Head of Energy & Sustainability

World’s Largest Carbon Capture Machine Switched On

Welcome to the latest edition of Footprints, where we report on some interesting changes seen in the animal kingdom attributed to climate change, how costs of renewables are now lower than fossil fuels and the progress being made with carbon capture technology.

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Animal’s “Shapeshifting” in Response to Climate Change

A recent study has identified new evidence that supports the theory that some warm-blooded animals are beginning to “shapeshift” their bodies in response to changing temperatures, evolving larger ears, beaks and longer legs and tails to better regulate their body temperature.

The phenomenon does align with an ecogeographical rule formulated by Joel Asaph Allen in 1877; the Allen rule, which broadly states that animals adapted to cold climates have shorter limbs and bodily appendages than animals adapted to warm climates.

The observations have ben described by bird researcher Sara Ryding of Deakin University in Australia in a review published in the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution.

Strong shapeshifting has particularly been observed in birds. Several species of Australian parrot have shown a 4%-10% increase in bill size since 1871, and this is correlated with the increased summer temperature each year. In North America, the dark-eyed junco also has seen an increase in its bill size. The changes may be considered small, but they are happening over a far shorter period than previous evolutional changes would lead you to expect.

It is often difficult to determine exactly why a species evolves in a certain way, but according to the study this trend is seen in many different types of species and locations around the world with little in common other than experiencing climate change.

These observations could be considered good news in terms of future life on this planet, however, Ryding has a warning: “Shapeshifting does not mean that animals are coping with climate change and that all is ‘fine’. It just means they are evolving to survive it – but we’re not sure what the other ecological consequences of these changes are, or indeed that all species are capable of changing and surviving.”

World’s Largest Carbon Capture Machine Switched On

The world’s largest carbon capture plant, which ‘sucks” carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and stores it underground, started operating in September in Hellisheidi, Iceland.

Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is the process of capturing CO2, a greenhouse gas, and depositing it somewhere it will not reach the atmosphere again. The goal being to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and limit (or even reverse) man-made climate change.

CCS has been actively researched since 1997 in US and then advanced in Norway in the 1980’s and many consider the technology to be a key tool in tackling global greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere. However, it is currently seen as too expensive and detractors argue that it could still take decades to operate at scale and that efforts should be focussed on eliminating the CO2 at source; zero carbon operation.

The plant in Iceland, known as Orca (from the Icelandic word for energy ‘orka’) is operated by Swiss engineering startup Climeworks and Icelandic company Carbfix, and has an estimated cost of between $10 and $15 million. It will capture 4,000 tons of CO2 per year, the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions from about 870 cars, which although is a drop in the ocean of global emissions, it is considered a big step forward for the technology, and one that could be quickly scaled up.

The plant uses renewable energy to power vast fans in boxes the size of shipping containers that suck the surrounding air into a collector. The air is passed through sponge-like filters that trap the CO2 from the air. The unit then heats up the filters to around 100°C which releases the trapped CO2 where it is mixed with vast quantities of water, around 27 tons of water for every ton of CO2, which is injected deep into the ground. This carbonated water reacts with the basaltic rock within the ground to create carbonate minerals, which over the course of two years becomes solid rock.

The location of the plant is key to its success, with basalt, a volcanic rock, being fundamental to the rapid mineralization of the carbon, and this rock is abundant in Iceland, making up 90% of the island.

A study by Imperial College London last year said that ‘just’ 2,700 gigatons (Gt) of CO2 would have to be captured to avoid a climate catastrophe (compared with the 10,000 Gt which had previously been put forward). At the moment there are 15 direct carbon capture plants operating worldwide, mainly found in the US, Europe, and Canada, which cumulatively capture about 9,000 tons of CO2 per year, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). A large-scale plant is also currently being developed in the US that would have the capacity to pull one million tons per year from the air. There is therefore still some way to go to even meet the conservative targets.

Cost of Renewables Cheaper than Fossil Fuels

Fossil fuels used to dominate the global power supply because until very recently it was far cheaper to generate electricity from fossil fuels than from renewables. This has however dramatically changed within the last decade, with power from renewables being cheaper than that from new fossil fuels in most places in the world.

A recent report by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) determined that 62% of wind and solar projects built globally in the past year will be able to generate cheaper electricity than even the world’s cheapest new fossil fuel plants.

The report shows that costs for renewable technologies continued to fall significantly year-on-year. Concentrating solar power (CSP) fell by 16%, onshore wind by 13% offshore wind by 9% and solar PV by 7%.

All this is seen despite a rise in key commodity prices: The price of polysilicon for example, one of the key raw materials for solar panels, is up threefold in the past year. That’s set to contribute to average solar module prices increasing at least 5% globally from 2020, according to BloombergNEF. The surging cost of steel is also set to increase wind turbine prices by as much as 17% this year.

Despite this, in less than a decade the cost of large-scale solar power has fallen by more than 85% while onshore wind has fallen almost 56% and offshore wind has declined by almost 48%.

With renewables being the cheapest source of power it presents countries tied to coal an economically attractive phase-out agenda that ensures they meet growing energy demand, while saving costs, adding jobs, boosting growth and meeting climate ambition states IRENA’s Director-General Francesco La Camera.

The report also showed that new renewables beat existing coal plants on operating costs too, making coal power increasingly unattractive economically. For example, in the United States 149 GW or 61% of the total coal capacity costs more than new renewable capacity. Retiring and replacing these plants with renewables would cut expenses by $ 5.6 billion per year and save 332 million tonnes of CO2, reducing emissions from coal in the United States by one-third.

The outlook till 2022 sees global renewable power costs falling further, with onshore wind becoming 20-27 per cent lower than the cheapest new coal-fired generation option, and the procurement of new solar PV projects through auction and tenders seeing almost three-quarters of them also at a lower price. This trend enabling low-cost renewables to not only form the backbone of the electricity supply system, but facilitate the electrification of additional end-uses like transport.

C – Carbon Footprint

The environmental impact of a building, site, development or region i.e. the carbon emissions emitted per annum – usually measured in tonnes of CO2 per annum. Many websites now exist to allow members of the public to estimate their own personal carbon footprint.

H – Heat Recovery

Systems which extract waste energy from water or air streams which would otherwise be vented to atmosphere. Thermal wheels offer very good efficiency – removing up to 80% of waste heat from an exhaust air stream for preheating incoming fresh air.

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