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Green technology and growth: a vision we can believe in

Alternative Energy

James McKenzie believes the UK government’s ambitious 10-point-plan for a “green industrial revolution” can deliver – if we put our collective minds to the problem

wind farm and virtual data
Visionary thinking The UK’s recent green-energy plan offers great opportunities for physicists. (Courtesy: iStock/ConceptCafe)

If 2020 taught us anything, it was that humans are a very adaptable and tenacious species who can achieve incredible things by putting our minds to a problem. Not only did we prevent untold deaths by adapting our lives, we also developed and tested vaccines against a new and contagious virus, doing in less than 12 months something that normally takes 5–10 years to achieve. If only we can bring a similar vigour and urgency to tackling climate change.

Here in the UK, the government has already made clear what’s needed by recently publishing its “Ten Point Plan for a Green Industrial Revolution”. The policy paper lays out what I think is an inspiring vision to create a quarter of a million jobs with £12bn of government investment over the next 10 years. British prime minister Boris Johnson claims the plan will help the UK achieve its goal of “net zero” carbon emissions by 2050.

Climate change is an example of a “Pascal’s wager”

I’m pleased that the UK government has such a clear, visionary yet sensible plan. After all, as I mentioned last year, climate change is an example of a “Pascal’s wager”. That’s because even if you don’t think climate change is real, it makes sense to act as if you do. Doing nothing could be hellish (rising sea levels, mass extinctions, famines), but taking action could have untold benefits.

Planning ahead

The first point in the plan is about producing enough offshore wind capacity to power every home, quadrupling how much we produce to 40 GW by 2030. The second focuses on hydrogen, the aim being for the UK to have 5 GW of low-carbon hydrogen capacity by 2030 for industry, transport, power and housing, with the first town heated entirely by green-hydrogen by the end of the decade. The plan also looks at improving nuclear power as a clean energy source and developing the next generation of small and advanced reactors (both fission and fusion).

There is a focus on electric vehicles, clean public transport, cycling and walking. Cleaner aviation and greener maritime are in the plan too, as are making homes and public buildings more energy efficient by installing 600,000 heat pumps every year by 2028. The plan calls for the UK to become a world leader in carbon capture, with a target of removing 10 MT of carbon dioxide by 2030 and planting trees on 30,000 hectares of land every year.

Finally, the City of London should become the global centre for “green finance”, investing in the technologies to make these energy ambitions come true. Indeed, the outgoing business secretary Alok Sharma (who will now be president of the COP26 climate-change summit in Glasgow in November) thinks the plan could help to unlock up to £42bn of private investment by 2030 in the energy, construction, transport, innovation and environment sectors.

We need to develop more cost-effective carbon-free sources of energy

A physicist and long-time supporter of the IOP’s business-innovation awards, Sharma believes it will boost exports in low-carbon technologies, creating jobs and “reinvigorating our industrial heartlands”. Of course, writing a plan is easy; making it happen will be harder. But if there’s one thing we need to do for the plan to succeed it’s to develop more cost-effective carbon-free sources of energy.

I’m reminded of a speech given in 2018 by Greg Clark – one of Sharma’s predecessors as business secretary – in which he discussed the “trilemma” of electricity supply. That refers to the belief that electricity can be cheap and secure, cheap and low-carbon, or secure and low-carbon – but never all three at once. Clark, however, reckoned that green-energy sources would make the trade-off redundant by the mid-2020s.

Consider off-shore wind. It’s secure, at least in the UK, where we have plenty of coastline and doesn’t face the “not-in-my-backyard” opposition that bedevils onshore wind-power locations. It’s cheap too. According to the website, offshore wind fell from £167/MWh in 2017 to £127/MWh in 2019 and is projected to drop to £44/MWh in 2023 – critically, that’s less than the projected costs of gas and solar (£50/MWh and £60/MWh, respectively).

Nuclear effort

Renewables are a “no brainer”. Of course, one challenge is that they’re not always “on”, which means we will either have to add storage capacity or rely on other carbon-free energy sources. That’s where nuclear is so vital. We need to put our fear of this source of energy behind us – the truth is that the technologies based on nuclear fission have come a long way in recent years.

Consider the UK’s Advanced Modular Reactor (AMR) programme, which supports companies developing safer alternatives to conventional fission plants. Rather than relying on pressurized- or boiling-water plants, the AMR instead focuses on stable salt reactors – advanced fuelling that prevents a meltdown. This latest iteration of AMRs could address many of the safety issues surrounding traditional nuclear plants and recently included an additional £170m in support.

Green technology and growth can go hand-in-hand

Of course, AMRs will succeed commercially only if they can bring down nuclear’s cost from its current high of around £100/MWh. The programme even includes extra money for fusion – the holy grail of clean energy – with Sharma calling for the UK to be a “trailblazer” in this field by “capitalizing on its incredible potential as a limitless clean-energy source that could last for generations to come.” Fortunately, the UK is already a leader in fusion technology.

Read more

Powering the beast: why we shouldn’t worry about the Internet’s rising electricity consumption

The UK Atomic Energy Authority boasts the recently upgraded MAST reactor as well as the Joint European Torus. The UK is still, post-Brexit, part of the ITER fusion experiment being built in France. The plan also reaffirms the UK’s commitment to the STEP programme, which seeks to build a prototype tokamak-based fusion plant in the UK by the early 2040s. Britain even has several burgeoning private fusion firms, including Tokamak Energy UK, First Light Fusion, Crossfield Fusion and Pulsar Fusion.

Green technology and growth can go hand-in-hand and I believe that, with sufficient focus, the UK can meet its net-zero-carbon goal by 2050 and thereby tackle the most enduring threat to our planet. For physicists, it’s an exciting time.’

physics world

9 Comments on "Green technology and growth: a vision we can believe in"

  1. The_Forbin_Project on Sat, 13th Feb 2021 12:38 pm 

    That’s where nuclear is so vital.

    understated – its hated by the left who can only think of nuclear war …..

    and yer kids will glow in the dark

    take a look at gridwatch , ask about deliverables of Green – not capacities , cold windless nights are a bummer 😉

    solve storage – that might help , until then ….


  2. FamousDrScanlon on Sat, 13th Feb 2021 2:27 pm 

    Green Cancer

    Dystopian Lake Filled by the World’s Tech Lust. Hidden in an unknown corner of Inner Mongolia

    “From where I’m standing, the city-sized Baogang Steel and Rare Earth complex dominates the horizon, its endless cooling towers and chimneys reaching up into grey, washed-out sky. Between it and me, stretching into the distance, lies an artificial lake filled with a black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge.

    Dozens of pipes line the shore, churning out a torrent of thick, black, chemical waste from the refineries that surround the lake. The smell of sulphur and the roar of the pipes invades my senses. It feels like hell on Earth.

    Welcome to Baotou, the largest industrial city in Inner Mongolia. I’m here with a group of architects and designers called the Unknown Fields Division, and this is the final stop on a three-week-long journey up the global supply chain, tracing back the route consumer goods take from China to our shops and homes, via container ships and factories.

    You may not have heard of Baotou, but the mines and factories here help to keep our modern lives ticking. It is one of the world’s biggest suppliers of “rare earth” minerals. These elements can be found in everything from magnets in wind turbines and electric car motors, to the electronic guts of smartphones and flatscreen TVs. In 2009 China produced 95% of the world’s supply of these elements, and it’s estimated that the Bayan Obo mines just north of Baotou contain 70% of the world’s reserves. But, as we would discover, at what cost?”

    No matter h0w they spin it, humans are a fucking Cancer.

  3. FamousDrScanlon on Sat, 13th Feb 2021 2:33 pm 

    A quick tour of the ‘worst place on earth’ aka, BaoGang Steel Mill

    As long as I can get a new smartphone every year it’s totally worth it.

  4. makati1 on Sat, 13th Feb 2021 3:56 pm 

    Another techie feel good piece of propaganda from the masters of pollution and waste.

    Net zero carbon will happen when there are no more humans on earth. Any volunteers to go first?

    More bullshit propaganda from a country that cannot feed itself, or even survive without gargantuan amounts of imported carbon use. More political bullshit.

  5. DT on Sat, 13th Feb 2021 10:27 pm 

    Yes ya gotta love the feel good quality of this article. The corporate interests that have shanghaied the so called green transition movement does a great job of laying it on thick. There is absolutely nothing available to replace the work that is done with FF’s.

  6. Cloggie on Sun, 14th Feb 2021 4:16 am 

    The article at least doesn’t breathe the usual defeatist attitude we have come to experience from everything that comes from North-America, where a general sense of foreboding is prevalent, but mistakenly projected onto the entire world, where in reality the only entity that is going to collapse is Anglo-Zionist supremacy. New players will rise (China, PBM, India, others) and take the place of the Anglos and their failed project of 100 years to mold the entire planet in their NWO-image (or that of their (((masters))), really.

    And while North-Americans like makati, DT and famousdrapeanman try to do their utmost to (unintentionally) serve European civilization in announcing global collapse, creating a moral vacuum of hopelessness, undermining any attempt to find and implement solutions for North-America (no worries, Europeans will bring energy solutions with them when they return to North-America, all 640 million of them + 60 million UK hybrid-Europeans).

    But the article also breathes the usual British self-overestimation…

    “Finally, the City of London should become the global centre for “green finance””

    Sure, James:

    UK-GDP 2.8B (2018)

    That means 146% debt in GDP terms by 2025.

    After this Brexit farce, Britain has shut itself off from the European world, in order to become Europe’s private own Cuba, isolated and impoverished. Expect that country to fall apart, Ireland to reunify, Scotland go Europe-direct and as such become just as prosperous as Ireland, that managed to escape from black hole London 100 years ago.

    Last week Amsterdam overtook London as Europe’s #1 share trading-hub. Expect this to consolidate. Finance is moving from Anglosphere to Europe. Most money to finance the renewable energy transition already comes from Scandinavian sources, #1 being Norway (5 million inh.), that sits on a “sovereign wealth fund” of 1 trillion, the largest in the world, larger than anything else in the world, incl. China (1330 million).

    Renewable energy is one of the most profitable investment opportunities, now that renewables are supported by both global public opinions as well as governments. So much so that the UK government already (thinks it) can afford a leasing tax to the tune of 1 billion/year on 8 GW offshore wind power or 70,000 GWh/year = 1.5 cent/kWh

    The PR-advantage renewables globally have is fabulous. There is hence no money shortage whatsoever to pull it through and the continental Europeans already have a lead in offshore wind that is difficult to overcome by the rest, only China comes close, that leads the solar branch of renewable sport. Expect Europe to dominate in storage (hydrogen!) as well. Here the UK can also play a role.

    1 GW offshore wind power, that’s 66 15 MW Vestas turbines that all can be installed within a couple of months, in an otherwise economically worthless sea bed. Nuclear power stations, mr McKenzie is dreaming of, are a multiple more expensive, hazardous… oh and run on fuel that someday will go out as well. His boasting of UK fusion expertise is just that: empty talk. Nothing will become operational within at least a decade, if ever at all (don’t say never just yet, though).

  7. Biden's hairplug on Sun, 14th Feb 2021 4:27 am 

    The UK government volunteers to build an EU-tunnel (of the near future) between Scotland and Northern-Ireland, currently still on UK-territory:

    “25-mile undersea tunnel between Britain and Northern Ireland could be approved within weeks amid hopes ‘£10billion’ project dubbed ‘Boris’ Burrow’ could ease post-Brexit trade tensions”

    Excellent. Provides a convenient ro-ro transport route between the Netherlands and Scotland (Eemshaven-Rosyth) via the upcoming “Brexit-ferry” and Ireland.

  8. Biden's hairplug on Mon, 15th Feb 2021 4:19 am 

    More oil on the patriot fire:

    “It Begins: Joe Biden Calls For ‘Assault Weapons’ Ban On Parkland Shooting Anniversary”

  9. Cloggie on Wed, 17th Feb 2021 2:12 am 

    The Solar Team Eindhoven performed great during several editions of the World Solar Challenge in Australia (like in: won everything there was to win).

    Here is what happened to 6 of the students afterwards.

    The 2nd video showed the real upshot of Solar Team Eindhoven and the World Solar Challenge: the production of the world’s first solar car. Integrate solar cells with the car and you get 12,000 “free kilometers”/year, you don’t have to charge. Average distance driven in the Netherlands: 13,000 km/year.

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