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Net zero report tackles ‘biggest engineering challenge ever faced by mankind’

Professional Engineering

'It’s quite late in the day, and very urgent actions are required': Peter Flinn (Credit: Shutterstock)
'It’s quite late in the day, and very urgent actions are required': Peter Flinn (Credit: Shutterstock)

Transforming the global energy system and slashing emissions to achieve net zero is the “biggest engineering challenge ever faced by mankind”, according to the author of a new IMechE report.

Many of the required energy technologies already exist, according to “Engineering a Net Zero Energy System”, authored by past president Peter Flinn FIMechE. Making them robust, reliable and cost-effective is fraught with challenges however, and time is running out to secure the necessary political and financial support.

The report was launched at a special event at the institution’s headquarters on Thursday evening (10 November), beginning with a Prestige Lecture by Professor Emily Shuckburgh OBE, director of Cambridge Zero.

The world-leading climate scientist highlighted the urgency of the challenge as she set out current trends in energy use, emissions, average temperature and sea level. She quoted the IPCC as she said: “Global warming reaching 1.5ºC in the near term would cause unavoidable increases in multiple climate hazards, and present multiple risks to ecosystems and to humans. We’re currently between about 1.1-1.2ºC of warming.”

Humanity needs to halve emissions in the next decade to have a chance of staying within temperature targets, she told the audience at One Birdcage Walk in Westminster.

With polar sea ice already melting, the Amazon on a tipping point between carbon sink and carbon source, and trapped methane reserves being released into the atmosphere, Professor Shuckburgh’s lecture painted an unflinchingly bleak picture of the effects of climate change in the immediate term, and the risk of feedback processes to exacerbate warming.

Despite the seriousness of the situation, she said the need for transformational change across every sector presented “exciting opportunities for engineers to come in and think about how to do things differently.”

Routes to net zero

Published earlier that day, Flinn’s report set out ways for that to happen. Meeting global and UK climate goals by 2050 will involve reducing energy consumption “significantly” and switching to low-carbon sources – primarily wind, nuclear, solar and bioresources – and for any continuing hydrocarbon sources to be produced sustainably or to include carbon capture, according to the paper.

“There is considerable debate about the exact mix of solutions that will eventually be employed,” Flinn wrote. “It could be argued that the situation will be resolved over time by a Darwinian process of natural selection based on the cost-effectiveness of the different solutions as they develop and are scaled up. Whether this is the most efficient approach is a matter of debate, as it runs the risk of false starts and of missing what is a very tight timescale.”

The report considered multiple net zero ‘roadmaps’ to determine the likely make up of the UK’s future energy system. Likely characteristics include:

  • 6-7 times increase in wind power
  • 5-8 times increase in solar power
  • Up to 2 times increase in nuclear power generation
  • Natural gas consumption reduced by at least 60%, and potentially almost eliminated
  • Direct use of oil for energy eliminated
  • At least double the use of electricity as a means of energy transmission
  • Significant use of hydrogen, also for energy transmission, but with a wide range in the potential amount to be used.

“We need to accelerate our efforts, create market demand, release cash, build up new skills and engage in a massive scale-up programme for this to occur,” the report said. According to management consultancy McKinsey & Company, the 30-year multinational project could cost $275tn.

Speaking at the event, Flinn said: “These are essentially political targets, which then require practical engineering solutions, and as climate scientists will point out, it’s quite late in the day, and very urgent actions are required.”

Need for certainty

Speaking to Professional Engineering after the event, Flinn said that the “real bottleneck” to swift progress is money.

“There is plenty of cash sloshing around the world, but how do we get to release that cash, particularly when… the markets aren’t very clear,” he asked. “If you took a subject like hydrogen, OK there is a hydrogen market at the moment for ammonia and for steelmaking and things like that, but there isn’t a market for many of the other applications of hydrogen, and so investors are shooting in the dark… they need a higher level of certainty.”

That certainty can only come from technologies maturing. Some key technologies, such as electric cars, wind power, solar and large-scale nuclear are all at technology readiness level nine (TRL9), according to the report, meaning they are already succeeding.

Others, however, such as carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS), small modular reactors (SMRs), domestic heat pumps in substantial qualities, and flow batteries are all ripe for development at TRL7, while direct air capture of CO2, compressed and liquid air energy storage, nuclear fusion and space-based solar power systems are all at lower levels, requiring more work.  

‘Low-hanging fruit’

Following news of widespread expansion plans at oil and gas companies, many might argue for stronger government action to prevent that from happening. But that would be “looking through the wrong end of the telescope,” said Flinn, and the government would do better to target the “low-hanging fruit” in sectors such as housing.

“I think it’s disappointing that the government has shied away from that, because I think that’s an area where people individually can contribute a lot more, and I think if you wanted to mobilise public opinion, that’s a good route for doing that… simple things like insulation of housing and buildings.”

Both Professor Shuckburgh and Flinn spoke about the importance of systems engineering, and the past president spoke about the need for a government ‘programme office’ for net zero plans.   

IMechE action

Engineering a Net Zero Energy System” sets out what the IMechE will do to support the shift to net zero:

  • “Provide comprehensive, objective and balanced coverage of technologies, with particular reference to their development (TRL) status and the market opportunities created, drawing attention to critical topics
  • “Provide convening leadership in the UK engineering community on power generation and distribution, critical materials, capture technologies, building systems and energy vectors to maximise the impact of this community
  • “Work to develop the education, skills and qualifications needed to underpin net zero
  • “Stress the importance of whole system design, optimising the whole and not just elements of the whole, pointing to gaps or weaknesses that we are aware of
  • “With agencies such as Innovate UK and the Catapult network, encourage the development of large-scale pilot projects
  • “Emphasise the scale of change and the investment necessary, the flow of money and the need to create new markets and, hence, business opportunities.”

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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