The Greenhouse Effect: combating climate change caused by power generation

One of the big issues facing the world today is that of climate change.  And it is not merely an ecological concern.  Climate change has been identified as a ‘risk and threat multiplier’ in international security.  Combating climate change is obviously therefore of critical importance, but how best to do so?

One of the major contributors of carbon dioxide and other pollutants is power generation.  And this is set to get worse.  The emergence of electric vehicles promises to lower vehicle emissions, but also puts greater stresses on power generation.  While wind and solar power are touted as solutions, the intermittency of their supply and their requirement for subsidies raise questions about their effectiveness.  Carbon capture and sequestration are therefore increasingly being considered as alterative options, but their high cost and limited effectiveness cast doubt on their potential.

More importantly, perhaps, the elephant, (in this case ‘dragon’ may be more appropriate) in the room is being ignored by such arguments.  China is the most populous country in the world and continues to develop, using dirty resources like coal to generate its growing wattage of power.  It seems unkeen to spend money on expensive offset measures.  A new solution, and one that is attractive to the Chinese, and of course others as well, is therefore required.

The winners of this years Ultimate Field Trip competition have suggested such an approach, with their idea of using algae to absorb carbon dioxide produced by sea based oil refineries.  While their idea was focused on the sea, a similar approach could work just as well, or perhaps even better, on land.

The idea is to use the oldest for of carbon capture and sequestration; photosynthesis. By building greenhouses next to power stations, the output gases could be pumped into the greenhouses and photosynthesised by the plants growing in them.  The outputs of power generation would then become electricity and oxygen.  This is, at worst, cheaper than current ideas, but could in fact be very profitable – were food to be grown in the greenhouses and sold, the process could pay for itself.

The carbon dioxide would promote enhanced plant growth, while the excess heat from generation would provide a cheap way to keep the greenhouses at the perfect temperature.  The houses could be lit at night using the excess power generated in off-peak night hours, therefore spurring growth and allowing for technology to be used with cheap electricity, cutting the cost of farming.  It would also cut the delivery miles, and therefore carbon footprint, of the food, as well as making food production more efficient to help meet the needs of  the world’s growing population.

Or go one step further and create a self-perpetuating cycle.  Grow bio fuels in the greenhouses, then burn them to create electricity, to produce more biofuels, and more electricity.  All this could be done in a condensed area, and have no carbon footprint.

The major point that emerges from this is the need to realise that the term ‘waste’ is a human invention.  The most classic example of this is the dung beetle, whose whole life is dependent on the waste products of animals.  The key to development is to find a productive use for ‘waste’, so as to create cycles of resource and energy usage.  Then, and only then, can any real form of long term, sustainable development be achieved.  Power generation is a classic example of this, and a great opportunity to bring about change.

Richard Milburn, The Marjan Centre

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