Combatting global warming requires citizens to rethink their lifestyles, businesses to alter their industrial processes, and politicians to set an example and pass legislation that encourages eco-friendliness. But achieving the behavioural changes needed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from energy, buildings and transport cannot happen without new tools and technologies devised and developed by engineers across the globe.
Reducing global warming on the one hand and adapting to its inevitable consequences on the other requires a change in production and consumption models on a worldwide scale. And bringing about a shift in habits can only be achieved by drawing on current and future innovations in areas such as renewable energies, sustainable buildings and carbon-free transport.
The COP21 and COP22 major international climate change conferences as well as the “Make Our Planet Great Again” initiative recently launched by French President, Emmanuel Macron, have highlighted the huge challenges resulting from climate change and the need to rapidly find tangible, effective and financially viable solutions that will enable us to look to the future with serenity.
Against this backdrop, engineers are being called on to innovate in all areas. Far away from the media spotlight and whether working as part of research labs or on-the-ground operations, engineers are the scientific, technical and even social and economic spearhead of the ecological transition currently underway.
And whether they are in large corporations, start-ups or public organisations, they are helping politicians to pave the way for change.
French engineers are putting hi-tech research and expert know-how to the service of clean energy
In order to increase the installed capacity of renewable energy by 50% by 2023 and raise its weighting in the total end-consumption of energy to over 30% by 2030 – which are the goals set in the French Energy Transition Act – engineers in France are working on a daily basis to find solutions to the challenges arising from intermittent energy sources (wind and solar power), decentralised energy generation, the development of smart grids and striking the right balance between production and consumption. In the energy sector, engineers have to integrate new eco-design and recycling requirements and they increasingly need expertise in digital systems (programming, data management and in-vehicle technologies).
French engineers are particularly innovative in all of these domains and they export their know-how well beyond France’s borders. For example, the third phase of what will be the largest solar power plant in the world has been entrusted to EDF Énergies Nouvelles, which has already proved its expertise in large solar farms in the United States, Brazil and Israel. And Total – through its subsidiary SunPower, which produces the most efficient solar panels on the market – has built Solar Star in California, a giant solar power station that supplies electricity to 255,000 households.
In an interview with the French magazine, Capital, in August 2017, Richard Loyen – the General Delegate of the French union of solar energy professionals, Enerplan –said about solar power that in his view, “value creation has passed into the hands of engineers, i.e. it now lies in the design and management of plants”.
The major French utility, the Engie group, is also taking part in this race for innovation. In a clear sign of its aim to help shape the energy model of the future, Engie is gradually giving up the use of coal and oil and instead is focusing on the production of biogas for use in power grids and transport systems and even on solar power generation. Engie has a highly pro-active R&D unit but also partners with innovative start-ups such as Heliatek – which makes latest-generation photovoltaic film – and Symbio F Cell – a French manufacturer of hydrogen fuel cells which are based on a technology jointly developed with the laboratories of the French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission (the CEA). Other examples of Engie’s partner companies are Sylfen and McPhy Energy which specialise in storing and recovering green energy.
For most of these players, building up a solid engineering base also means working on the deployment of smart grids, which combine innovation with optimisation. Smart grids can be used to precisely and effectively manage the relationship between production and consumption, while allowing for the large-scale integration of renewable energy.
In this context, nuclear R&D has a strong future in that nuclear power will provide vital support to intermittent energy sources and is a carbon-free energy. In order to enable countries with limited resources to access high-quality nuclear infrastructure and gradually eliminate coal power stations, a consortium comprising the CEA, Orano, DCNS and EDF was set up in 2012 with a view to developing and marketing Small Modular Reactors (SMRs). With a power output of less than 200 MWe, these third-generation reactors developed by engineers from various corporations are compact and modular and cost much less to build than more powerful reactors.
Another major area of nuclear research is the ITER project, to which engineers have been devoting their talents since 2007 to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale carbon-free energy source that produces no radioactive waste. All of this demonstrates how the combat against global warming has spawned a hotbed of creativity, technical expertise and investment.
The race for carbon-free transport
Decarbonising is the buzzword, and not least in the transport industry which is responsible for 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions. Even railway companies are innovating, despite the fact that in France trains are the most virtuous means of transport other than soft mobility. For instance, Alstom achieved a world first in late 2017 by performing test runs of a regional train powered by hydrogen fuel cells. This innovation is particularly targeted at Germany, where over half of the trains still run on coal.
However, road transport is the sector that’s mobilising the most engineers. And it’s not just engine types that are changing – the innovation drive has also reached materials, automation and other domains that go beyond vehicles themselves, such as recharging systems and the road networks of the future.
In this era focused on eco-mobility, for a number of years Toyota was one step ahead of the world’s other automakers. Since it launched its first electric car – the Prius – in 1997 in Japan, Toyota has sold 11.47 million hybrid vehicles, which, according to the group “represents a reduction of more than 90 million tons of CO2 compared to sales of equivalent conventional vehicles.” In addition, the group recently announced “Toyota will accelerate the popularization of BEVs with more than 10 BEV models to be available worldwide by the early 2020s, starting in China”. This strategy is in line with the objective that the automaker has set itself in the “Toyota Environmental Challenge 2050” to reduce global average new-vehicle CO2 emissions by 90% from 2010 levels.
Not to be outdone by their Japanese rival, Renault and Peugeot are at the vanguard too. For example, the PSA group plans to launch four all-electric models and seven rechargeable hybrid vehicles by 2021. Meanwhile, the Renault-Nissan alliance which is currently the world leader for sales of all-electric vehicles, fully intends to hold on to its ranking. Several months ago it unveiled its Drive the Future plan and stated that by 2022 electric vehicles will represent around half of its overall offering, with eight all-electric and 12 plug-in hybrid models.
Above all, Renault-Nissan is channelling the focus of its engineers and partners on the main challenges of the range and recharging of electric vehicles. Without explaining how it will go about it, the group has said that by 2022 its electric vehicles will have a range of over 600 km.
In the aviation industry, other changes are happening that are undoubtedly more backstage but just as deep-seated. From aircraft wings to landing gear, engines, cabins and fuel, everything is being carefully studied to lessen the carbon impact of air travel.
For instance, following on from the success of its E-Fan electric aircraft which has flown twice around the world, Airbus has recently teamed up with Rolls-Royce and Siemens to build a hybrid-electric flight demonstrator. Named the E-Fan X, this new aircraft being developed by Airbus and its partners is intentionally less disruptive than an all-electric plane, because there is more likelihood that it can actually happen.
As part of this project, Airbus is responsible for overall integration as well as the control architecture of the hybrid-electric propulsion system and batteries, Rolls-Royce is responsible for the turbo-shaft engine, generator, and power electronics and Siemens will deliver the electric motors and their control unit.
There are, however, sizeable difficulties to overcome. The areas that the engineers and researchers of the three partners working on the project will need to tackle between now and 2020 include thermal effects, electric thrust management, the impact of altitude on electric systems and electromagnetic compatibility issues.
Energy efficiency – the new must-have for buildings
If there is one sector that is particularly important in the combat against global warming it is the building industry. In France, building use alone accounts for over 40% of the country’s energy consumption and almost 20% of its CO2 emissions.
Consequently, innovation is in full swing for both new builds and existing buildings. As well as the introduction of highly-efficient bio-based materials and the widespread use of LED lighting, the research into insulation conducted over the past few decades is now starting to pay off. For example, silica aerogels – the highest-performing thermal insulators – have recently gone past the lab stage and should soon be available on an industrial scale.
The engineering teams of large construction firms wasted no time in developing materials and technologies aimed at making both individual and collective housing extremely energy efficient. “The progress achieved in the past 40 years with regards to insulation, glazing, solar heating and power and lighting solutions is such that new builds now need very little energy, and can even be energy positive”, says Olivier Fléchon, head of the Building and Thermal Systems department at CEA-Liten.
At the same time, engineers at Vinci, Eiffage, Bouygues Construction and Schneider Electric are riding the digital wave to design smart homes that use automation systems to manage their environments. And they have all deployed building design systems based on Building Information Modelling (BIM) technology that enable a building’s energy performance to be calculated digitally.
In addition, zero-energy and energy-positive buildings are gradually starting to appear on a larger scale. For example, in the Confluence district of Lyon, Bouygues Construction has built Hikari – France’s first energy-positive mixed-use development. Made up of three buildings, Hikari has a total surface area of 12,800 sq.m, including 7,500 sq.m of offices, 4,000 sq.m of housing, 1,000 sq.m of retail outlets and an 88-space car park. The complex was designed to consume no more than 1,500 MWh of non-transformed energy, i.e. 50% less than the French building industry’s current thermal regulations. It will produce energy itself and will be able to pass on excess energy to neighbouring infrastructure.
The role played by engineers in energy transition and the fight against global warming is becoming broader and increasingly important. All disciplines are being mobilised to design or oversee sustainable technological solutions, creating a context that offers significant opportunities and prospects for both current and future engineers.