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Longitude Prize 2014: how can we fly without costing the Earth?

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If I had to choose, I would rather have birds than airplanes”, remarked the former aviator and later conservationist Charles Lindbergh. He spoke in the 60s, when scientists were only just figuring out the impact jet-fuelled flight has on the climate, but even now his words resonate.

It is not quite a straight choice between the two, but of the many ways a person can contribute to the environmental destruction that threatens the natural world, boarding a plane is among the worst.

The need for a more sustainable alternative was recently highlighted by the Longitude Prize, which has asked the British public to vote for what they think is the most pressing scientific issue of today.

When the result of the public vote is announced on Wednesday, entrants will have five years to come up with their innovative solutions to one of humanity’s greatest challenges and win £10m.

Each of the six choices is a worthy cause, but a convincing case can be made for zero-carbon flight. Every plane in the sky emits more greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and all forecasts predict that the number of flights made will rise rapidly this century, driven by a booming population and an expanding global middle class.

The UK government’s climate watchdog, the Committee on Climate Change, estimates that, if left unchecked, aviation could account for 15-20% of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2050.

Efforts are being made to wean airliners off kerosene fuels to more sustainable alternatives, but the rate of progress is slow and it is feared that emission reductions will not keep pace with the growth of air traffic.

Thankfully, there are many bold pioneers attempting to lead the way in zero-carbon flight. Though their aircraft – and often their budgets – are small, they are a big inspiration.

The Slovenian aircraft manufacturer Pipistrel assisted the Longitude Prize in defining its flight challenge, and featured in a special episode of the BBC’s Horizon, in which the six challenges were introduced.

The company, based in the scenic Mediterranean town of Ajdovscina, was the first in the world to put two-seat and four-seat electric aircraft in the air.

The two-seater – the Taurus Electro G2 – remains the only model available to buy, and many have been flying around the world since 2007. The four-seater Taurus G4, meanwhile, won Nasa’s 2011 Green Flight Challenge for its remarkable efficiency. It is, Pipistrel say, twice as efficient as a Toyota Prius.

Tine Tomazic explains that Pipistrel’s secret is painstaking attention to aerodynamics, and the use of state of the art lightweight carbon-fibre and aramid composite structures and super-efficient electric power trains. 

“It is the combination of the three areas that produces a superior vehicle when it comes to efficiency of flight, opening new possibilities in how these vehicles are used and paving the way to the future of aviation”, he says.  

With future efforts, Pipistrel hope to achieve zero-carbon flight – or as close to zero-carbon as they can get – while also extending the range and speed of their products. Tomazic explains he is motivated by a desire to contribute to a revolution in how we travel by air, a revolution that would bring convenience as well as carbon-savings.

There is a huge potential to open doors to personal air mobility – think of air taxis that take-off and land vertically like a helicopter and covers distance quickly like an airplane, but operates at a fraction of cost and is almost noise-free”, he says.

“If you hate the way air travel works today – involving getting to and from the airport, queuing, passing security – imagine beginning and ending your journey right where you are. 

“Electric flight has the potential to uncover this new means of travel, as well as dramatically lowering the CO2 and other environmental emissions air travel produces today.”

Taking an alternative approach, the University of Stuttgart’s e-Genius project is powered by lithium iron batteries. Their two-seater aircraft has bagged a number of awards, and holds the record for the longest battery powered flight at 405km, at a speed of around 160km/h.

However, the project’s mission is to deliver comparable performance to conventional aircraft of the same class with outstanding low energy consumption, and Len Schuman explains that this remains a challenge.

“Four hundred kilometres at 160 km per hour is very good for a battery powered system but it’s not enough for a commercially accepted airplane”, he says. 

“Currently we are working on a range extender system based on a small combustion engine. Of course the aircraft losses overall efficiency but it is still two or three times better than the best conventional aircraft.”

Schuman is also concerned about the future of flight. We must prepare now, he says. 

“Air transport is based on absolutely on fossil fuels. This source is finite. Don’t ask me how long it will last but when a finite amount gets used the day will come there is nothing left. And decades before the end the price will rise to sums the transport industry is not able to pay.

“If nobody prepares for this situation there is no air transport any more – and no aircraft industry.”

Elsewhere, the Switzerland-based Solar Impulse project is harnessing the power of the sun to take to the skies. Their second one-man aircraft, which uses the 17,000 solar cells on its wings to charge its lithium batteries, recently completed a test flight ahead of its effort to circumnavigate the globe in 2015.

Its designers claim that if Solar Impulse technologies were used on a massive scale, the world would be able to cut fossil fuel consumption by up to 50%. However, they admit this is unlikely to happen – saying that their project is intended as an inspiration, not a prototype.

“Our airplane is not designed to carry passengers, but to carry a message”, co-founder and pilot Bertrand Piccard said.

His project’s primary purpose is not to revolutionise aviation, but to demonstrate the potential of renewable energy and change the way in which people think about clean technologies.

Longitude Prize or no Longitude Prize, pacesetters and visionaries around the world will keep working towards cleaner, more efficient air transport. They must succeed, for the sake of Charles Lindbergh’s birds and all of us, and if they do there can surely be no better example of the potential of renewables and energy efficiency.

To cast your vote for the winner of the Longitude Prize, click here. Voting will close at 7.10pm on June 25, with the result announced live on the BBC’s The One Show that night.

Photo: Pipistrel

Further reading:

Longitude Prize revived to offer £10m to solve greatest scientific challenges

Boeing: we are focused on helping build a better planet

Sustainable transport: to fly, or not to fly?

Guide to Sustainable Transport 2014

Economy

Will Self-Driving Cars Be Better for the Environment?

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self-driving cars for green environment
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Zapp2Photo | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/zapp2photo

Technologists, engineers, lawmakers, and the general public have been excitedly debating about the merits of self-driving cars for the past several years, as companies like Waymo and Uber race to get the first fully autonomous vehicles on the market. Largely, the concerns have been about safety and ethics; is a self-driving car really capable of eliminating the human errors responsible for the majority of vehicular accidents? And if so, who’s responsible for programming life-or-death decisions, and who’s held liable in the event of an accident?

But while these questions continue being debated, protecting people on an individual level, it’s worth posing a different question: how will self-driving cars impact the environment?

The Big Picture

The Department of Energy attempted to answer this question in clear terms, using scientific research and existing data sets to project the short-term and long-term environmental impact that self-driving vehicles could have. Its findings? The emergence of self-driving vehicles could essentially go either way; it could reduce energy consumption in transportation by as much as 90 percent, or increase it by more than 200 percent.

That’s a margin of error so wide it might as well be a total guess, but there are too many unknown variables to form a solid conclusion. There are many ways autonomous vehicles could influence our energy consumption and environmental impact, and they could go well or poorly, depending on how they’re adopted.

Driver Reduction?

One of the big selling points of autonomous vehicles is their capacity to reduce the total number of vehicles—and human drivers—on the road. If you’re able to carpool to work in a self-driving vehicle, or rely on autonomous public transportation, you’ll spend far less time, money, and energy on your own car. The convenience and efficiency of autonomous vehicles would therefore reduce the total miles driven, and significantly reduce carbon emissions.

There’s a flip side to this argument, however. If autonomous vehicles are far more convenient and less expensive than previous means of travel, it could be an incentive for people to travel more frequently, or drive to more destinations they’d otherwise avoid. In this case, the total miles driven could actually increase with the rise of self-driving cars.

As an added consideration, the increase or decrease in drivers on the road could result in more or fewer vehicle collisions, respectively—especially in the early days of autonomous vehicle adoption, when so many human drivers are still on the road. Car accident injury cases, therefore, would become far more complicated, and the roads could be temporarily less safe.

Deadheading

Deadheading is a term used in trucking and ridesharing to refer to miles driven with an empty load. Assume for a moment that there’s a fleet of self-driving vehicles available to pick people up and carry them to their destinations. It’s a convenient service, but by necessity, these vehicles will spend at least some of their time driving without passengers, whether it’s spent waiting to pick someone up or en route to their location. The increase in miles from deadheading could nullify the potential benefits of people driving fewer total miles, or add to the damage done by their increased mileage.

Make and Model of Car

Much will also depend on the types of cars equipped to be self-driving. For example, Waymo recently launched a wave of self-driving hybrid minivans, capable of getting far better mileage than a gas-only vehicle. If the majority of self-driving cars are electric or hybrids, the environmental impact will be much lower than if they’re converted from existing vehicles. Good emissions ratings are also important here.

On the other hand, the increased demand for autonomous vehicles could put more pressure on factory production, and make older cars obsolete. In that case, the gas mileage savings could be counteracted by the increased environmental impact of factory production.

The Bottom Line

Right now, there are too many unanswered questions to make a confident determination whether self-driving vehicles will help or harm the environment. Will we start driving more, or less? How will they handle dead time? What kind of models are going to be on the road?

Engineers and the general public are in complete control of how this develops in the near future. Hopefully, we’ll be able to see all the safety benefits of having autonomous vehicles on the road, but without any of the extra environmental impact to deal with.

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Economy

New Zealand to Switch to Fully Renewable Energy by 2035

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renewable energy policy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Eviart / https://www.shutterstock.com/g/adrian825

New Zealand’s prime minister-elect Jacinda Ardern is already taking steps towards reducing the country’s carbon footprint. She signed a coalition deal with NZ First in October, aiming to generate 100% of the country’s energy from renewable sources by 2035.

New Zealand is already one of the greenest countries in the world, sourcing over 80% of its energy for its 4.7 million people from renewable resources like hydroelectric, geothermal and wind. The majority of its electricity comes from hydro-power, which generated 60% of the country’s energy in 2016. Last winter, renewable generation peaked at 93%.

Now, Ardern is taking on the challenge of eliminating New Zealand’s remaining use of fossil fuels. One of the biggest obstacles will be filling in the gap left by hydropower sources during dry conditions. When lake levels drop, the country relies on gas and coal to provide energy. Eliminating fossil fuels will require finding an alternative source to avoid spikes in energy costs during droughts.

Business NZ’s executive director John Carnegie told Bloomberg he believes Ardern needs to balance her goals with affordability, stating, “It’s completely appropriate to have a focus on reducing carbon emissions, but there needs to be an open and transparent public conversation about the policies and how they are delivered.”

The coalition deal outlined a few steps towards achieving this, including investing more in solar, which currently only provides 0.1% of the country’s energy. Ardern’s plans also include switching the electricity grid to renewable energy, investing more funds into rail transport, and switching all government vehicles to green fuel within a decade.

Zero net emissions by 2050

Beyond powering the country’s electricity grid with 100% green energy, Ardern also wants to reach zero net emissions by 2050. This ambitious goal is very much in line with her focus on climate change throughout the course of her campaign. Environmental issues were one of her top priorities from the start, which increased her appeal with young voters and helped her become one of the youngest world leaders at only 37.

Reaching zero net emissions would require overcoming challenging issues like eliminating fossil fuels in vehicles. Ardern hasn’t outlined a plan for reaching this goal, but has suggested creating an independent commission to aid in the transition to a lower carbon economy.

She also set a goal of doubling the number of trees the country plants per year to 100 million, a goal she says is “absolutely achievable” using land that is marginal for farming animals.

Greenpeace New Zealand climate and energy campaigner Amanda Larsson believes that phasing out fossil fuels should be a priority for the new prime minister. She says that in order to reach zero net emissions, Ardern “must prioritize closing down coal, putting a moratorium on new fossil fuel plants, building more wind infrastructure, and opening the playing field for household and community solar.”

A worldwide shift to renewable energy

Addressing climate change is becoming more of a priority around the world and many governments are assessing how they can reduce their reliance on fossil fuels and switch to environmentally-friendly energy sources. Sustainable energy is becoming an increasingly profitable industry, giving companies more of an incentive to invest.

Ardern isn’t alone in her climate concerns, as other prominent world leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron have made renewable energy a focus of their campaigns. She isn’t the first to set ambitious goals, either. Sweden and Norway share New Zealand’s goal of net zero emissions by 2045 and 2030, respectively.

Scotland already sources more than half of its electricity from renewable sources and aims to fully transition by 2020, while France announced plans in September to stop fossil fuel production by 2040. This would make it the first country to do so, and the first to end the sale of gasoline and diesel vehicles.

Many parts of the world still rely heavily on coal, but if these countries are successful in phasing out fossil fuels and transitioning to renewable resources, it could serve as a turning point. As other world leaders see that switching to sustainable energy is possible – and profitable – it could be the start of a worldwide shift towards environmentally-friendly energy.

Sources: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-11-06/green-dream-risks-energy-security-as-kiwis-aim-for-zero-carbon

https://www.reuters.com/article/us-france-hydrocarbons/france-plans-to-end-oil-and-gas-production-by-2040-idUSKCN1BH1AQ

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