“Energy is present in all aspects of our lives, in the electricity in our homes, but also in industry, agriculture or fishing,” says Cayetano Lopez (Madrid 1946), General Director of the Research Centre for Energy, Environment and Technology (CIEMAT). This professor of theoretical physics, specializing in the study of the elementary particles that make up our world, now works from the Centre which he directs in order to address the great challenge of energy, probably one of the most important that humanity faces. He does so far from catastrophism, aware of the complexity of the problem and that there will not be one great solution that solves everything. To achieve the desired results, many factors must be added together, technological, regulatory or social, and it will be almost mandatory to have a global vision. In this interview he sums up what some of the keys to the future of energy are.
Will technology be the solution to our energy problems or are there other factors of equal importance?
A more sustainable energy supply depends on, firstly, regulation, which indicates where the R&D has to go. Assuming that reasonable regulations exist, technological development is essential, especially as the costs of new low carbon technologies are still higher than the conventional sources. Furthermore, we must fix some of the problems with the new energy sources, in particular renewables, such as intermittency. To achieve this, we have to study and solve the problem of storing or converting that intermittent energy into a fuel or find some other way of providing power when needed.
Any significant change in the energy paradigm also requires social changes. This is where energy efficiency enters the picture, to use in the best possible way this valuable asset that is now being wasted. That is true for most developed countries, which have an abundance of energy. Unfortunately, on a global scale, there is a shortage. We cannot impose a policy of energy saving and efficiency on people in developing countries, because what they need is to consume more energy to raise their standard of living. This means that the amount of energy that will be consumed globally will grow.
What would adequate regulation to promote technological development look like?
Renewables require some public support because if not, it is very difficult to build a global market for renewables, but that support has to change over time. You cannot implement incentives that last virtually forever and require large amounts of money to be invested with expectations of financial returns in facilities that do not involve any technological advances. Incentives have to be gradually decreased over time to make renewables more competitive, so that a time arrives when no special support is needed.
Is a 100% renewable energy future possible?
In theory it is possible and it will surely come, but it is a long way off. We must try to organize the transition, which will last many generations, and all sources of energy, the conventional non-renewables, the renewables that need to advance along a long path, and nuclear, both fusion and fission, will have their place.
Does the fact that nuclear waste can remain dangerous for centuries make it impractical to use nuclear energy in this combination of energy sources?
With fission nuclear energy, the most obvious problem is that of waste. It lasts a long time, but it can be managed safely. In Spain, we have opted for temporary management, storage between 60 and 100 years, where it will be safe guarded without creating any problems, but a final solution will still have to be found. The choice of some countries has been deep geological disposal in which the waste is confined somewhere in which the probability that it could escape and cause damage to the environment would be negligible.
The definitive solution would be to eliminate this waste by using separation and transmutation technologies, which exist but are not sufficiently developed. Research is being done on how to handle this waste or shorten its life span or reduce its activity.
Can biofuels replace fossil fuels like oil?
Biofuels that can partly replace fossil fuels will be a partial and temporary solution. In the long run, biofuels cannot indefinitely replace fossil fuels 100%, and I think we have to orient ourselves towards transportation based on electric vehicles, in part as has been done with trains, which in Spain and Europe are mostly electrified.
Coal is the most polluting source of energy, but also the most used. What are the possibilities of using it with less damage to the environment?
Coal is the most widespread fossil fuel and is also very abundant. But it is by far the dirtiest and most polluting fuel, which emits more carbon dioxide per unit of energy and many other things mixed with the coal. But coal is going to continue to be used. In fact, there are some very important countries like the USA, China and Germany, where most of their electricity generation comes from coal. The world at large will not give up its use of coal, and this is a serious environmental problem.
To ensure that the widespread use of coal does not have very far-reaching environmental effects, the only possibility is the capture and storage of carbon dioxide. They are technologies, especially the capturing part, that are quite complex, their development has not been finished, and they do not exist commercially in any facility in the world associated with the production of electricity from coal.
Carbon storage technology, although it has no particular difficulties, can create the same negative public perception as the underground storage of any other waste, so extending its use is difficult.
Using coal to produce electricity with carbon storage technologies necessarily implies an increase in the price of the electricity generated with that coal, which could be substantial, so if there are no regulatory incentives or other types of obligations that require these technologies to be implemented in the use of coal, no one is going to do it.
What will it take to make solar energy form a greater part of our energy production?
Solar power is by far the most abundant of all that we have, but unfortunately it is very diffuse and must be concentrated or a huge amount of space must be used to collect and convert it into useful energy. There exist two important technologies, one of which is photovoltaics, which converts photons from the sun into kinetic energy and electricity, and the other is that of concentration which uses solar energy to heat a substance to high temperatures and then converts that heat into electricity through a conventional system. Of the two, the more advanced is photovoltaics, which has had a very rapid lowering of costs, mainly due to the entry of China as a leading producer of photovoltaic cells.
Besides the cost, there is the problem of intermittency, which is important because electrical networks have to deliver electricity to consumers at the time they need it, not when there is more sunlight. To solve this problem, mass storage systems are needed. Some of these systems are based on the pumping of water, which is known to be quite effective, but requires facilities that are expensive and sometimes not liked by the local people.
If the challenges of energy are not successfully met, is it possible that a collapse of civilization as we know it could occur?
I think that if there were a serious global energy crisis, many things in our society would have to change. I do not believe this would produce a collapse of civilization, but yes, very radical changes would occur in our social environments.
You can read more about this in the article by Cayetano Lopez ‘Current energy challenges’
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