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Developing sustainable energy solutions in time


As we reach the halfway point since the 2030 Sustainability Development Goals (SDGs) were agreed in 2015, CEO of AW-Energy, Christopher Ridgewell, reflects on what has been achieved and the path ahead to 2030. Chris talks about an approach to create a lasting positive impact on clean energy provision, and how the SDGs have been an important focus in the design and development of the company’s WaveRoller near-shore wave energy technology.

The urgency to address climate change is evident as global emissions continue to rise. One example is the rate at which the Arctic sea ice is retreating, with scientists predicting the region could be mostly ice-free in the summer within the next decade — with the risk of extreme changes this will bring to different parts of the world.

Other early-warning signs that we have passed a climate tipping point include increasingly frequent and severe droughts, heat waves, wildfires, and tropical cyclones. If we don’t stick to the Paris Agreement, impacts will be ever more severe, and significantly impact the web of interdependencies that modern society is built on.

The UN’s first recently published Global Stocktake report takes a hard look at the state of our planet and how we can collectively chart a better course for the future. The evidence enables countries and other stakeholders to see where they’re collectively making progress toward meeting the goals of the Paris Agreement – and where they’re not. The report looks at everything related to where the world stands on climate action and support, identifying the gaps, and working together to agree on a solutions-led pathway (to 2030 and beyond).

The report emphasises we need to halve global emissions by 2030 to meet our agreed goal to avoid the most dire consequences. Given that many industrial processes are hard to decarbonise, new technology is needed – and the need will become more acute in the coming years.

The scorecard is not good

Last month, the Stockholm Resilience Group’s update of planetary boundaries show that 6 are now crossed and the rate of change since 2009 is alarming.

The 2023 update to the Planetary boundaries

Is this the result of our excessive use of fossil fuels? It’s been said that oil is too valuable to burn, and this is easily understood when noting all the other products made from oil, plastics being another one of these that also finds its way into the natural environment.

We are impacting the same natural systems that we are totally dependent on, for example the obvious service of pollinating insects on the food web, to forests for controlling the climate and water cycles, and the recent new understanding of the dependence between microorganisms in the environment and our health. The changes are becoming more obvious; the dramatic reduction in insects wiped from the car windscreen is a phenomenon that many have noted in the past decade. When looking at the trend and speed of degradation, it is self-evident that many changes are needed quickly.

According to the UN’s Global Stocktake, global emissions need to be nearly halved by 2030 for the world to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius. In addition, transformational adaptation is also needed to help communities and ecosystems cope with the climate impacts that are already occurring and are expected to intensify. Renewable energy generation still only makes up a small portion of our total energy use. In this decade we urgently need to phase out fossil fuel emissions in all sectors, refocus on efficiency, and accelerate the deployment of renewable energy.

Some sectors will need to decarbonise faster than others as those sectors that are hard to abate will need new technology. As we increase deployment, new technological challenges will emerge. This will require new development. But all the technology needed will require time, creative mindsets, and teamwork supported by investment, so the pressure is on as the technology that is needed for future scenarios must be developed now.

Will the market provide?

It is often stated that the market will provide. But few technologies are ready when needed and the need is imminent. For example, due to price cannibalisation energy storage is needed today, but cell-based storage is not economically viable for storage periods longer than 6 hours. This is where the energy stored in the ocean waves can add value.

Markets are also short-sighted. If a corporation can earn double-digit returns in oil and gas services but just single-digit operating renewable assets, then they have fiduciary duty to their shareholders to stick to those higher returns. But who would then invest decades of technology development before realising any return? Even though this technology is needed by civilisation, the burden is shouldered by a small number of visionary investors and committed teams.

This has been a common theme with cross-cutting technology and infrastructure projects, often invisible to the end consumer where margins are squeezed, but vital to the running of our society. Carbon capture proposed for bunker fuel synthesis, for example, has a development cycle going back to the 1970’s with plants capturing CO2 from exhaust gas for commercial use. The history of hydrogen use in transportation goes back even further, for example in 1930’s with Norsk Hydro’s hydrogen truck. A common theme that slowed the pace of development are the initial comparatively high costs and lack of consistent policy conditions that would enable rollout that in turn leads to innovations that bring down the costs to compete with the entrenched fossil fuel economy. To innovate and quickly deploy technology, collaboration across a wide range of entities, policy makers and companies are needed. We saw what’s possible during the COVID-19 pandemic, when the threat developed quickly and the public demanded action.

Technology at work

The team at AW-Energy believed from the outset in our development work on wave energy that it is essential to take biodiversity (SDG 14) and other sustainable development goals (e.g. SDG 7, 9, 13) into account in the design of equipment and operations used to capture and generate energy. For example, with our wave energy technology WaveRoller, the unit generates renewable energy that mitigates climate change. In addition, the foundation structure which rests on the seabed is designed to create an artificial reef effect that provides a haven for organisms which aims to support biodiversity. A special coating system is devised that doesn’t release biocides and protects water life. Also, the project lifecycle has been designed to maximise local content and promote capacity building.

The team has designed the unit to safely handle accidental loads which includes arrangements that prevent a release of chemicals if the unit should suffer damage or is impacted in an accident; a core element of the third-party certification process that we invested heavily in and completed successfully. It is a financially costly exercise, and increases the capital cost of the technology, but this has a major benefit to the environment by significantly lowering risk.

Across industry, we can already see the gaps emerging where energy technology development has not caught up with the need; for example, synthetic fuels for aircraft and ships or carbon capture from cement production. Some of these technologies are seen as transitional and struggle to attract resources as investors search for the next unicorns, attempting to pick the winners which only stifles the competition before the race has even started.

Conversely radical and rapid technology development has often been a feature with evolving threats such as pandemics and war. There, the existential threat has been recognised and galvanised society and governments to invest in a wide range of initiatives.

We believe technology development for tomorrow’s world requires strong and consistent policy. We frequently hear that net zero will be achieved using technologies that do not yet exist, yet the size of the teams involved in these endeavours is vanishingly small, especially when compared to the pharmaceutical industry for example – surely a healthy environment is the foundation of a healthy body.

A natural solution for sustainable, clean offshore energy provision

Regulators are becoming forward-thinking around these challenges. Transparency and credibility of alternative forms of energy provision to tackle the global challenges facing humanity are critical. The science behind the technology being used to extract energy is helping to bring a reality check to the industry and the investment needed to engineer support toward a faster transition to cleaner energy solutions. We are facing a world crisis which needs a heavier payload of long-term investment initiatives into a wider energy mix portfolio that complements wind and solar energy.

AW-Energy’s WaveRoller wave energy device is just one tool in the clean energy toolbox needed to transition to 100% renewables. WaveRoller is a nearshore technology and is ready to play a significant role in power generation. Our team just completed the EMFF funded WaveFarm project and the business is now ready to deliver. There is a value-add for the energy system and for the local communities with a clear pathway for costs to fall in the same way as other early phase innovative technologies.

When it comes to the wider influence of sustainable energy developments, measurable, implementable, verifiable, time sensitive, and binding targets and agreements are vital. Yes, the industry is making progress, but it isn’t fast enough. In our own work we continue to look at collaborative approaches across the renewable energy mix on how we can do our work to ensure sustainable development at local as well as planetary scales.

Bringing renewed energy for action

There is no doubt that there is an urgent need for an international paradigm that integrates a framework of investment for both the development of society and the maintenance of our Earth system in a sustainable way. We need to address today the safe operating limits of our planet, and what damage we can ask our planet to absorb before our continued actions lead to triggering severe and potentially catastrophic irreversible impacts.

This month the EU’s Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM) came into force that will level the field for EU companies. Next, we need a consistently high cost attached to carbon emissions globally to ensure that technologies needed to complete the decarbonisation goals have the conditions now, so that investment and work can be accelerated for the future. Currently carbon pricing is an uneven inconsistent patchwork that would now only cover 23% of global GHG emissions.

The World Bank Carbon Pricing Dashboard

By working together across the supply chain and with industry stakeholders coming together to address climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution – as they did to address the threat to the ozone layer – there is a chance we can reverse current trends and navigate Earth’s trajectory back toward a stable, secure, and sustainable state. That chance is growing considerably less and less as each day passes, but it is an effort we absolutely need to make here and now.

Doing nothing is not an option. In the end our survival comes down to political courage, leadership and the drive of the population at large. Communication on these issues is so important. But relying on the market alone to create technology will not result in the technology needed to enable us to reach the goal in time.