Focus on research: Dr James Glynn, MaREI

Dr James Glynn, MaREI
Dr James Glynn, MaREI

Looking towards creating a low carbon future by degrees

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27 August 2019 | 0

Dr James Glynn is a research fellow at MaREI, the SFI research centre for energy, climate and marine research. In this interview he talks about the relationships between energy management and social justice, and his hopes that Ireland can keep its carbon commitments.

The study of energy systems touches on fields as diverse as grid management and social justice. Which angle attracted you?

I used to work on the detailed technical modelling of hydrodynamics (CFD) around ocean energy technology devices. But when I’d be building high performance computing clusters to crunch the numbers to enable our understanding of the engineering details of how water and air flows around an ocean energy turbine, I’d find myself wondering about the big picture of how renewable energy and all types of energy impact on society, our way and quality of life.

Systems engineering enables us to model all the interactions of integrated energy infrastructure and see how it impacts on the climate, on energy security, on energy poverty, on agriculture and on transport.

Ultimately, energy systems engineering gives us a tool to rationally advise and steer investment decisions from government to individual scale towards the energy system that would be optimal globally or for Ireland, given all the environmental, engineering and financial constraints that the global energy system works within.

The ability to mathematically explore and understand the role that the energy system plays in the big picture is what attracted me to become an integrated energy systems model builder. Also I just enjoy solving problems and the IEA-ETSAP community that I work with.

You’ve recently had a paper published on the potential role of direct air carbon capture and storage in meeting targets set out by the Paris Agreement. Can you explain what DACCS is and the study’s findings.

DACCS stands for ‘direct air carbon capture and storage’. DACCS belongs to a group of carbon dioxide removal technologies generally referred to as CDR.

To stop climate change, the global energy system needs to stop emitting carbon dioxide to the atmosphere. At the same time, certain industrial processes are really difficult to convert to zero carbon energy. So, it is likely that there will always be some residual carbon dioxide emissions from some sectors of the economy and energy system.

Secondly, global carbon dioxide emissions are still growing, faster and faster each year; we have not even started to slow down CO2 emissions yet. It is likely that we will need CDR technologies to remove CO2 from the atmosphere and industrial flues and chimneys.

The cheapest CDR technologies are biodiverse old growth forests. However, it looks like we will need to decarbonise faster than forestry can reasonably be expected to remove from the atmosphere if we are stabilise the climate by reaching net zero CO2 emissions and stabilising temperature increase at well below 2 degrees celsius. This finding is reiterated in the IPCC special report on climate change and land.

The main finding of our paper is that DACCS may have a role to play in reducing the cost of mitigation of CO2 towards the end of the century, it can reduce the reliance of biological CDR from bioenergy carbon capture and storage, and can accelerate the feasible rate of decarbonisation. It certainly warrants investment to develop the technology further, but it is not a silver bullet. There is a risk that if we rely on CDR and do not reduce carbon emissions fast enough that the temperature overshoot could be even larger as a result of delayed action and a risk of CDR technology failure in the future.

Is it important that studies of controversial topics like climate change have an international element?

Collaboration with world class international colleagues enables deeper understanding of our chosen research question on the role of DACCS in the energy system, in that we all bring different skills and insights to the author team.

Having an inter-model comparison also gives more robustness to the findings of the research in that both independent models sense check the model outcomes.

One of the areas you have looked at is ‘equitable decarbonisation’. Are some countries treating climate change as a race to achieve a certain level of prosperity as opposed to a race to find innovative solutions?

I don’t think those two perspectives are mutually exclusive. We are seeing technological and social innovation in emerging economies who are increasing their prosperity while leap frogging old fossil fuel technologies.

India is particularly interesting here in the rollout of decentralised solar powered mini grids to address energy access and poverty, and to migrate from traditional forms of lighting and cooking that impact on climate and local respiratory health.

China also has invested massively over the past five to 10 years in renewable technologies both on the supply and demand side like electric vehicles and electric public transport.

China has in the past often accounted for half the annual global spend on renewable energy technologies.

There is still a lot of relatively young coal powered assets that will be in operation for another 30 years in developing and emerging economies, and if new cheap coal power continues to be built even in developing economies, achieving the Paris agreement goals of remaining well below 2C seems unlikely to be achievable.

Interesting new innovation from the scientific earth observation is able to use satellite imagery to observe and regulate coal-fired power station construction.

The division of equitable decarbonisation into a finger wagging exercise is not constructive in achieving the goal of climate stabilisation. Climate stabilisation requires fair global collective action because we all share the same remaining global carbon budget that will result in climate stabilisation.

The government recently introduced a watchdog to ensure its Climate Action Plan is being implemented. Are you confident it can be delivered?

There are many aspirations in the Climate Action Plan, but there are many obvious goals missing and many of those included are not quantified and so it is difficult to measure them to asses if they are likely to be fully implemented or not.

There are many motivated NGOs, industries, communities, government officials, semi-state bodies and academic people working hard to push Ireland towards the citizens assembly’s recommendations towards making Ireland a leader in climate action.

Measured across a range of indicators, realistically Ireland is far behind. I would like to see the new Climate action committee to be transdisciplinary, ie not solely economists, and to focus on measurable actions like maintain Ireland within a fair share of the remaining global carbon budget for 2C stabilisation.

What would your ideal energy system model for Ireland look like?

My colleagues in the MaREI Centre and I recently published a paper on what the Irish energy system could look like if we were serious about being climate action leaders. We explored what the fair share carbon budget would be and what the least cost energy system would look like within those carbon budgets under various sets of technology assumptions.

We explored the impact of whether or not Ireland would accept CDR technologies, whether Ireland would accept both technically and socially larger amount of variable renewable energy technologies on the electricity grid, whether or not we want to import bioenergy or not, and other possible socio-technical variations. The paper is published open access and free for all courtesy of Science Foundation Ireland in the journal Climate Policy.

I think an ideal energy system is one that is emits net-zero carbon, emits no local air pollution, is affordable for everyone, is reliable, promotes a just transition for workers, is abundant and accessible enough to afford the quality of life, heat and transport that we need, but that energy is used efficiently in integrated and coordinated manner for the social good for the services we need.

The legacy energy systems we live within are often inefficiently wasting energy producing excess heat, vibration, noise, pollution on activities that we don’t even want, with many long term, environmental, financial and societal health impacts.

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