Wednesday, 24 July 2024

Climate Change, Renewable Energy and Stewardship of God's Creation

With the recent huge publicity of COP26, climate change and green energy are on everyone's radar. Climate change is a reality for the whole world and almost all scientists agree that now is the time to act before the impending crisis becomes insurmountable. Climate change is the result of global warming which in turn is caused by huge quantities of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, CO2, being pumped into the atmosphere. All combustion processes involving carbon-based fuels (petrol, diesel, coal, etc) release CO2 and, if the fuel is fossil based, then this adds to the CO2 accumulating in our atmosphere. So to tackle this problem, we should all try to move away from use of fossil fuels and use renewable sources energy. As Christians, we should be mindful of the teaching of the Bible which reminds us in both the Old Testament (Genesis 1:26-28, Number 35:33, Ezekiel 34:18) and the New Testaments (Matthew 25: 14-30, 1 Corinthians 4:2, Revelation 11:18) that we are chosen as stewards of God's beautiful creation, and this means looking after the environment.

So, what can we all do individually to help reduce carbon emissions: well, reduce consumption of everything. Carbon emissions are almost entirely due to energy generation in transport, electricity, heating and manufacturing, in fact almost everything we do or consume involves energy. So use less fuel in your car, waste less food, turn down your heating or take the bus once a week instead of the car. Locally, businesses and councils can take more responsible attitudes to energy with more efficient buildings and enabling more public transport. On the larger stage, governments need to enact policies to encourage more use of renewable resources such as wind, solar and biofuels. As an engineer, I see that scientists and engineers have a lot to offer by developing new, environmentally friendly technologies and this is the area where I have chosen to contribute.

I have worked my whole career in both industry and university to improve energy efficiency and reduce harmful emissions. In the past 20 years, I have been working with Wrightbus in Ballymena to develop more energy efficient solutions for public transport. A few years ago, hybrid technology appeared to be the optimal solution and was applied in buses, such the New Routemaster buses in London, enabling a 40% reduction in fuel consumption with a similar reduction in CO2. Now technology has moved on with fully electric and hydrogen fuelled buses having developed as the future of bus transportation. You will see many more of these on our city streets all across the UK with not only London but also cities such as Manchester, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Belfast all employing this new low-emissions technology.

The electric vehicle (EV) technology is fairly intuitive where a large battery pack drives electric motors to propel the vehicle. This concept is very efficient as regenerative braking can be used to recover energy and recharge the batteries instead of using conventional brakes where the energy is wasted as heat. Not so simple in practice, where the battery pack is huge, weighing in about six ton and storing enough electrical power to power your home for about four months. Hydrogen powered buses are very similar with the same electrical powertrain but some of the batteries are replaced with a hydrogen fuel-cell, a fuel-cell EV (FCEV). The fuel-cell converts hydrogen gas directly to electrical power by reacting the hydrogen fuel with oxygen from the air. This electrical power charges the batteries which then drive the wheels through electric motors. This FCEV is a fuel-cell hybrid rather like a self-charging hybrid such as the Toyota Prius but with no emissions at the vehicle: well actually just water.

These buses, the EV and the FCEV, have the big advantage of zero emissions at the vehicle and so are good for air quality in inner cities with high vehicle density and lots of people. However, there are some major impediments to use of these buses to deliver real zero-emissions. Infrastructure, availability of renewable electrical power, production of green hydrogen and transport of hydrogen are all issues limiting use. The power grid is currently not able to deliver the power required for charging and renewable power generation is rather too intermittent. For the FCEVs, the fuel tanks must be filled with hydrogen at high pressure of 350 atmospheres and fuelling infrastructure is not yet widely available. To be genuinely zero-emissions, these buses must use renewable power or green hydrogen (produced from renewable energy), and this is only being developed now. So expect to see a gradual rollout of these buses over the next ten years as the power and fuelling delivery catches up with the vehicle technology.

Having recently retired from Queen's University, I have now moved on from the world of buses, but I have not moved away from developing new solutions to environmental problems. A few years ago, we jointly founded a new company, Catagen, with the expressed mission to 'Clean and Decarbonise the Air', so this is my new vocation. We have a string of new technologies under development: green hydrogen production, hydrogen infrastructure, renewable e-fuels, carbon capture and personised emissions data. Over the next year, we hope to develop these to full production status as a contribution towards a net-zero economy where there are no fossil fuels and no new carbon emissions.

I finish with this thought from 1 Timothy 4:4; 'For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving'. So as Christians, we must do all we can to look after what God has entrusted to our care.

roy douglas
Br Roy Douglas

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