If we consider watts instead of euros or dollars, a very clear map of world wealth can be plotted. The countries with more energy have a higher GDP; those with higher power supply have industry, roads, power stations, infrastructure, welfare and very long life expectancy. However, to manage this huge demand, education in avoiding waste is necessary, as well as valid technology choices. This is the energy management model of the future according to Professor Roberto Cingolani, Scientific Director at the Italian Institute of Technology.
An internationally-renowned physicist, Cingolani has been the Scientific Director at the Istituto italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) [Italian Institute of Technology], Genoa since December 2005. He has written several popular science books, including "Il mondo è piccolo come un'arancia. Una discussione semplice sulle nanotecnologie" [The World is the Size of an Orange. A Simple Discussion on Nanotechnology] (Il Saggiatore, 2014) and "Umani e umanoidi. Vivere con i robot" [Humans and Humanoids. Living with Robots], with Giorgio Metta (Il Mulino, 2015).
Education and technology for more energy?
The energy use model is related to the idea of energy having citizen users. It is focussed on an educational problem. There is also instrumental discourse on technology, how strategic are the decisions, and what is to be done in the future. First, even if there were plenty of energy (basically, we are an energy-intensive race), it would still not be enough. In the completely hypothetical and imagined idea of a world with no energy problems, users could still not consider energy to be “free.” We’re now indirectly coming to terms with this. We wanted air conditioning in our homes as they seemed a great benefit, but then we come to see that the gases cause the greenhouse effect. Cars represented the revolution in individual freedoms in the last century, yet now we realize that their emissions are harmful. Industrial processes are an important part of our growth model but they frequently limit future environmental sustainability.
Of course, this doesn’t only apply to energy but also to the use of water and resources in general. We tend to be a model for growth and development, a social model, with little attention to the crucial fact that every action has consequences.
What is the problem of energy education?
The first point is that, regardless of how much energy is available, we are used to wasting it. In general, we use things badly. Losses and the misuse of resources are worth more attention from an educational point of view. Even keeping office lights on during the day is wasteful. This is the beginning of the integrated energy use model: as long as we don’t think of saving energy, whatever effort we make, we need to remember there will always be very high overheads, meaning we won’t get the efficiency we want. Then there is technology and the integration of different sources. Undoubtedly, there is no single solution to the problem of needs. Uses and the types of needs are too varied, whether dealing with big industry, transportation or domestic use. Integration is very important to harmonize these sources. The simplest example is when we install solar cells at home. During the day, we are never there, so we do many things in the evening and night when there is no light. So we need to rely on storage, which is a problem.
Is there an innovative model for domestic energy?
About 20 percent of the electric power used in advanced economies is for domestic use. Machines like dishwashers work at an average power of 1000 W. It’s a bit strange that this equipment affects global energy consumption so much when actually, for power of this type, alternative forms of energy supply other than electricity could be considered. An electrical appliance is a machine with power consumption not unlike that of a human being. Humans are sub-1000 W machines. We function by metabolizing sugar and fat and we have our own fuel cells, the liver, with biochemical mechanisms. Obviously, unlike people, electrical appliances have peaks, but there needs to be reflection on alternatives.
Can we learn from nature?
In nature, there are three basic forms of power: one for huge systems, such as the universe and the planets, with energy produced by nuclear fusion, where everything originates; the second, medium-power systems such as animals and humans, which use mainly biochemical energy at power of 1000 W; finally, we have very low-power systems, plants, which use photosynthesis, artificially producing the same power the entire human race produces, six times per day. It is a low-efficiency system, but as there are so many leaves... We have not copied this model from nature very much, maybe because it’s complicated, but neither has there been much effort to try to do so.
For example, nuclear fusion was abandoned for several reasons, not least because fission, i.e., the intermediate step, evoked great fears. As “advanced” peoples, we can feel that we have not moved forward as we could have done. In fact, all the major systems work on energy produced by nuclear fusion. Another example is solar power. This often reminds me of photosynthesis. Despite the mechanism being totally different, if there were no government incentives, it would have limited success because the per watt cost is still too high. It’s great, it’s renewable, but it’s still too expensive.
So does technology always overlap with social conscience?
The energy cost of everything we want to own is very high. On one hand, we rely very much on technology as if it were completely free; on the other, we don’t want oil pipelines, gas pipelines, or nuclear power.
We’re used to the wonders of the digital world, the Internet, e-mail, mobile phones. All this stuff costs money. The mass of junk e-mail we send out consumes much more energy than a letter written on paper every 10 minutes. At some point, we will need to determine how many kilowatts per capita we want, and then admit that beyond this limit we have to accept another kind of compromise, by economizing technology. U.S. citizens use 12,000 kWh of energy per capita, Europe and Japan about 7,000 kWh, China 4,000 kWh and India just 800 kWh. Global supply is 17 terawatts per day, but it is not uniform, with 20 percent of the world population consuming 70 percent of total electricity supply. Most energy is produced by about 20 countries, where availability is very high. It’s reasonable to wonder whether this “energy divide” could at least be mitigated. We need more energy, but what we have today needs to be saved and must not be wasted.
Which technological possibilities are innovative and sustainable?
There is hydroelectricity, which is great but does not provide enough power for everyone. Fossil fuels are very polluting. For nuclear power, we have seen various vetoes. Wind power has limits, including issues whether it is a windy day, that it can’t be put everywhere and, like solar power, it has an environmental impact (in the long term, the world would end up filled with silicon and metals). At the moment, gas is one of the lesser evils. In the medium- and long-term, it is the most sustainable resource, but it creates infrastructure problems. Drilling technologies are also the subject of a lot of discussions. If growth is to continue, in some way we need to find technological solutions but also social solutions, to provide more forms of integrated energy. Renewables are the energy source with the least impact, but investment needs to be made and they do not solve all the problems, especially in that they cannot be used continuously as and when we want. An example here is the automotive industry. Our cars these days run on fossil fuels. Generally, one liter (or one kg) of gasoline produces around 2000 W/h. I know that if I put a certain number of liters in the car, I have a certain number of watts per unit of time guaranteed and therefore a certain quantity of energy to use as long as I drive efficiently.
Batteries these days produce about 150-200 W per kg/h, so a battery today stores up one-tenth of the energy produced by a liter of gasoline. Obviously, if I want similar performance, I need to charge many kilos of batteries in my car, making it extremely heavy. Therefore, efficiency is not very high. The dream would be to make batteries a much more efficient way to store power, not as much as gasoline, but at least 500-1000 W per kg/h. Technology is constantly improving batteries. We are witnessing a steady increase in storage capacity, while the autonomy of cars increases at the same time. But autonomy for gasoline vehicles is still far away. We also have another major limitation: a charging infrastructure is needed (like gas stations), every 30 km. But unlike gas stations where a car can be filled up in one minute, it takes 40 minutes to charge the batteries. Let’s imagine rush hour one day. There might be 10 cars in front of me waiting to fill up with gas, taking 10 minutes. With recharging, I would have to wait 400 minutes. We therefore need to build batteries with very fast charging cycles. This is another technological challenge, a challenge within the challenge: batteries with higher capacity and being able to charge them very quickly. Lastly, we need batteries capable of supporting thousands of charge/discharge cycles without losing capacity. The giants of the industry are working on it, but it’s still far off. In the meantime, a hybrid solution has been found, using batteries that provide a certain degree of autonomy, especially in cities (very important because the stop and go of the internal combustion engine produces a lot of pollution), together with an engine with the on-road performance and autonomy of fuel. This is the classic example of compromise until technology can solve the problem. The compromise needs to be able to handle multiple sources, electricity and thermal fuel, and must harmonize them. We seem to be going in that direction while we wait for batteries to be improved and the infrastructure to be built both outside and increasing the kW available to homes for charging at night.
So the future of cars lies in hybrids, toward totally electric?
I am not sure the only solution will be batteries. There is also hydrogen. In the meantime, some of the problems with the hydrogen cycle can be solved, such as storage, compression and the cost of materials. This way, it might be possible to discover how to use hydrogen instead of conventional batteries. Intense research is going on in this field. Of course, we’re only talking about cars, with a power of hundreds of kW. When it comes to energy and megawatts, batteries are irrelevant. In this case, systems with large storage capacity are needed. Gas seems to be one of the technologies to look to, in combination with large solar and wind power stations. Unless there is a renaissance in nuclear energy, in fusion. To finish, the ideal solution is in the ability to differentiate. Focusing on so many parallel technologies means that one may be more suitable than another for given circumstances, locations or uses. Every form of energy can have its own application according to the field and the situation in which it is applied.
The author: Roberto Iadicicco
Roberto Iadicicco is Vice President for Health communication of Eni and Media relationship of the Eni Foundation.
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