Simple and effective solutions that can help reduce the impact of climate change already exist. However, some of them still need to be implemented while others need to be improved.
This was stated by IEEE 2023 President Saifur Rahman, who was among the speakers from engineering organizations at the COP27 event held in Egypt in November. An IEEE Life member spoke during a session on the role of technology in creating a fair, sustainable, and low-carbon resilient world.
Rahman, an energy expert and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, was a former chairman of the IEEE Select Committee on Climate Change. The committee was formed last year to coordinate the organization’s response to the global crisis.
About one-third of the world’s emissions come from electricity generation, and Rahman said his mission is to help reduce that amount through engineering.
At COP27, he said that while the first legally binding international treaty on climate change, known as the Paris Agreement, was adopted almost a decade ago, countries have yet to come to a consensus on how to stop burning fossil fuels, among other things. . Some continue to burn coal, for example, because there is no other economically viable option for them.
“We IEEE technologists say, ‘If you stick to your positions, you will never get an agreement,’” he said. “We are here to offer this six-point solution portfolio that anyone can live with. We want to be a solution partner so that we have parties at the same table to help solve this problem of high carbon emissions worldwide.”
The solutions Rahman outlined were to use proven methods that reduce electricity consumption by increasing the efficiency of coal-fired plants, using hydrogen and other storage solutions, promoting more renewable energy, installing new types of nuclear reactors, and encouraging cross-border transmission of electricity.
Energy Saving Tips
One action is to use less electricity, Rahman said, noting that dimming lights by 20 percent in homes, office buildings, hotels and schools could save 10 percent of electricity. According to him, most people will not even notice the difference in brightness.
The other is switching to LEDs, which use at least 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. According to him, LED lamps cost about five times more, but last longer. He called on developed countries to provide financial assistance to developing countries to help them replace all incandescent light bulbs with LEDs.
Another energy-saving measure is to increase the temperature of air conditioners by 2 °C. It could also save 10 percent of electricity, Rahman.
By better managing lighting, heating and cooling, he says, 20 percent of energy can be saved without causing anyone to suffer.
Efficient coal plants
He predicted that a full shutdown of coal-fired power plants is unlikely to happen anytime soon, especially as many countries are building new ones that will last 40 years. Countries that continue to burn coal should do so in highly efficient power plants, he said.
One type is the ultra-supercritical coal-fired steam power plant. Conventional coal-fired power plants, in which water is boiled to generate steam to drive a turbine, are about 38 percent efficient. Ultra-supercritical installations operate at temperatures and pressures at which the liquid and gas phases of water coexist in equilibrium. This results in a higher efficiency: about 46 percent. Rahman mentioned the Eemshaven ultra-supercritical plant in Groningen, the Netherlands, which was built in 2014.
Another viable option he pointed out was a combined cycle power plant. In the first stage, natural gas is burned in a turbine to generate electricity. The heat from the turbine exhaust is used to produce steam to turn the turbine in the second stage. The resulting two-stage power plant is at least 25 percent more efficient than a single-stage one.
“IEEE wants to be a solution partner, not a complaint partner, so we can bring both parties around the same table to help solve this high carbon footprint worldwide.”
Another way to make coal-fired power plants greener is to capture waste carbon dioxide and store it in the ground, Rahman said. Such carbon capture systems are in use in some places, but he acknowledges that the carbon sequestration process is too expensive for some countries.
Integration and storage of grid and off-grid energy
In order to properly balance the demand and supply of electricity in the power grid, Rahman said, renewable energy must be integrated into energy production, transmission and distribution systems from the very beginning. He added that the energy of wind, solar and hydroelectric power plants should be stored in batteries so that the electricity generated by them during off-peak hours is not wasted, but integrated into the power grid.
He also said low-cost, low-carbon hydrogen fuel should be considered as part of renewable energy. The fuel can be used to power cars, power electricity and heat homes, all with zero carbon emissions.
“Hydrogen will help emerging economies achieve their climate goals, reduce costs and make their energy systems more resilient,” he said.
Smaller nuclear power plants
Rahman acknowledged that nuclear power plants are surrounded by stigma due to accidents in Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island and other places. But without nuclear power, the idea of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 is unrealistic, he says.
“This is not possible in the next 25 years, except with nuclear power,” he said. “We don’t have enough solar and wind power.”
Small modular reactors can replace traditional nuclear power plants. SMRs are easier, cheaper to build and safer than large nuclear power plants today, Rahman said.
Despite their small size, MMPs are powerful. Their capacity is up to 300 megawatts of electricity, which is about a quarter of the power of today’s typical nuclear power plant.
Modular reactors are assembled in factories and delivered to the final site, rather than being built on site. And, unlike traditional nuclear installations, SMRs do not need to be located near large bodies of water to cope with waste heat removal.
According to Rahman, MMPs did not become popular due to licensing and technical problems.
Transmission of electricity across national borders
Rahman emphasized the need to increase cross-border transmission of electricity, as few countries have enough electricity to supply all their citizens. Many countries are already doing this.
“The United States buys electricity from Canada. France sells energy to Italy, Spain and Switzerland,” Rahman said. “The whole world is one grid. You can’t switch from coal to solar and vice versa if you don’t transfer power back and forth.”
Free climate change research
During the conference, Rahman said that the IEEE’s collection of 7,000 papers related to climate change is available in the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. The IEEE has also launched a website that provides additional resources.
None of the solutions proposed by the IEEE are new or untested, Rahman said, but his goal is to “provide a portfolio of solutions that are acceptable and suitable for deployment in both emerging and developed countries, allowing them to sit down at the table together and see how much carbon emissions can be reduced through the creative application of technologies already available, so that both parties ultimately benefit.”