the fractional rate of change of the market share F of a disruptive technology is proportional to the remaining market share (1 - F); the total market size is fixed (at unity in our analysis).

It is fascinating that such a simple model describes disruptive processes in a large number of diverse technologies with a single parameter.  This points to some basic process that determines the adoption of the disrupting technology in the society.  It is actually modeled as a diffusion process.  The diffusion proceeds through certain communication channels and transmits the benefits of the disruptor technology relative to the existing way of doing things.  Next four slides describe the situation:

In recent times, social media has made communications in the societal context much more efficient and this has reflected very strongly in the speed with which DI has spread. I show a few examples to demonstrate this feature:

In fact, the last slide says that by 2038, ownership of electric vehicles will surpass internal combustion engine ownership.  Big batteries in electric vehicles will provide excellent opportunity for storing energy produced by solar and wind energy sources. This can more or less solve the storage bottleneck that RN disruption faces at present.

Another significant feature of RN is the production of energy - particularly solar - can be at individual house levels.  In many places in the world, individual houses can generate sufficient energy to be self sufficient.

Final Word:  With  CO2 levels increasing every year, it is depressing to watch the possibility that global warming will hit dangerous levels (many scientists think that a 2C rise in global mean temperature is such a threshold).  May be it is already too late to avoid this.  RN energy is our main hope of substituting FF use on any sensible scale.  Once solar and wind energy market share reaches 10 to 15%, disruptive process could accelerate immensely and increase in CO2 levels could be controlled and in fact reversed using carbon capture technologies etc. 
PS:  A recent study by Mark Jacobson et al. points to a roadmap to switch most electricity generation to renewable energy by 2050.  I refer you to their publication and show the way things could turn out:

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