Blue electric car at a charging station. Life Solved logo and title

Our special ‘COP in Focus’ episodes are uncovering the road to net zero - this time it's all about energy

  • 04 November 2021
  • 16 min listen

As world leaders meet to discuss the future of resource use and sustainable practises at COP26, Dr Amitava Roy chats to the Life Solved podcast about his work in energy systems of the future.

A zero-carbon future

Decades of intense fossil fuel-based energy technologies have contributed to global warming and climate change, which is having a devastating impact upon life on earth.

It is really vital to decarbonize the system so that there is no net CO2 emission or other greenhouse gases entering our atmosphere. Otherwise, we're going to see more extreme weather patterns with an increase in global temperature.

Dr Amitava Roy, Senior Lecturer in Renewable Energy Systems

In the UK, energy use accounts for a hefty proportion of the national carbon footprint, so how can we heat and power modern life without causing further damage to the planet?

By developing technologies that no longer emit greenhouse gases, Dr Roy is playing a part in the bid to reach net-zero carbon emissions by 2030.

But it’s not just energy use that needs to be considered – its supply and generation also need a clean-up.

Going green with renewably-powered production

In the podcast, Amit explains a few of the options available to create greener energy for heating, power and transportation. From renewable sources such as wind, solar and biomass, to his latest project in hydrogen gas.

I have an interest in various segments within hydrogen energy, starting from hydrogen production via electrolysis of water, using electricity from renewables, like wind energy or solar photovoltaics, or via smart grid balancing.

Dr Amitava Roy, Senior Lecturer in Renewable Energy Systems

In addition to his role as a Senior Lecturer at the University of Portsmouth, Amit is the CEO of Engas Global. This company has just won funding to produce ‘green’ hydrogen to refuel hydrogen outboard boats at the marina in Portsmouth.

This project ties together renewable electricity in the production of hydrogen through processes such as electrolysis which creates water as a by-product instead of harmful greenhouse gases. This kind of process goes hand in hand with carbon capture and storage to remove emissions from the atmosphere. But it all relies on innovative tech!

I have a serious interest in capturing CO2 from raw biogas or landfill gas. So I have developed some technologies and solutions to capture CO2 and then convert it into a useful form.

Dr Amitava Roy, Senior Lecturer in Renewable Energy Systems

Tech for the future

Amit thinks his role is to make sure the technology and knowledge is available not only to make a difference now but to pass the baton to the next generation.

As pledges from nations emerge at COP26, the journey towards net-zero is only beginning in earnest, but Amit is optimistic that with the right economic incentives for people and businesses, it may soon be possible for all areas of society to embrace renewable and clean energy.

Episode transcript:

Anna Rose: Welcome to Life Solved, the research podcast from the University of Portsmouth, where we explore how breakthroughs here are changing our world today and in the future. Across the first two weeks of November 2021, the UK hosts COP26, the UN's Global Climate Change Conference. It's here that world leaders and the public will assemble to discuss the actions we need to collectively take to prevent the damaging impacts of climate change upon our world and environments. The University of Portsmouth will proudly be contributing to the conversations, offering expertise and ideas on everything from sustainable trade to global citizenship, plastic pollution and marine biology. And whilst the conference is taking place, we're bringing you special In Focus episodes. Today, we're taking a closer look at decarbonisation and the roadmap to net zero with Dr Amit Roy.

Amit Roy: COP26 is so important. This is the conference of parties, as the name suggests. We have so many world leaders coming to Glasgow this year. This is an opportunity, but I believe there'll be a lot of debates because decarbonisation means different things to different people.

Anna Rose: So what does decarbonisation really mean? How can conflicting nations come to an agreement and what technologies are being developed to move towards a low carbon future?

Amit Roy: My contribution would be to create the next generation to influence the next generation with the knowledge and the technologies they will require to make their contributions.

Anna Rose: It's probably best to square off Amit's definition of decarbonisation from the start.

Amit Roy: Decarbonisation means using a technology or solution which does not produce CO2 directly. So, for example, using renewable energy sources like wind, solar, biomass. Biomass does have some CO2 emission at the point of usage, but it could well be captured and reused using different technologies to convert CO2 into useful other products and by-products. Also, another meaning of decarbonisation could be not using fossil fuel at all, to some people. And also another interpretation could be to use fossil fuel but capture CO2 in a way so there is no net CO2 coming out into the environment.

Anna Rose: Dr Roy's current energy project is located on the water but isn't wave power as such. Alongside his role as a senior lecturer at Portsmouth University, he is CEO and founder of Engas Global, a company awarded 1.5 million pounds to build a hydrogen production and refuelling station at Portsmouth International Port, designed to power hydrogen boats. And whilst the project is, without doubt, ambitious and innovative, it's just one aspect of the possibilities offered by hydrogen power, as Amit explains.

Amit Roy: As you can imagine, hydrogen energy is a very big and broad subject, and I have direct experience and interest in various segments within hydrogen energy, starting from hydrogen production via electrolysis of water, using electricity from renewables like wind energy or solar photovoltaics, or via smart grid balancing. I have also direct hands on experience of developing technologies related to hydrogen compression. I developed a very novel hydrogen compressor technology and I've been funded by Innovate UK to develop this technology that is also greener. Because the output or by-product of using hydrogen is only water, which can be reused again and again. And alongside, I have a serious interest in CO2 capturing, so capturing CO2 from real biogas or landfill gas, or sin gas or various other sources where CO2 is available, like an exhaust of an engine. So I have developed some technologies and solutions to capture CO2 and then converting CO2 into a useful form.

Anna Rose: This second process means that the carbon dioxide created through biogas production can be captured and used to cleverly top up the energy rather than adding to emissions. A win win! With both the desired energy and the resulting CO2 gases both being used to potentially power motor vehicles, homes and yes, perhaps even boats. But we might be getting a little ahead of ourselves. Why is net zero such an important talking point at COP26?

Amit Roy: What will happen that will continue emitting lots of CO2 and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And that leads to an increase in global mean temperature and leading to melting of ice in the Himalayas and our poles and icebergs melting. And we hear and see those events are happening all around the world. In simple terms, if the temperature is rising because of using fossil fuel, which leads to greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide and other gases, then with this increase in temperature, we will have more humidity. And if we have more humidity, there will be more rainfall. So we are going to see more extreme weather patterns with an increase in global temperature. So I believe this is an effect of global warming because of not decarbonising the system. So it is really vital to decarbonise the system so that there is no net CO2 emission coming out or other greenhouse gases coming out into our atmosphere.

Anna Rose: From reducing the CO2 created in the production of hydrogen to effectively recycling the CO2 made in the creation of methane, whatever your interpretation of decarbonisation, the ultimate aim is the same. Net zero. So why not focus solely on green hydrogen production? After all, there are substantially fewer by-products created compared to biogas. Well, it turns out that the two fuel sources actually complement each other for reasons that Amit explains.

Amit Roy: Imagine you have one cylinder full of biomethane and another cylinder full of hydrogen. A Biomethane cylinder will have almost three times more energy than hydrogen of similar volume. So that does show the significant potential or energy density that biomethane will provide. Biomethane is completely sustainable. Likewise, green hydrogen is. So I believe they are very complementary because biomethane and hydrogen could also be blended together and used as a fuel. Some people call it hythane, hydrogen plus methane. Combining it together called hythane. Like a blended fuel.

Anna Rose: So that's all sorted then. Hydrogen, biogas or a combination of the two? Well, yes and no. Because as it turns out, this kind of transition impacts consumers and their pockets.

Amit Roy: There are certainly some major hurdles and obstacles. One of them is cost. When you introduce a new technology to the market, the economy scale does not exist always. So there is a high initial cost involved for this type of project to get off the ground often. But also lack of awareness is one of the barriers and one of those obstacles. A lot of people only talk about hydrogen, they say, is it safe? Sometimes you get this very natural reaction from consumers. So we have to really spread the awareness about the safety of hydrogen. As I said, hydrogen has one-third of energy compared to natural gas, and that makes hydrogen inherently safer.

Anna Rose: Amit also identifies the market challenge from traditional fuels. With few heavy penalties for companies releasing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, he feels the fossil fuel sectors have an advantage as it stands in 2021, but are making great strides to adapt for the future.

Amit Roy: When you see these companies like Shell and BP, they are the oil giants. When these companies are setting net zero 2050 goals, that means they are divesting a lot of their assets and investing a lot into renewables. They are acquiring innovative cleantech companies, as you can imagine. So this is going to create a major opportunity for the newcomers coming into this space in the form of jobs. Students, for example, who are studying these renewable energy courses that we are running, but also some other clean tech programmes around the country, around the world, they will see significant benefit as a result of these decarbonisation policies led by various governments.

Anna Rose: And consumer evidence from very recent history gives Amit cause for a positive outlook for COP26 and beyond.

Amit Roy: Back in 2002/3, there was some very attractive incentives the government introduced in the form of feeding tariff or renewable obligation certificates called rocks or renewable heat incentives. These were really, really useful to create the market to create the demand for solar photovoltaics or wind energy or biogas sectors to create the demand, and also to create a market pool attracting billions of pounds into the sector. Now you know what happened? Solar PV sector is so attractive because the price of electricity from solar and wind is very much at par of producing electricity from natural gas, definitely cheaper than nuclear and lots of other sources. So electricity from renewables is already significantly cheaper. The electric vehicle, for example, are very pricey about 10 years ago, but now the price is coming down. A lot of people are buying electric vehicles. Similar things will happen in the hydrogen and fuel cell sector, as well as the market grows. So there is a real opportunity of financial incentives to use cheap electricity from solar panel, produce your own hydrogen and oxygen for localised use and then basically monetise the free electricity or cheaper electricity into high-value product like hydrogen and oxygen. But the gap is that there has never been any market or incentives to use hydrogen for the consumers. There has always been a market push by the government in the form of grants to develop technologies, which has been great. I believe that a lot of technologies are already out there in existence that could be adopted by the consumers if there is a market or feed in tariff style market for hydrogen. For example, as a consumer, if you use hydrogen, you will be incentivised. If the government could do this for the next few years, that is going to improve the awareness significantly, build a lot of awareness around safety as well. But at the same time, really heading towards the decarbonisation of our energy systems.

Anna Rose: Whilst COP26 reveals different challenges, surprises and discussions on an almost daily basis, Dr Roy remains upbeat about the potential for countries to come together with a united strategy.

Amit Roy: I believe although people may have different views, different pathways, the end goal is very important for everyone, wherever they are in the planet. Oil rich countries or oil dependent countries, they are all subject to the same impact because of global warming in the form of rainfall or severe weather pattern, etc. So I believe this is the reason why countries will come together, and that could be in the form of a common market for carbon. There used to be a scenario for carbon credit, etc. At the moment, there is a voluntary carbon trading market anyway, and a lot of companies are doing their bit on a voluntary basis. But that could may also well be legalised. But I believe in this COP, at least if they come out with two solutions. One is a legal solution, legal framework and a market mechanism to buy carbon and get incentivised alongside the voluntary mechanism. Perhaps somebody coming without any legal obligation but still contributing to the environment, they should be incentivised too. I hope that a proper framework to trade carbon across the boundaries that would be really, really a positive outcome, in my view.

Anna Rose: And with so much work to do, the temptation is to purely look forward into the future, to concentrate on what is next. And whilst this is valuable, there's also real benefit in looking back and realising just how far you've come as well.

Amit Roy: Even today, a lot of people are saying that green hydrogen is more something into the future, but I would say no, this is actually right now. Because hydrogen could be produced locally for local usage. For example, if you have solar PV on the roof, you can use this electricity to produce hydrogen because you remember the government introduced pedantry and other incentives for solar PV photovoltaic or solar PV owners, and they will be running out their subsidy income after 20 years from their start date. So within the next seven/eight years, a lot of large scale solar PV projects in the UK will not be getting any subsidies anymore, but those solar panels will last for another 30/40 years, if not more. So what are they going to do because their cost has already been paid and they are having a fixed cost to produce electricity? So this is an opportunity here. If you take these, almost pay electricity from existing solar farms and convert into hydrogen, that could actually create a very good business model here. So let's talk some numbers. To produce one kilogram of hydrogen, you need about 50 to 60-kilowatt hours of electricity. So at the wholesale price of two pence per unit of electricity at the moment, it can go up to 5/6 pence per unit of electricity. But for the best-case scenario, let's say 2 pence per unit of electricity, you need about one pound worth of electricity to make one kilogram of hydrogen and a one kilogram hydrogen on the market is very, very attractive. So you are putting a low grade or low-value input like one pound worth of electricity and you are creating significantly higher value hydrogen. The price of hydrogen on the market right now is over £100 a kilogram if you want to buy from leading gas supply companies. But that's not everything, because, for every one kilogram of hydrogen we produce, that is also about eight kilograms of oxygen coming out as a free by-product. So when you combine the total value of hydrogen and oxygen as an output of one pound input, then it is bound to be very attractive.

Anna Rose: So what is Dr Roy's fervent wish for a COP26 outcome?

Amit Roy: To create a hymn sheet that everybody can speak about it. So this is my hope that they will agree on a hymn sheet at the end of this conference.

Anna Rose: COP26 is where science meets politics and ultimately shows the need for humankind to work together to ensure a future for our planet. We'll have to see if the meeting of nations results in a shared hymn sheet and whether all the players are in harmony. Thanks for joining us for lIfe solved. If you want to find out more about research at the University of Portsmouth, go to the website port.ac.uk/research. We'll be back next Thursday with another of our COP26 in focus episodes.

Mark Gaterell: To get rid of demand by design. That's the key for me to successful decarbonisation of buildings.

Anna Rose: Catch you then.

Previous episode

Next episode