‘My children give me hope’: can millennials and zoomers save the planet? | Smarter science
“I have learned something good from the Covid-19 lockdown,” says Prof Mohamed Pourkashanian. “I used to travel maybe twice a month to meetings abroad, and once or twice to meetings around the UK – but I have realised that 80% of what I did there, I can do online. That reduced need to travel will have an impact in terms of carbon reduction.”
Currently the head of University Energy Research at the University of Sheffield, in his 35 years working in the field, Pourkashanian has contributed to hundreds of papers on subjects including solar power, grid-scale batteries and carbon capture.
Like many of us, the 63-year-old spent most of the past year working from home, which has led to a renewed interest in his personal energy output. “I am working on changing the heart of my home’s energy system and I’m aiming for maximum efficiency, with control in each room,” he explains. “When I was young, you could only control the whole house – now you can use software and control everything room by room, heating and lighting, ensuring everything is off when you go out.”
Pourkashanian says that his apps and having a smart meter installed by his energy supplier – at no extra cost – have reduced his energy consumption by about 20%, and believes that smart meters will play an important part in upgrading Britain’s energy system while helping us reach net-zero carbon emissions.
“I consider smart meters as a ‘low hanging fruit’ to reduce our carbon footprint, it’s a simple upgrade we can all make,” he says. “The energy use in residential homes contributes around 15% towards UK greenhouse gas emissions. Smart meters are part of a smart energy system and, providing households use the in-home display to help them make basic changes to their energy usage habits, can have a significant positive impact on our carbon footprint. It will also help Britain to meet its CO2 reduction targets much faster than without.”
As a youngster, Pourkashanian dreamed of being a surgeon – until the Apollo space programme inspired him to study science. “I used to glue myself to the radio to follow the progress of the missions. I did not sleep the night Apollo 11 was landing on the moon,” he recalls. “My father was a civil engineer, he noticed my interest and encouraged me to study science. My passion for science and the environment came from that initial interest, and curiosity for how to make space travel a reality. My first interest in hydrogen was related to hydrogen as a fuel of choice for space exploration.”
His first research project as a full-time academic was on coal combustion, funded by British Gas – but he’s now come full circle and is currently focused, once again, on hydrogen. “Over the period I have been doing research, I have moved from the most polluting fuel, coal, to hydrogen, the cleanest. I believe hydrogen is the future zero-carbon fuel and a very promising energy vector that will play a major role in a global decarbonisation strategy. Hydrogen offers a unique opportunity to change the energy landscape.”
One of his research areas focuses on using “green hydrogen” produced from excess renewables, along with CO2 “captured” in renewable energy plants to create a greener aviation fuel. He says it could reduce CO2 emissions from the aviation industry by 35% in the short term.
“You are recycling CO2,” he explains. “That’s better than more fossil fuels being produced from the oil wells. You can also add into that CO2 accountability.”
Pourkashanian says that in the future, hydrogen itself could be used as a fuel – to heat homes and in heavy industry. For now though, he says that the barrier to carbon capture, hydrogen and other clean fuel technologies is simply cost – but he is optimistic that like solar power, which now costs significantly less than it once did, these technologies will soon be more affordable.
Pourkashanian says that the technologies to reduce the carbon impact of electricity generation (such as nuclear and renewables) are very advanced, but that more attention needs to be paid to transport – especially aviation, which currently generates about 2% of global CO2 emissions.
“It’s clear that decarbonisation of aviation is very important,” he says. “In the short term, you can solve some of the problems by producing sustainable aviation fuel from captured CO2 from renewable energy sources. In the long term, electric-powered aircrafts or hydrogen-powered engines will solve more of the problems.”
But while many environmentalists are calling for radical measures to cut air travel, Pourkashanian doesn’t see such demands as workable.
“I don’t believe that stopping all air transport is the right option. You have to look at the impact of the sectors on the economy. Aviation has a very big input into economic development, we can’t just stop everything,” he says. “Increasing the price of travel is not the best option either. Whoever has money can do what they like, and others can’t, so all you’re doing is removing freedom of travel from certain sectors of society.”
Instead, Pourkashanian believes a measured, international approach is best when it comes to building a greener future.
“Finding a better approach towards zero carbon or clean energy technology is a social issue. You can’t just switch industries and move to newer technology. That is why I’m so keen to work in this area, to have a very small impact in the research and development that is going on.
“There are a lot of coal mines, and communities that rely on them as an industry. You cannot suddenly say we have to switch to clean energy overnight. It has to be a transition, with the aim of moving new technology to those places involved in burning fossil fuels to generate power. Clean energy is a fantastic opportunity.”
The issues may be complex, but Pourkashanian believes that there is now the will to make lasting environmental change – not just from individuals and world governments, but also business.
“With the [Trump] administration in the US, they pulled out of international climate agreements. It was a disruptive policy, but what was quite refreshing and interesting was that all the major companies, including Exxon and others, came back and said: ‘No, we are still keeping our target levels.’ What the companies wanted was stable policies and an environment where they could evolve their business models.”
He also sees the attitude of young people, including his own children, as a beacon of hope. When his son wanted to start driving, he bought a hybrid car – and the only other option he considered was electric, not petrol or diesel.
“It makes me really happy,” says Pourkashanian. “My children are much more environmentally aware. They are aware of issues that my generation was in denial of. And that’s really the progression. The younger generation has accepted that we have a problem. And they will help us to resolve it, by changing our debate.”
Join the energy revolution and contact your energy supplier to request a smart meter. For more information visit smartenergygb.org
This article was paid for by Smart Energy GB – the not-for-profit, government-backed campaign helping everyone in Britain to understand the importance of smart meters and their benefits to people and the environment.