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Last July, the
“Fundación Universidad Rey Juan Carlos”
(URJC) held a one-week summer course at Aranjuez (a middle-sized city about an hour-drive south of Madrid). It was not, however, what you would expect from a session of this nature (summer in Spain!!), say, a half-filled classed of not-so-motivated students just hoping to get some credit hours for mere attendance. Much on the contrary, this time was indeed very different: not only the classroom was packed but, most participants, lectures as well as students ranging from a diverse pool of backgrounds and ages, contributed to a very dynamic and constructive debate. The cause? Pretty simple in fact, a very appealing and up-to-date topic: “The Energy Challenge of Climate Change: Technologies for a Sustainable Energy”.

The degradation of the environment, the Climate Change menace, the complex energy equation, the implications on society and its peoples…We live in a globalized world for the good and for the bad. Nonetheless, there is reason for hope, big time. As mentioned, one could sense in this debate at URJC an atmosphere of interest and motivation. A big majority of participants were first-years college students who, despite some understandable fears towards public attention (which “old wolfs” like myself don’t have anymore ;-), showed deep concerns upon these threats as well as encouraging willingness to take a leading part in the fight against them. Yeah, my friend, people, specially youngsters (whom the future belongs to), do care about global issues. I don’t know whether or not we are going to meet these challenges, so as to paraphrase Barack on his inaugural speech, but, one thing is certain, the need for change is in the minds of today’s generations.

Over the course of the 5-days, a broad variety of subjects were covered: starting up from (day 1) a general introduction on the challenges posed by sustainability and the expectations over energy technologies; followed by (day 2) a briefing on the future of fossil-based solutions, with CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) playing a big part; (day 3) an introduction to hydrogen (plus hydrogen batteries and electric vehicles) as a key energy vector for the future together with other more conventional renewable energies (day 4); and concluding (day 5) by the point of view of the administration on green technologies and sustainability.

Many different perspectives were presented: technological, scientific, social, from the government, NGOs (Greenpeace, WWF, …), the UN, etc. In this regard, we had speakers coming from universities (URJC, Helsinki University of Technology), private companies (Repsol, Iberdrola-Renovables, Elcogas), research centers (CSIC, CIEMAT, CNH, CIUDEN, INCAR), state-run agencies and ministries (EREC -European Renewable Energy Council-; IMDEA-ENERGIA; IDEA -Ministry of Industry, Tourism and Commerce, etc.), producers associations (APPA), etc. Besides, some of the current as well as future approaches to the possible solutions were equally treated.

But, on top of it all, the way the course was conducted represented a truly novelty, in my opinion, as it shed light on two fundamental aspects:

  • First, the regular citizen’s view: what we can do as individuals, communities, associations, etc.

  • Second, society’s perception of all these matters. Concretely speaking, how people’s formed ideas can lead to the rise or falling of some solutions over others. The “people’s factor” should thereby not be underestimated as, many times, can outweigh other more “scientific” reasons. This consequently highlights the role of the media, of journalists as “mediators” between reality and the perception the general public gets of it.

Let’s then move onto summarizing some of the general conclusions of this successful summer course:

Current energy models:

  • The current energy consumption rate is not sustainable, particularly in developed countries such as Spain. Thereby, a new energy model is required, one where fossil fuels will diminish their relevance as primary sources or energy.

  • Oil and other fossil sources should not be used as fuels, but rather as raw materials for the chemistry industry. As things are today, to continue to burn the remaining oil reserves is nothing but “burning our own home furniture”. Whenever the oil world production reaches a maximum –Peak Oil, cheap oil will be finished forever.

Source: wikipedia
  • Cleaner fuels are much much needed. Among those, hydrogen and clean electric energy, coming form renewable sources, are some of the best candidates at present time. In view of supporting a massive, industrial-scale development of these technologies, active policies must open the way urgently.

  • All primary sources of energy are necessary, including nuclear. They do not compete against each other, in fact, they are complementary. Countries with a strong dependence on foreign energy resources, Spain being the case, cannot allow themselves the luxury of excluding any primary source, not even nuclear as long as power-plants are within their projected lifetimes.

Energy efficiency and savings:

  • Without a doubt, the easiest and cheapest way to cut down energy consumption is to make a more efficient use of every form of energy, avoiding squanderings and improving energy performances along the way.

  • Energy consumption rates must be reduced in a great amount in the countries with the largest CO2 emissions per capita, i.e., western countries. On the other hand, developing countries do not fall into this category just yet, as they still have the right to progress just as their rich counterparts did. Nonetheless, this “development” should be performed in the most sustainable manner with quantitative aid and technology transfer from the “other” side of the world.

The 2025-2030 scenario on energy technology alternatives:

  • As a temporary solution (short term), natural gas can be a decent alternative for electricity production as long as it is combined with CCS techniques.

  • Biofuels and hybrid vehicles (electricity+fuel) seem to be adequate, less CO2-emitting alternatives in the transition towards a “fully clean” transportation sector. As a matter of fact, second-generation biofuels (biomass from agriculture, forestry and farming wastes) constitute a pending revolution with possible strong implications on this area.

  • CO2-free carbon, accompanied by CCS techniques, represents another necessary mid-term solution which utilizes the existing, non-renewable raw sources in a “clean” manner for electricity and hydrogen production.

  • CCS (Carbon Capture and Sequestration) techniques are a must in the transition from polluting, non-renewable energy models towards clean, wholly renewable-based ones. In that transient phase, CCS will allow for a CO2-free exploitation of fossil fuels (still needed), unless until their alternatives reach maturity.

  • Hydrogen represents a good and viable solution for the future (mostly mid to long term) as a clean fuel for transportation. However, being an energy vector, it would only be as “clean” and “green” as the primary energy source where it comes from. In this sense, clean, renewable energies are logically given preference.

  • The true future regarding energy relies of course on renewable primary sources such as solar, eolian, geothermal, tidal, etc. Nevertheless, as we are going to see, the goal “100% renewables” is not going to be within reach soon and thus, in the mean time, all other primary sources are going to be needed so as to meet the growing world demand. The idea here is to make the transition as smooth as possible, rendering those non-renewable sources less and less polluting (CO2 emissions, etc.) with time.

  • Nuclear fission stands as a mature, safe, CO2-free and predictable power-generating technology. Advanced nuclear reactors, 3rd and 4th generation, will be significantly more efficient and, most importantly, safer, further lessening the high-activity wastes problem. Consequently, they should equally play a part on the energy mix of the coming decades.

  • Unluckily, nuclear fusion is not going to be available commercially within this time span.

Future energy models and renewable energies:

  • From the “20-20-20” (20% less CO2 emissions, 20% renewables and 20% gain in energy efficiency) objective set by the EU for 2020, we must move onto a more ambitious but still feasible “80-60-35” for 2050.

  • The 50% reduction of CO2 emissions objective for 2050 can be met if some substantial measures are put in place in order to foster rapid advancements in the following areas:

    • energy efficiency on the utilization of fossil fuels and electricity

    • processes for electric energy production

  • No policy on renewable energies can be effective unless intrinsically associated with policies on energy performances and savings.

  • The main obstacles standing on the way of renewable energies are, as of today, their high costs and their intermittent nature:

    • As of the latter, their intrinsic random character, would be figured out the moment we get a hold of the energy storage issue derived from it.

    • Concerning the costs, it actually represents the most limiting factor on a short term basis. As time goes by, market forces, propelled by suitable subsidies and subventions, will eventually wear it down.

  • Eolian energy (or wind power) is by far the most developed of the pack. Proof of that are its low production costs, close to those of conventional energy sources, which have opened the way for a brand new market.

  • Solar energy, thermoelectric and photovoltaic, is expanding quickly although it should follow on the footsteps of wind power so as to develop its respective markets, still pretty incipient.

  • To put it in few words, for renewable technologies to play a far more significant role in the future, they need to develop themselves till the point of reaching 100 or even 200 times their current quota on the energy mix.

  • In the transportation sector several alternatives will compete with the electric car:

    • vehicles based on advanced, high-performance, low weight and long duration electrical batteries.

    • vehicles based on fuel cells of high reliability and reduced costs.

Carbon Capture and Sequestration (CCS) Techniques:

  • The CO2 storage mechanisms considered to be the most adequate are those based on geological accumulation such as:

    • oil and natural gas reservoirs on the verge of exhaustion or in the final production stages

    • non-exploitable carbon layers in mines

    • deep salt-water aquifers

  • The “bottom of oceans” solution, on the contrary, is not to be considered due to its scientific unknowns at present day as well as its social rejection.

  • CCS technology has not been implemented as of yet on any thermal power plant in the world.

  • Per contra, CCS still finds some uncertainties in the following areas:

    • Legislation: neither international regulations nor granting-permission procedures have yet been clearly established.

    • Economy: the costs implied by this technology are still pretty elevated and so its future viability will very much rely on some favorable legislation.

    • Social aspects, a major issue here, are treated in the next category.

Social perception of technology and science:

  • In general, lack of clear and transparent information predisposes society to perceive certain technologies in a biased manner. This way, some risk factors can be exaggerated in the eyes of the public and thus lead to chain reactions of social rejection; eventually, turning down the development of that particular technology.

  • A good example of that are CCS methods where the path towards a full social acceptance is still a long and bumpy one and should not be underestimated by any means if these technologies are to make its way into the market.

  • Relative to nuclear energy, there tends to be a big public buzz regarding the risks associated to nuclear power plants and their wastes. A big outreach effort is required in this sense so as to spread awareness among the mass population not only about how minimal those risks really are, but also on its advantages compared to other energy technologies (small CO2 emissions, etc.)

The Spanish case:

  • Concerning eolian energy, Spain is a top leading country on this technology together with Germany and the USA. Concretely speaking, it represents a share of 10% (huge!) in the electric energy production.

  • As for solar energy, Spain has a relevant international position, specially on thermoelectric technology, a pretty suitable method given Spain’s irradiation conditions (it only processes direct solar radiation).

  • All in all, Spain sustains a reference status in the realm of renewable energies although there is still plenty of room for improvement, particularly regarding energy performance technologies and regulations

    • Efforts in this areas should be prioritize towards the following three major sectors: city planning, construction and transportation.

  • Speaking about CCS, in Europe these technologies are on the legislative process at current times. National parliaments’ approval will follow.

  • The administration has the responsibility of fostering and guiding the development of a national energy plan, which must take into account all the above mentioned aspects, through the deployment of periodically revised programs, regulations and public aids.

  • The region of Madrid, one of the most densely populated in Spain, is a goof example of a heavy dependence on external energy sources, with a ratio of about 95% of the total consumed energy coming from outside its borders. Coherently, efficient policies on energy savings and performances need to be applied at every level with each “player” taking an active role.

Yeah, my dear friend, as you may have noticed the way to go is still a long one in the Country of the Sun, but we are putting brains and hearts into matters now and things are shaping up nicely for this new energetically and environmentally sustainable society that we all desire. And let me tell you something, History knows well what happens when the Spaniards bring the “Armada” to the table…