Eddie’s O’Connor’s lecture to Engineers Ireland, titled ‘A Vision For a Sustainable Future’

Lecture to Engineers Ireland, the Energy Institute and the Royal Dublin Society
A Vision of a Sustainable Future
By: Dr. Eddie O’Connor
Chief Executive Officer, Mainstream Renewable Power
RDS Dublin
Wednesday 19 November 2008

Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I want to thank Liam Connellan for inviting me to give this lecture on “A Vision for a Sustainable Future”.

I am particularly grateful for the invitation because it is being hosted by three organizations I admire: Engineers Ireland, the Energy Institute and the Royal Dublin Society.

I am an engineer by training, and temperament.

I have been engaged in the energy sector all by career.

And I have frequented this vast RDS complex many times throughout my life; including being part of the Innovation Committee for a period in the late 90’s, the Spring Show, the Horse Show, the library, exhibitions, lectures, like this one, and not least, rugby matches at the week-end, cheering on Leinster.

Invitation to Think

But I admire the RDS for one reason more than any other. I just love its devotion to the promotion of science and industry, to the pursuit of best practice.

Above all, I admire its standing invitation to people, like you and me, to think, to be inquisitive, and to be adventurous. Even, to be visionary.

I remember that my father’s generation was influenced, indeed, you might say it was inspired, by a series of lectures given here over a century and a half ago.

Sir Robert Kane

I refer, of course, to Sir Robert Kane’s lectures on the ‘Industrial Resources of Ireland‘, which took place before the Famine and were published later as a book, a very influential book, it should be said.

Kane was inspired by lectures he attended in the RDS and they stimulated him to carry out chemical researches at his father’s chemical factory in Henry St.

Kane had the audacity to suggest that this country need not be poor, that it had natural resources which could be developed and that industry, in its true sense, could turn those resources into riches.

In short, Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, he had a vision of a better, and realizable, future.

I stand here this evening as a beneficiary of that vision.

He pointed to the bogs of Ireland as a vast reservoir of energy, and not just as a picturesque waste land.

The new Irish state, under the leadership of Seán Lemass, acted on Kane’s vision, and established Bord na Móna – of which I became Managing Director more than a century and a quarter after those lectures.

Starting Point

So, Mr. Chairman, ladies and gentlemen, you will not be surprised if, this evening, I present you with a vision. And, that I do so in the confident expectation that it too will be realized.

Let me begin by telling you what I won’t be talking about.

I will not recite the science of climate change. I take it as a given that we humans have to contain the rise in global temperature to less than 2º Celsius by 2050. Otherwise, we will have triggered irreversible and catastrophic damage to the planet.

I assume that nobody here is a disciple of President Vaclav Klaus.

Neither will I recall the arguments underlying the concept of peak oil. My friend Colin Campbell, now happily based in Ballydehob, has well established that the production of oil will peak shortly and then began to taper off. In fact oil from traditional sources has been static since 2005 at 74mb/d.

Instead, I am going to take it as an absolute imperative that by 2050 we will have to reduce our Greenhouse Gas emissions by 80% at a time when the generation of electricity is expected to increase by 100%.

This is my starting point.

The first figure, of an 80% GHG reduction, comes from the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The second, of a 100% increase in power generation, comes from the International Energy Agency, which is based in Paris as part of the OECD.

An 80% reduction in GHG emissions, while power generation is being doubled, is some challenge, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen.

But a sustainable future is one where these two targets have been met. That’s a very simple definition of sustainability. Another definition is that we leave the planet no worse off than we found it.

My Vision

I want to offer a vision as to what the world would look like if we were to honour that obligation.

Quite simply, we would have shifted one hundred per cent from fossil fuels to renewable energy as the source of power. We would have weaned ourselves off hydrocarbons

We will be exploiting the power of the sun, the forces created by the rotation of the planet, the movement of the seas, and the heat locked just beneath the earth’s crust.

Looking into the future here’s what I see.

The sun and planet itself will be the source of sustainability. That strategy gives us the following forms of sustainable energy:

  • Wind: both onshore and offshore;
  • Sun: thermal, concentrated and photo-voltaic;
  • Ocean: wave, tidal and currents;
  • Hydro: dam and run of the river;
  • Geothermal.

These forms of renewable energy will be harnessed to provide clean, cheap energy.

The new Economy

That clean, cheap energy will power a new economy, characterized by the omnipresence of electricity,

Electricity is a universal product. It is available everywhere, is used in every country and is the same around the world. It is the basis of our economy. It defines contemporary civilisation. As carbon based fuels run down use of electricity is reinforced.

It has released us humans from the tyranny of human and animal power.

It heats, cools, dries, turns motors, ignites sparks, creates X rays, creates magnetic fields; carries information in analogue or digital form.

It can be used to measure almost any human or inanimate variable. It computes the most difficult mathematical equations.

It powers ten thousand tonne cranes and it drives small pacemakers.

Most electricity is currently made in thermal devices such as boilers, turbines and rotating electricity generators. The average efficiency of these devices varies from fuel to fuel and from technology to technology but, in general, they are constrained by the thermodynamic cycle and the temperature limitations of metals.

Most energy locked up in the carbon based hydrocarbon molecule is wasted. About 60 to 70 % is dumped into the local environment, whether it is the river, the sea or the atmosphere.

Modern combined cycle natural gas turbines increase the efficiency to 50% or 55%but this still means that around half the energy gets wasted. Given the damage that fossil fuels do to the environment this level of wastage is completely unacceptable.

When we burn fossil fuels we take a beautiful structured molecule, something that has taken millions of years to perfect and we turn it into CO2. This is a ground state module, high in entropy, useless and indeed deleterious in the atmosphere which takes thousands of years to reintegrate into nature as a useful substance.

You could say that it is unethical.

That’s why the electricity based economy of the future will be fuelled by renewables – where there is no wastage of energy.

A clean electric economy will allow us to reorganize society so that it is sustainable in terms of the power it generates, the goods and services it consumes and the lives it helps people to live.

Carbon Price

In my vision of a sustainable future there are no entry barriers preventing the deployment of renewables.

In the short-term, Mr. Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen, a price will have been put on carbon, probably by a global emissions trading scheme.

The distortion in competition between brown and green power will have been eliminated by forcing brown power to internalize the cost it inflicts on the environment, and by reflecting that cost in the price of electricity.

This will have been a critically important departure from the past.

The incentive to reduce fossil fuels for power generation will be strengthened by these price signals. And it will have been re-enforced by EU and UN regulations limiting the supply of brown power to industrial and commercial users, as well as to households.

In the longer term, the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy will be completed by 2050. No more fossil fuel plants will be built after 2020. And there will be no need for new nuclear plants.

The Energy Watch Group

The latest report from the Energy Watch Group vindicates that point about nuclear. In one scenario it forecasts that 30% of final energy demand throughout the world, and 60% of global electricity, could be met in 2030 from renewables. In the OECD countries the figure would be 50% for final energy demand.

And that scenario, developed by this prestigious international network of scientists and parliamentarians, excludes hydro. So, the figures would be even higher.

They say that it is their strong conviction that nuclear power will not be needed if the world community takes the necessary steps to realize the full potential of renewables.

If I may quote: “We contend there is no necessity to build new nuclear power plants, as proposed by the IEA, or to prolong the lifetime of existing ones”.

The key driver in reaching this nuclear free future is money. Everything depends on the scale of the investment we are prepared to make in renewables.

I agree with the Energy Watch Group that societies will respond to the climate change imperative, and the overriding need for oil independence, with a growing willingness to pay for a clean, secure and sustainable energy supply.

The annual investment behind their forecast of 30% of final energy demand by 2030 is estimated at € 125 per capita.

Now I find that figure interesting, indeed very interesting. It’s the same as the world now spends on arms – in order to kill people, not to save them.

I do however believe that Governments around the world will be tempted by the promise of nuclear energy. Britain will I believe build enough nuclear plant to replace it’s existing and aging fleet of nukes. China has said it would build 30 nuclear power stations and they have a habit of delivering on what they have said. I personally would prefer nuclear to further coal fired power stations. I see no prospects for carbon capture and storage, on any scale that can make a meaningful impact on CO2 reductions. There is I believe no need to make this dubious choice between coal and nuclear. The technology exists now to build wind power stations to any level we choose, with other sustainable forms of generation coming along very soon.

Portfolio of Renewables

In a sustainable future, the technologies for generating clean power will be seen as part of a portfolio rather than as individual or separate ways of making electricity.

Wind and solar power will complement each other. Already this is happening in places like the States, and it will become commonplace throughout North Africa, and South America.

That is why Mainstream has, from the beginning, decided to go into solar energy.

Wind and hydro will work in tandem, as the Norwegians intend. They want to become the “Battery of Europe”, as they call their vision. I am particularly interested in this piece of lateral thinking.

Comments are closed.