Ideas & Debate

Energy tech promises to tame climate change


We need to be flexible and proactive in our energy and climate policies and strategies. FILE PHOTO | NMG

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  • We need to be flexible and proactive in our energy and climate policies and strategies.

I have closely followed climate debates and actions since the Kyoto Protocol over 15 years ago, and it is interesting how search for climate change solutions has stretched science, research and technology to new unimaginable levels.

Initial climate solutions centred on bio-fuels which were found not sufficiently sustainable, and with questionable carbon footprints. Emphasis then shifted to substitution of high carbon coal and oil with low-carbon natural gas which has continued successfully. The clean nuclear energy has remained in doubt due to unresolved safety and environmental concerns.

Over the past 10 years, focus has significantly turned to modern renewable energy options (solar, wind, electric batteries) with the aim of up-scaling these technologies to reduce unit costs to levels comparable with fossil energy alternatives. This has mainly been made possible by venture capital which aims to make big energy businesses out of these opportunities, supported by positive government policies and subsidies where justified.

Wind and solar energy have become significant participants in primary energy mix, with the new electric battery storage technology poised to remove intermittency of solar and wind energy to provide uninterrupted day and night, all weather grid supplies. Battery storage combinations of up to 100mw capacities have been achieved.

Last month a game-changing solar energy concentration technology was unveiled by Heliogen, a startup company backed by Bill Gates capital. It will concentrate solar energy to a temperature as high as 1,000 degrees Celsius by aligning large mirrors on a single target. This is different from the photovoltaic (PV) solar technology we are familiar with.

This technology will enable heat-intensive industries like cement and steel to replace use of coal and fuel oil in kilns and furnaces, an area that has eluded climate change solutions. However, for full impact, the scientists will need to follow up with new support technology to store heat for use by the industries when the sun is out.

For Kenya, when this technology is scaled up and commercialised it will remove the need to use imported high carbon coal and fuel oil in heavy industries. Can this technology be extended to produce electricity? Yes it is possible to use the concentrated solar heat on water to produce steam to drive turbines to generate electricity.

Let us now turn to the electric vehicles (EVs), a technology whose momentum and success appears unstoppable. EVs are no longer the realm for Elon Musk and Tesla, for indeed nearly all major auto manufacturers are now committing their budgets on research to systematically shift from petrol and diesel vehicles to electric vehicles.

Competition among automakers is now focused on delivering the cheapest affordable EVs that have the longest driving range between battery charging, and the shortest battery charging times. So far driving ranges of up to 500km and full battery changing times of less than one hour have been achieved. Currently it is the lithium-ion battery technology that is dominant, but experimentation on alternative battery technologies is gaining momentum.

The automakers have set their plans for switchover to EVs, while a number of countries have set dates by which no new petrol and diesel vehicles will be permitted. There are also countries which are subsidising battery charging infrastructure to facilitate the shift to electrified road transportation.

It is not too wild to expect that in about ten years time electric vehicles will be a common feature in Kenya, with nearly full electrification achieved by 2040. Business opportunities will gradually shift from “fuels stations” to “battery charging” stations and points which could be along the highways, and at residential and parking areas.

By 2040, requirements for petroleum fuels support infrastructure (pipelines, depots, refineries, service stations) will have significantly decreased. Globally we shall be approaching peak oil demand with the oil majors having to restructure their business models. And by then, the climatologists will have achieved a major and dear climate change goal.

Where green business opportunities exist, the venture capital will be waiting for researchers to develop commercial-scale climate change solutions. It is a technological and business momentum which Kenya cannot escape. This is why we need to be flexible and proactive in our energy and climate policies and strategies.