Simple, effective solutions that can help lessen the impact of climate change already exist. Some of them still need to be implemented, though, while others need to be improved.
That’s according to 2023 IEEE President Saifur Rahman, who was among the speakers from engineering organizations at the COP27 event held in Egypt in November. The IEEE Life Fellow spoke during a session addressing the role of technology in delivering an equitable, sustainable, and low-carbon resilient world.
Rahman, a power expert and professor of electrical and computer engineering at Virginia Tech, is the former chair of the IEEE ad hoc committee on climate change. The committee was formed last year to coordinate the organization’s response to the global crisis.
About one-third of emissions globally are produced through electricity generation, and Rahman said his mission is to help reduce that amount through engineering solutions.
At COP27, he said that even though the first legally binding international treaty on climate change, known as the Paris Agreement, was adopted nearly a decade ago, countries have yet to come to a consensus on how to stop burning fossil fuels, among other issues. Some continue to burn coal, for example, because there are no other economically feasible choices for them.
“We as technologists from IEEE say, ‘If you keep to your positions, you’ll never get an agreement,’” he said. “We have come to offer this six-point portfolio of solutions that everybody can live with. We want to be a solution partner so we can have parties at the table to help solve this problem of high carbon emissions globally.”
The solutions Rahman outlined were the use of proven methods that reduce electricity usage, making coal plants more efficient, using hydrogen and other storage solutions, promoting more renewables, installing new types of nuclear reactors, and encouraging cross-border power transfers.
One action is to use less electricity, Rahman said, noting that dimming lights by 20 percent in homes, office buildings, hotels, and schools could save 10 percent of electricity. Most people wouldn’t even notice the difference in brightness, he said.
Another is switching to LEDs, which use at least 75 percent less energy than incandescent bulbs. LED bulbs cost about five times more, but they last longer, he said. He called on developed countries to provide financial assistance to developing nations to help them replace all their incandescent bulbs with LEDs.
Another energy-saving measure is to raise the temperature of air conditioners by 2 °C. This could save 10 percent of electricity as well, Rahman.
By better controlling lighting, heating, and cooling, 20 percent of energy could be saved without causing anyone to suffer, he said.
Efficient coal-burning plants
Shutting down coal power plants completely is unlikely to happen anytime soon, he predicted, especially since many countries are building new ones that have 40-year life spans. Countries that continue to burn coal should do so in high-efficiency power plants, he said.
One type is the ultrasupercritical coal-fired steam power plant. Conventional coal-fired plants, which make water boil to generate steam that activates a turbine, have an efficiency of about 38 percent. Ultrasupercritical plants operate at temperatures and pressures at which the liquid and gas phases of water coexist in equilibrium. It results in higher efficiencies: about 46 percent. Rahman cited the Eemshaven ultrasupercritical plant, in Groningen, Netherlands—which was built in 2014.
Another efficient option he pointed out is the combined cycle power plant. In its first stage, natural gas is burned in a turbine to make electricity. The heat from the turbine’s exhaust is used to produce steam to turn a turbine in the second stage. The resulting two-stage power plant is at least 25 percent more efficient than a single-stage plant.
“IEEE wants to be a solution partner, not a complaining partner, so we can have both parties at the table to help solve this problem of high carbon emissions globally.”
Another method to make coal-fired power plants more environmentally friendly is to capture the exhausted carbon dioxide and store it in the ground, Rahman said. Such carbon-capture systems are being used in some locations, but he acknowledges that the carbon sequestration process is too expensive for some countries.
Integrating and storing grid and off-grid energy
To properly balance electricity supply and demand on the power grid, renewables should be integrated into energy generation, transmission, and distribution systems from the very start, Rahman said. He added that the energy from wind, solar, and hydroelectric plants should be stored in batteries so the electricity generated from them during off-peak hours isn’t wasted but integrated into energy grids.
He also said low-cost, low-carbon hydrogen fuel should be considered as part of the renewable energy mix. The fuel can be used to power cars, supply electricity, and heat homes, all with zero carbon emissions.
“Hydrogen would help emerging economies meet their climate goals, lower their costs, and make their energy grid more resilient,” he said.
Smaller nuclear power plants
Rahman conceded there’s a stigma that surrounds nuclear power plants because of accidents at Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and elsewhere. But, he said, without nuclear power, the concept of becoming carbon neutral by 2050 isn’t realistic.
“It’s not possible in the next 25 years except with nuclear power,” he said. “We don’t have enough solar energy and wind energy.”
Small modular reactors could replace traditional nuclear power plants. SMRs are easier and less expensive to build, and they’re safer than today’s large nuclear plants, Rahman said.
Though small, SMRs are powerful. They have an output of up to 300 megawatts of electricity, or about a quarter of the size of today’s typical nuclear plant.
The modular reactors are assembled in factories and shipped to their ultimate location, instead of being built onsite. And unlike traditional nuclear facilities, SMRs don’t need to be located near large bodies of water to handle the waste heat discharge.
SMRs have not taken off, Rahman says, because of licensing and technical issues.
Electricity transfer across national borders
Rahman emphasized the need for more cross-border power transfers, as few countries have enough electricity to supply to all their citizens. Many countries already do so.
“The United States buys power from Canada. France sells energy to Italy, Spain, and Switzerland,” Rahman said. “The whole world is one grid. You cannot transition from coal to solar and vice versa unless you transfer power back and forth.”
Free research on climate change
During the conference session, Rahman said an IEEE collection of 7,000 papers related to climate change is accessible from the IEEE Xplore Digital Library. IEEE also launched a website that houses additional resources.
None of the solutions IEEE proposed are new or untested, Rahman said, but his goal is to “provide a portfolio of solutions acceptable to and deployable in both the emerging economies and the developed countries—which will allow them to sit at the table together and see how much carbon emission can be saved by creative application of already available technologies so that both parties win at the end of the day.”