How can we solve the Earth’s energy dilemma?

In order to have a functioning circular economy, we need more and more energy, writes Raija Lantto, Principal Scientist at VTT.

In most cases, collecting, sorting, processing and restoring material back to usable form requires more energy than using virgin raw materials. The problem is that, for the time being, most of the material in use is not returned back to circulation. Since the use of recycled material must in any case be increased, we are in a situation in which we need more and more energy. In parallel with promoting a circular economy, humankind must quickly reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases just to control acceleration of climate change. It must be possible to produce the additional energy needed for the transition to a circular economy without emissions.

Energy production from fossil oil, coal or gas, always results in carbon dioxide emissions. Even though technological solutions for the recovery, storage and utilisation of carbon dioxide exist, they are still too expensive and energy-consuming for extensive implementation. The transition to a sustainable circular economy requires renewable energy and emission-free solutions for energy production and use.  

The increase of carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere must be limited rapidly. Moving towards the electrification of industry and transport is a worthy option. The question is, how do we produce the electricity or what can be directly electrified?

Completely clean and renewable sources of energy only include solar, wind and hydroelectric power as well as geothermal heat. Nuclear energy is clean from the point of view of emissions, but it is not renewable. Bioenergy, in turn, is not emission-free even though it is renewable.

Converting biomass into energy usually means combustion, and that creates carbon dioxide. However, it is always a better option than the combustion of fossil raw materials. Still, the combustion of biomass will increase the CO2 levels of the atmosphere in the short term. Biomass is needed as a raw material for fuels because not all transport and industry can be electrified. By using biomass, it is possible to limit the introduction of new fossil carbon into terrestrial circulation – including the atmosphere.

Since hydroelectric and wind power are available only in limited quantities, expectations are focused primarily on solar energy. It must be possible to convert solar energy into electricity very efficiently and in very large quantities in order to solve the Earth’s energy dilemma.

The population is growing, production and consumption are increasing and the world is becoming more urbanised, with the result that more material and energy are needed for the needs of the ever-growing built environment.  What if we required energy-guzzling neighbourhoods, villages and cities to produce sustainable energy to meet their own needs? Solar electricity and wind power are commonplace. Many other solutions could also be made available, such as energy-producing windowpanes or, for example, streets that recover the kinetic energy of cars. We need the courage to cause ‘creative destruction’ to the existing system in order to move towards genuinely new solutions.

Raija Lantto VTT
VTT
Principal Scientist Raija Lantto

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