Tackling the Climate Crisis with Energy Transitions

Our third year Aerospace Engineering student Kieran Tait recently returned from a transformative journey through Western Canada, representing the University at the Energy Transitions summer school at the University of Alberta. A timely topic following the recent declaration of climate emergency here at the university. Over to Kieran to tell us about his time in Alberta…

Kieran underneath a glacier in Lake Louise, Banff National Park.

Throughout the two weeks, we endured a 40-hour lecture series, in which world-leading industry experts and researchers presented to us the current state of energy, the outlook for the future and an insight into different types of energy systems and their relative merits. This was superbly rounded off with insightful field trips including a tour around a wind farm and a hydroelectric dam, which really helped to contextualise the lectures.

The course was coordinated by the Worldwide Universities network, in which 21 representatives from 13 universities worldwide came together to study the practicalities of decarbonising society. The network brought a diversity of cultures and study areas together, which really shed light on the interconnectedness of the energy crisis and the need for mass mobilisation of society to focus minds on the solutions to the single biggest existential crisis humanity has ever faced. Climate breakdown.

The impending breakdown of our climate is an issue faced by every living being on Earth: no matter your nationality, race, gender, beliefs or background, the impacts of a warming world will completely transform your standard of living in the coming decades unless drastic steps are taken in the next 18 months to transition away from our current overconsuming, unsustainable way of life.

If we fail to meet this objective, we can expect unprecedented weather events, resulting in scarcity of basic human resources such as land, food and water, mass migration in the hundreds of millions and potentially the collapse of civilisation as we know it. Worse still, we can expect all of this as early as 2050 if action is not taken immediately. The seemingly impossible task imposed on our current generation is unparalleled in scale and complexity. It will require a collaboration among all disciplines and every nation on earth to achieve the sort of far reaching and functional solutions required to give us the best chance of limiting the warming trajectory preventing us from passing the point of no return.

Visiting the TransAlta wind farm in Pincher Creek, known as the Wind Capital of Canada.

The course in Energy Transitions provided me with the fundamental knowledge required to propose a logical working plan to phase out the current destructive energy policy and replace it with a more sustainable alternative. This included an overview of current climate science and projections for the future global energy mix, followed by an insight into a variety of energy production methods, including traditional fossil based systems such as coal, oil and gas and renewable types such as wind, solar, hydro, marine, geothermal, nuclear, biomass and hydrogen fuel cells.

The science behind each technology was explained thoroughly and the social, environmental and political implications associated with each type were also discussed. Also carbon sequestration methods such as Carbon Capture, Utilisation and Storage and land reclamation were explained to us in great depth, as it is clear that we need to not only reduce emissions to zero, but also begin to remove emissions that already exist in the atmosphere if we are to maximise our chances of staying below 1.5 degrees Celsius.

Alongside lectures, we also got the chance to go to Pincher Creek, a town in southern Alberta which is home to a large number of wind farm projects, making use of the region’s windy climate. We got the chance to visit a wind farm and go inside a turbine and we were also shown around a hydroelectric dam, bringing to life the concepts studied in lectures. Further to this we visited Waterton Lakes national park to experience some of the natural beauty Canada has to offer.

The group outside the house of the University’s founder Alexander Rutherford, before a ceremonial dinner.

When we returned, it was back to work as we all were tasked with presenting to the rest of the group, a proposal for energy transition solutions throughout different areas of the world. My team and I were given the job of proposing an EU wide energy transition plan. A timely subject following the newly anointed European Commissioner’s calls for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050. This task involved reviewing current policy and future goals, developing a sustainable infrastructure plan which would sufficiently meet increasing demand and discussing the issues associated with this transition.

Working with students from Spain, Ghana and Brazil led to some contrasting opinions and views on various subject matters, however the overwhelming consensus was that the transition had to phase out fossil fuels as soon as possible, acknowledging the need to sacrifice living standards in order to allow this rapid transition to happen. It is reassuring to know that despite our cultural differences, we all share the same view that action must be taken immediately, and we must undergo a process of degrowth to cut further emissions and keep temperature rises to a minimum to avert catastrophic climate change.

All in all, this course excelled at bringing like-minded inquisitive individuals together from a diversity of cultures and backgrounds to discuss the most pressing technological, political and ethical challenge humanity has ever faced. It’s admittedly a very frightening time to be a young person, but its undeniable that the times ahead present humanity with a chance to reach a new age in technological and cognitive ability and will allow for multi-national cooperation like the world has never seen before. I would like to thank the Worldwide Universities Network, the University of Alberta and everybody involved for making this incredible experience a possibility!

It’s fantastic to hear Kieran’s passion and enthusiasm for combating the climate crisis we are facing through engineering and renewable energy solutions. This is something that the University is highly committed to and this year world-leading renewable energy expert Andrew Garrard will be joining the Faculty as a visiting professor to enhance our teaching of sustainable energy not only to our engineering undergraduates but to students across the University. 

Upcoming Events

  • Climate Emergency Lecture, 27 September Kieran will be delivering a talk at the Climate Emergency Lecture on decarbonising the aviation industry through electric aircraft and the use of alternative fuels. See event details here.

  • Dr Andrew Garrard Inaugural Lecture, 3 October Andrew has unrivalled technical and business experience in the sustainable energy sector. His lecture will explore the political means adopted to achieve the recent dramatic global growth in renewables and the engineering challenges, technical and political, which face the next generation of engineers. Get your free ticket here.