Time For Some Tech Optimism

Craig Dalzell

Despite my scientific training and engineering background (or perhaps because of them) when talking about the climate emergency, I’ve generally been wary about going down the route of tech-optimism, of believing that there’s a technological solution to the problem just around the corner. There are three broad reasons for this. The first is that risk that the tech fails and leaves us in a worse place than we currently are. Continuing to emit carbon until the day that a tech-priest grants us the blessing of effective carbon capture only works if the blessing actually arrives. If it doesn’t, then we’re left with a larger problem and even less time to fix it. And a strategy like “Net Zero” that fixes part of the problem (like EV cars fixing carbon emissions) but doesn’t address the rest of the problem (overall air quality) isn’t even a solution.

The second is that tech is never distributed fairly or evenly and a tech solution that benefits only the Global North while the Global South disproportionately suffers the impacts of climate change isn’t a solution, it’s just another way of those who caused the problem allowing themselves to continue to ignore it. There’s an analogy in a quote from Dr Peter Mugyenyi – talking about the manufacture and distribution of drugs to treat HIV: “Where are the drugs? The drugs are where the disease is not. And where is the disease? The disease is where the drugs are not.”

If we treat climate change in the same way – where those who can afford local solutions get them and those who cannot must suffer the pollution emitted by those who could – then we haven’t solved the climate emergency.

The third reason is that in many cases we simply don’t need a magic future solution to solve climate change. It is very much more an engineering problem than it is a science problem. A district heating system that decarbonises heat, leading to more comfortable homes, and eliminates fuel poverty isn’t a solution with a Nobel Prize at the end of it. It’s one that has already been in use for a century and merely requires someone to train and hire a lot of people to lay a lot of pipe.

When we wrote the Common Home Plan in 2019, we tried to keep within the scope of solutions that were already proven to work or merely needed to be scaled up rather than invented wholesale to work. Despite the fact that our report has been rejected by the Scottish Government (resulting in them now being in breach of their legal obligations around climate and possibly even facing challenge on human rights grounds if recent court cases prove precedent), and despite the delays in implementation now extending nearly four and a half years into a twenty-five year plan, I believe almost all of our strategy still holds up. Technology has moved on somewhat in that time though and almost all of it in a good way, so I’d like to share a couple of advances that have been made that could give us some hope for the future.

Solar Fencing

It wouldn’t be the first time that a new energy source could be advertised as “too cheap to meter” – though it’s deeply ironic that nuclear power has since proven to be one of the most expensive forms of energy since that time. However the market shift in solar power has been utterly unforeseeable. Solar PV is now the cheapest form of electricity generation humanity has ever known and we’re struggling to see how much cheaper it could get yet. In 2001 when I was still in school and was being taught that “renewables are still at the margins of the energy supply”, the world installed 0.3GW of solar panels at a cost of about $6 per Watt of capacity. In 2023, the world installed 500GW of solar panels at a cost of about $0.1 per Watt (See this presentation for those numbers).

That’s over a thousand-fold increase in annual installed capacity and a 98% drop in cost. No-one predicted this. Everyone who tried got it wrong by orders of magnitude. As of possibly this year, we’ll be measuring global NEW solar capacity in the realms of Terawatts per year (or, if you’re American and will use anything other than the metric system, thousands of nuclear reactor equivalents per year). Solar PV is now so cheap that in places like Germany people are replacing their garden fence with solar panels. It costs about the same and, unlike plain wood, generates a profitable return, even if the panels are facing the “wrong” way and is worth doing if you’ve already covered your entire roof.

This glut hasn’t come without cost. It’s being driven by a massive debt-fueled bubble of Chinese manufacturing – China has about 80% of global PV manufacturing with the US and Germany taking up most of the rest – and there are fears that the companies building the panels have spread themselves too thin, have pushed too hard on price to grab market share and may not make enough return now to pay their debts. Mergers and consolidations are inevitable, protectionist trade wars are possible (in fact, between writing this article and it being published, the US has announced precisely those protectionist measures), and prices may rebound – though the market may equally push in another direction to add value to their product and when the hardware costs are so low now the bottlenecks on price are more to do with local installation – so products designed to be easier for people (or communities) to install themselves may be a future innovation.

Iron Batteries

Similar to Solar, the cost of energy storage has plummeted, dropping by an average of 15% per year since 2010 so that a 1kWh battery that cost around $1,300 then would cost you more like $130 today. The limiting factor here is lithium and this is particularly a problem for countries that don’t have significant reserves of the stuff or don’t want to deal with the catastrophic environmental impacts of mining it. However, other technologies are starting to come online. Sodium can be used in a battery of similar design to a lithium one. It’s not quite as efficient, so the batteries need to be about 30% larger and only hold about half the capacity so this means they’re more suited for stationary storage rather than, say, cars (though there are exceptions to that rule) but they make up for that deficit in terms of price and safety (as any high school chemist knows, sodium fires are not to be sniffed at, but they are less dangerous than lithium fires). They therefore are ideal candidates for grid storage and, unlike lithium, could well be locally manufactured in Scotland if we had the political will and industrial policy to do it.

Another option might be iron/air batteries. These essentially use the reaction that creates rust to store electricity and, because they don’t use rare or volatile metals at all, are again safe, cheap and scalable. The downside of these batteries is that they take a long time to charge and discharge (several hours for the same charge that a lithium or sodium battery can do in minutes) but they can be ideal for smoothing out energy demand over that kind of period. A mix of the two technologies would be ideal. Use the fast charge batteries to shift midday solar gains into the evening peak demand times and use the iron batteries to store wind energy from that storm a few days ago across the calm, overcast couple of days that come after it.

Green Steel

Let’s be clear. The fossil fuel industry simply cannot survive in anything like the form it does today if we stop using the fuels as fuels and they know it. That’s why they spend so much money trying to defend it. Of all of the coal, oil and gas that we currently extract, we burn something like 80% of it. Few industrial sectors could survive the loss of 80% of their customers without major changes to their business models and it’s not for no reason that I compare that sector to the fate of the horse sector in the 20th century when cars took away more than 80% of their customers. The climate transition even worse for oil barons than the car was for horse barons as almost all of the remaining non-fuel uses for oil can themselves be either eliminated (we can replace our consumerist economy with a circular one and our plastics with alternative materials) or transitioned to something else (like biopolymers for the plastics we do decide to keep around). As I say in the oil barons article, the world already produces enough biofuel for those products to replace the hydrocarbon feedstocks that make up the remaining 20% of oil uses, especially if we reduce our demand too.

And one of the major up and coming reductions is about to happen in the steel industry. Without going too deep into the metallurgy, to make steel requires smelting iron oxide ore with a “reducing agent” to remove oxygen and leave behind pure iron. Traditionally, this reducing agent would be coal which results in pure iron, but also the generation of carbon dioxide. Around 7-9% of global carbon emissions are due to steel production.

In our Common Home Plan we pointed to the up and coming potential of replacing that coal with hydrogen, which would result in the iron oxide turning into iron and water vapour – with no carbon emissions, especially if the hydrogen was produced through electrolysis of water and the furnace itself was electrically rather than gas powered. We suggested that Scotland should ramp up this tech and try to corner the market. Unfortunately, the Scottish Government disagreed and instead Sweden has become the front-runner with their new hydrogen steel plant already at demonstration phase and expected to go into full production next year. With other countries also accelerating their plans here, Scotland risks falling behind, again.

The Case for Optimism

As I say, it’s good to be wary of too much tech-optimism. There are too many shillsters and billionaire con-artists out there who are still over-promising their “solutions” despite repeated failure to deliver (ask Elon Musk what he’s actually managed to deliver on time, within spec and on budget) and too many outright frauds like carbon-capture that are specifically designed to protect the existing fossil fuel sector rather than to transition it. However, there have been glimmers of hope that we can still get to a future that is better than the path we’re currently on. All it will take is the political will to push us there and for us to push our politicians to work up the will to reject the con. We can solve the climate emergency. We just need to roll up our sleeves and do it.

3 thoughts on “Time For Some Tech Optimism”

  1. I don’t agree that carbon-capture is a fraud. The carbon that is released by burning fossil fuels had been safely stored underground until extracted and it makes logical sense to return it for safe storage afterwards. I realise that the issue of achieving this at scale is still being developed but their is nothing fraudulent in the underlying concept.

  2. Craig, I really don’t think it is helpful perpetuating the idea that using solar PV in compromised locations such as fence panels or facing the wrong way is the right thing to do. Have you actually looked at the real world generation figures for compromised solar PV array system installations?
    I have firsthand real world experience because half a dozen neighbouring properties have recently had compromised PV systems installed through taxpayer funded subsidies, and the generation figures are absolutely atrocious with numbers as low as just 200kWh being generated in 6 months. Generation in properly installed 4kW systems should be about 10 times those amounts.
    Those low outputs are made all the worse because the 4kW residential PV systems produce virtually no power during the short daylight hours and cold winter months, so they are zero help in assisting the residents heat or even power other electrical items in their homes.
    An old smallish property with single glazing and poor insulation with the resultant low thermal efficiency figure that yields would require to consume about 4kW every hour (day and night) to keep it close to warm in winter.
    It doesn’t take a genius to work out that 200kWh generated over 6 months is only a baw hair over 1Kwh produced during the daylight hours of one day, so it is nowhere near being of any help in providing the level of electrical energy required to heat a home.
    And I’ll tack on that some of the above PV systems were installed along with Air Sourced Heatpumps under permitted development planning rules. This means the installations lacked any scrutiny by Local Authority Building Control to check if the systems were appropriate and met the various compliance standards with regard to performance and noise levels.
    So now what was once a lovely quiet rural village sounds like an industrial zone with multiple ASHPs humming and resonating away at all hours day and night.
    I’ve checked the noise outputs of my neighbour’s ASHPs with a calibrated decibel meter and none meet the 42db noise limit, with some being 50db which is almost 10 times the legal limit, and one that even puts out 59db which is almost 100 times the legal limit.
    And for reference my old diesel car puts out 62db when ticking over.

  3. The point that many miss is that this is now an engineering problem not a science one.

    The point that does my head in is that SG and our financial sector are not providing the leadership in this area.

    What is the point in SNIB if it’s not funding grid scale storage technologies such as those mentioned in the article?

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