Imagine there was a magic bullet that could guarantee a very high level of living standard, not only for the 1.4 billion people who are not yet connected to the electricity system, but to all of mankind for future generations. Now imagine that this technology is simple and has been around for over half a century. Can you guess what it is? Some clues are; it is renewable, sustainable, portable and available. If your answer is solar hydrogen energy systems, you are right. There may be debate about the degree of their portability, but both solar panels and hydrogen gas are portable. Both these forms of energy can be used to provide all the electricity needs for all mankind.[i]
Electricity is the lifeblood of all modern societies, yet its continual flow is taken for granted. It is only when there is a power cut that we start to appreciate and realise how dependent our daily living standards are on the continuity of its supply. Currently, about half the world population lives in urban areas, and it is estimated that by 2050, the global urban population is expected to approach 6.4 billion, (Gea, 2012). Therefore the robustness of the urban electricity system and the continuation of electricity supply, are critical to the future resilience of the urban environment, and to the continuation of the standard of living of the population.
In the developed world, all electricity generation systems are centralised with consumers accessing the system via a national grid. Any natural or manmade failure in the national grid system can have far reaching indirect consequences at a very long distance from the actual point of failure, i.e. a failure chain can ensue.
“A failure chain is a set of linked failures spanning critical assets in multiple infrastructure systems in the city. As an example – loss of an electricity substation may stop a water treatment plant from functioning; this may stop a hospital from functioning; and this in turn may mean that much of the city’s kidney dialysis capability (say) is lost. This failure chain would therefore span energy, water and healthcare systems.” (UNISDR, IBM, & AECOM, 2014).
As the urban population grows, an electrical failure will have increasing and more devastating secondary health (Nates, 2004), economic, security, and water impacts (DRAP, 2013) on the daily lives of more and more people.
Every year billions of US dollars are lost in economic activity due to power cuts (Balducci, 2002; Reichl, Schmidthaler, & Schneider, 2013; Sullivan, Vardell, & Johnson, 1997). This would be much reduced if the topology for the electricity system is of a distributed nature. This means that instead of the electricity being generated in huge power stations far from where it is being consumed, it is generated on the roof of the building that uses it. All electronic devices, like those that use batteries, need direct current (dc) electricity to operate. So the all dc system will not need the average of 25 black transformers used per household (Calwell, 2002 p 7), or the inverter (cost £1000+). Therefore the carbon footprint of electrical goods will be smaller and the energy they use will be reduced (see Kinn, 2011, p. 113-114, for more advantages of dc systems). Since less energy is needed, the dc micro generation system can be smaller and therefore cheaper (Kinn, 2011 p 109). Alternatively, for the same outlay, a larger dc micro-generation system can be installed thus increasing the energy supply.
If urban sustainability implies that the level of living standards people expect today should be available in 100 years time for our descendants, then we must fundamentally change the way electricity is supplied for consumption in the built environment. This can be achieved by using distributed renewable dc systems that will offer each building energy independence with energy security. By doing this, mankind enhances and maintains its ability to consume electricity for all its daily activities, thus maintaining a high standard of living for all.
While it is appreciated that technically there needs to be more improvements in the availability and development of dc voltage appliances, this is only due to a lack of focus about the need for this. The international community has to make it a priority to provide distributed energy systems all around the world. This priority must be placed on the UN’s agenda and governments all around the world must provide funding and research opportunities for dc voltage systems. This priority will draw in private investment capital to develop the much needed low power dc consumer units. The importance of using solar lighting was highlighted in the Lighting Africa Conference of 2010 (World-Bank, 2011). A few extra hours of light per day can increase economic activity and enhance education by giving everyone the ability to study at night. If just one solar light can make so much difference to a family or to a business, how much more could be gained if the cooking, food storage and heating activities can be provided via solar dc electricity.
Hydrogen has been used directly in internal combustion engines (ICE) of ordinary cars, trains, ships, and other applications prior to the 1930s. Hydrogen gas burns cleanly in an ICE with minimal Particulate Matter, NOx, and CO2 emissions (Gea, 2012 p 603). So there is no reason why this more sustainable option is not used for transportation instead of the hydrogen-electric option. Hydrogen can also be used as a gas for cooking and heating purposes (McAllister, 2005). The Solar Hydrogen economy therefore could provide energy independence with energy security at a lower carbon footprint than exists today, which therefore provides a more sustainable urban environment.
The following issues are suggested for consideration by policymakers:
- Promote and fund research into the field of fully distributed low powered dc autonomous systems.
- Promote the use of hydrogen, for use in ordinary internal combustion engines for transportation and as a gas for cooking and heating.
- Distributed electrical systems should be included in any city sustainability and resilience plan.
- Interdisciplinary sustainability research must include the fields of engineering like electrical, and mechanical engineers, in order to bridge the gap between the Social Science community (the theorist) and the Engineering community (the implementers).
Balducci, P. J. e. (2002). Electrical Power Interruption Cost estimates for individual industries.
Calwell, C. R., T. (2002). Power Supplies: A Hidden Opportunity for energy savings An NRDC report (pp. 22). San Francisco: NRDC.
DRAP. (2013). The City of NEW York Community Development Block Grant – Disaster Recovery (CDBG-DR) Action Plan Incorporating amendments 1-4 (pp. 245).
Gea. (2012). Global Energy Assessment – Toward a Sustainable Future. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK and New York, NY, USA and the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis, Laxenburg, Austria.
Kinn, M. (2011). Benefits of Direct Current Electricity Supply for Domestic Application. (MPhil Thesis), The University of Manchester. Retrieved from http://www.dcisthefuture.org/papers
McAllister, R. (2005). The solar hydrogen Civilization. Mesa: American hydrogen Association.
Nates, J. L. (2004). Combined external and internal hospital disaster: impact and response in a Houston trauma center intensive care unit. Crit Care Med, 32(3), 686-690.
Reichl, J., Schmidthaler, M., & Schneider, F. (2013). The value of supply security: The costs of power outages to Austrian households, firms and the public sector. Energy Economics, 36(0), 256-261. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.eneco.2012.08.044
Sullivan, M. J., Vardell, T., & Johnson, M. (1997). Power interruption costs to industrial and commercial consumers of electricity. Industry Applications, IEEE Transactions on, 33(6), 1448-1458. doi: 10.1109/28.649955
UNISDR, IBM, & AECOM. (2014). Disaster Resilience Scorecard for Cities.
World-Bank. (2011). Lighting Africa Conferance 2010, Web.
[i] Solar radiation reaching the Earth’s surface amounts to 3.9 million exajoules of energy per year and, as such, is almost 8000 times larger than the annual global energy needs of some 500 exajoules (Gea, 2012 Page 47)
Moshe Kinn in currently a post graduate researcher doing a PhD, and has since 2007 been interested in developing a model for a sustainable electricity system. His undergraduate degree was carried out at City University, London and was in Electrical and Electronic Engineering. Among the many goals associated with the future sustainability of this planet, his main goal for the electricity system is energy security and energy independence for all humanity, and has a long standing interest in the solar hydrogen economy. This lead to a research masters degree (MPhil) at The University of Manchester that looked at the feasibility of using low powered direct current electricity systems in the home. He is very interested in the debates about centralised and distributed electrical system, and the use of alternating current voltage and direct current voltage, especially for city resilience, disaster risk reduction, and post disaster reconstruction.