Power Up: An Engineer’s Adventures Into Sustainable Energy

Power Up: An Engineer’s Adventures Into Sustainable Energy

Will turning off fossil fuels and replacing [them] with renewables solve all of this? Unfortunately, not quite. Industry uses up about 40 percent of global energy supplies, in the form of electricity, high temperature heat or to make the feedstock (ingredients needed for making something). And herein lies the problem: Simply switching to renewable electricity will not get rid of all the emissions; clean electricity is not a replacement for feedstocks. All these manufactured materials, the literal building blocks of our society, suck up energy in the process of becoming a product dash and energy has a financial and environmental cost, even if it is clean.

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What is the future solution to all of this? It is not straightforward, but a balance of different avenues is needed. First and foremost, reducing waste and overconsumption can go a long way to bringing down the amount of energy needed to produce these products. Every single individual can play a part in this by being conscious of what is behind every object – the convenience and ease of our world comes at a cost, and a shift in attitude is needed from the throwaway culture that exists today. But it’s about more than individuals; it is the shift in culture that needs to come from the people working for and running government and businesses.

Reducing overconsumption will not entirely eliminate a product, so the enormous opportunity to improve collection of waste and recycling across the globe is another viable way to reduce the need to make new things from scratch. And, then, there is the search for alternative raw materials; in the case of ammonia and fertilizer manufacture, producing hydrogen by electrolysis powered by renewable electricity is a cleaner alternative to extracting hydrogen from coal or natural gas.

When it comes to synthetic materials like plastics made from fossil fuels, one option is to use biological raw materials. Waste from the food and drinks industry can be turned into the raw materials needed to make the chemicals that go on to become products. Another option is to use renewable electricity to capture carbon dioxide from an industrial process or from the atmosphere, and chemically combine it with clean hydrogen to make a synthetic hydrocarbon that can form the basic raw material for many products. Clean technology options do exist for the transformation of the chemicals industry, but it is at the early stages, and completely dependent on the shift of the energy sector from fossil fuels to renewable energy.

Cement, concrete, ammonia, fertilizer and many other industries exist hidden from view, using up energy. It can be difficult to draw a direct line between industry and an individual, but it only exists to serve us – we are indirectly using that energy when we have a meal or chat away on a work call in an office. Every concrete and steel building, every item on a supermarket shelf – it’s all come directly or indirectly from one of these factories from somewhere across the world, made possible by another heavy energy user, the transport sector, that moves us and our goods by cars, trucks, trains, ships and planes.

It would be unreasonable to place the responsibility of industrial emissions on individuals for using offices and shopping in supermarkets; it is almost impossible for us to function outside of the existing system. But, by opening our eyes individually to the processes behind all of these things that we rely on every day, we can start to at least understand and tackle, piece by piece, the energy use and associated negative consequences from the industrial world that make life so much easier for many of us.

Excerpted with permission. Power Up: An Engineer’s Adventures Into Sustainable Energy by Yasmin Ali (Hodder Press; March 2024). Copyright © 2024 by Yasmin Ali.

Author Profile
Yasmin Ali

Yasmin Ali is a chemical engineer, dedicated to developing renewable energy projects. Having worked in coal and gas fired power stations, oil and gas, district heating systems, and energy innovation, Ali transitioned away from fossil fuels into more sustainable energy systems over the course of her career. In addition, she has given over 100 talks about engineering and energy, written for the BBC and Metro, been featured in TV and radio programs, and completed a British Science Association Media Fellowship with the BBC’s Science Unit. In recognition of her public engagement work, Ali has been awarded and shortlisted for multiple industry awards, including the 2020 Women’s Engineering Society’s top 50 female engineers in sustainability.

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