Hope for redressing climate change

Humans need hope. It provides them a means of escape from problems that seemed impossible to solve. Throughout history humans have been face with what seemed impossible situations, but hope has given them to means to fight overwhelming odds that threatened them.


Climate change is such a problem. Hardly a week passes by without another dire prediction; we have also heard that the IPCC has left the effect of polar ice melt out of its calculations of sea level rises, simply because they did not know at the time how fast the ice was melting. Factor in a reasonable volume of added water, and the sea level rises look completely underestimated.


This week Mr Charles Windsor, who is better known as the Prince of Wales, is claiming that there is only 100 months to fight climate change, as he instructs his jet pilot to start up the engines on the plane carrying him and his entourage on a long and carbon dioxide emitting lecture tour of South America in which he expects to teach the people of South America to consume, as individuals less energy in a year than he has consumed in two days of his tour.


Nevertheless the tour and its message brings hope – we have after all one hundred months in which to devise ways of fulfilling the luxuries that energy brings us in a way that will not harm our long term planetary futures. That means time to find solutions to providing energy without greenhouse gas emissions. There are solutions that provide energy for heat without greenhouse gas emissions – largely ignored – because the concentration of governments throughout the world is on that source of energy that brings electricity to power our televisions and computers – electricity.


The biggest weakness in producing electrical energy from light wind or tidal resources is intermittency. The electricity is often available when there is little demand for it. If the energy was heat energy there would be no problem because we are good at storing heat energy in a way that is environmentally friendly and economic, but storing electricity is yet to be invented in a way that ticks all the environmental boxes.


One Northern Irish company, Gaelectric, has come up with an idea for storing electricity, or more properly the energy from wind in a way that seems to offer no environmental downside. They suggest using large underground salt caverns in Larne, County Antrim, to house stores of compressed air.


I have already written about compressed air storage; it certainly works, although loses some useful energy in the process.


Gaelectric propose to build compressed air stores underground at Larne. These would be linked to wind turbines. When the wind turbines produce electrical energy that is useful, the electricity would be fed into the grid. When the electricity is not needed, it would drive pumps that would compress air underground in the salt caverns. When electricity is needed the compressed air would be released from the underground stores to turn turbines to generate electricity that can be fed into the grid.


This process is safe and fast – from the time that the compressed air is released until the time that the turbines produce electricity to feed into the grid is only a few minutes – far faster than the time it takes to start up a traditional gas, oil or coal fired power generating station. The process is safe because if there is a leakage only air will be leaked into the atmosphere – no noxious gas is involved.


The novelty of Gaelectric’s approach is not using compressed air, but in located the compressed air stores underground in the old salt caverns. Gaelectric estimate that it would cost £200 million to build the plant. It seems that the salt caverns will require little adaption to be safe holders of compressed air. It is not yet certain that they will offer the large and cheap storage that is needed to make the project viable, because the full extent of the salt caverns has never been mapped and a lot of geological research is needed to establish their useful potential.


The compression and decompression process for the energy storage involves some loss of energy, due to inefficiencies and some energy being converted into heat energy during the processes, but if the salt caverns are viable and if the energy losses are acceptable this could prove a way to swerve around the largest problem with generating electricity from renewables.


All over the world there are many businesses looking to found their prosperity on finding one small part of the way in which to redress climate change. Some of them are offering ideas that need investment, hoping for people or governments to provide the necessary capital to bring their ideas to fruition. Others are seeking to provide some small solution.


People, ordinary people are also involved. Many of them are now changing their behaviour in an effort to be part of the solution. Others are investing in microgeneration, usually thermal solar panels, as their contribution.


Generally efforts to redress climate change are met with goodwill; the actual effort may prove in the long run wasted or counter-productive, but the heartening hop is that ordinary people and ordinary businesses are beginning to understand and try to be part of the solution. They understand that Governments are too slow, too unwieldy and often too corrupted by power to change, until the change is forced upon them. 


And that is the hope I see in the future – the hope that is brought by the determined efforts of ordinary people to do their bit, and if we are to survive the impending catastrophe, it will be the ordinary people, not the scientists or the politicians, that will have enabled our survival.


4 Responses

  1. Thanks Peter. that is a topic for a blog in itself!

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