Is it desirable, probable or possible?
Over 130 people came to the Diamond to challenge, support or simply learn from the seven academic experts presenting on renewable energies.
True to form, technology failed early on when the clickers were unable to determine the percentage of the audience who felt that a fully renewable energy future was either desirable, probable or possible. An old school show of hands determined that half thought it was possible but two thirds thought that it wasn’t probable.
The multidisciplinary panel was formed of Dr Alastair Buckley from the Physics Department, Paul Mosley Professor of Economics, Dr Grant Wilson of Chemical and Biological Engineering, Matthew Billson the Director of Energy2050, Professor Fionn Stevenson the Head of the School of Architecture, Dr Karen Finney a Research Fellow in Energy 2050, Dr Chris Jones the Director of Impact for Psychology and Professor Martin Mayfield from the Department of Civil Engineering.
With three minutes of floor time each, Dr Alastair Buckley kicked off the evening to describe the fact that even if renewable energy is able to meet the demands of society, a x10 energy payback is required to build the renewable technology in the first place.
While the optimistic audience had hoped to be presented with a positive framework to build upon they were faced with an economy that supports the use of fossil fuels, renewable energies that are incapable of achieving required capacities and the prospect of a lifestyle that involves mucking out your pigs every morning before going to work!
I should explain… Prof. Stevenson described a futuristic lifestyle in a renewable home that requires daily maintenance of solar panels and wind turbines that are controlled by counterintuitive control systems with no feedback loops; livestock that must be fed and watered to provide fuel for a biomass plant. All of this, implemented by an industry that is incapable of maintaining pace with technological change.
Prof. Mosley explained that while the cost of fossil fuels is so low, there will be no funding for renewable energy solutions. This was supported by Prof. Mayfield who stated that a global switch to renewables would ‘tank’ the global economy which would have the biggest impact on the poor.
The overall message from the panel was that a renewable energy future was unlikely unless there is a shift in global politics.
By the second question to the panel, they were called out on their pessimism towards the subject, and essentially our futures! “You should be here to inspire us!”, roused a member of the audience.
The rebuttal from Prof. Mayfield: “I’m glad we’ve made you feel uncomfortable, that’s a good start”.
A wide range of topics were discussed, while the prospect of a population of 10 billion was only briefly touched on. The main takeaways from the debate:
- Renewable energy solutions alone cannot produce a consistent supply to the grid
- Low carbon solutions in combination with renewable energy solutions and storage is the most likely long-term solution
- We are not necessarily looking at the right problems- embodied energy of materials is just as important as energy use (if not more important)
- Interdisciplinary action is needed to achieve a sustainable future
- We need to change as a society and “JUST GET STARTED”
While the more cynical viewpoint remained with members of the panel towards the end of the debate, the audience left with a feeling of hope, knowing that if we work together to think outside of the box, a sustainable future may still be possible!
If you are interested in learning more about this debate and other sustainable issues please visit http://10bn.sheffield.ac.uk/.
By Lucy Smith
PGR Research Student