Climate Change


Climate Podcast: How far can we go with electric batteries?

Welcome to Generation One: The Climate Podcast. In our first episode, our hosts are discussing all things electric vehicles and addressing the question: How far can we go with electric batteries? This week we are joined by Nick Hughes, from the Bartlett Faculty of the Built Environment, to chat energy infrastructure, electric cars, and what needs to change for an electric future.


UCL Minds  0:01   

We are the first generation to feel the impact of climate change and the last generation that can do something about it. I urgently call on ordinary people in rich countries to act as global citizens, not as isolated consumers. But the problem of global climate change is one that affects us all. Please make no mistake. Climate change is the biggest threat to security that modern humans have ever faced. The eyes of all future generations are upon you.And if you choose to fail us, I say we will never forgive you. 

Matt Winning  0:49   

This is the generation one podcast from University College London. 

I am Dr. Matt winning an expert in climate and economics at UCL. And I am also a stand up comedian because let's face it, what we've been doing to the planet over the last several decades means that if you don't laugh about it, you have to cry. But that's not what we're doing here. And just as with the voices, you've heard our podcast is all about action, turning science into action. 

Hello, listeners, welcome to the first ever podcast of generation one at University College London. I'm joined by my co hosts Helen Czerski.  

Helen Czerski  1:30   

Hello, hello. Hello.  

Matt Winning  1:32   

And Mark Maslin.  

Mark Maslin  1:33   


Matt Winning  1:34   

why are we doing this podcast? I think that's what we're here to answer.  

Helen Czerski  1:38   

First of all, should we cover who we are?  

Matt Winning  1:40   

Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Actually, I just sort of introduced you generally. But yeah, Helen, what do you do?  

Helen Czerski  1:45   

I am a physicist who studies the ocean in the mechanical engineering department, which all makes perfect sense. But basically, I study how the ocean breathes. It's great fun. And I'm a big fan of the ocean. So although I think and talk a lot about climate in general, really, the ocean is the most important bit. We all know that.  

Matt Winning  2:02   

Mark, what do you do?  

Mark Maslin  2:04   

So I'm a professor of earth systems science, which is an incredible mouthful, which really, what it means is I study the climate of the past, the present and the future. So I do things like look at the causes of early human evolution in Africa, all the way to understanding modern climate change, and how the climate could change in the future. If we don't stop burning fossil fuels.  

Matt Winning  2:26   

Got you got Yeah, I am a climate economist always say it's a bit of an oxymoron when you tell people that I see myself as a good economist, working at carbon taxes, all that sort of business, and how we can sort of solve climate change using policy and getting people to do things differently. I mean, there's a debate out there, isn't there one, we'll get into it straight away. But you know, do we need a completely different system to solve climate change, that sort of thing? Maybe we'll save that for our much later episode. So what are we going to talk about, essentially, over the next bunch of podcasts?  

Helen Czerski  3:03   

Well, the idea here is, is that is everything right? So UCL is this amazing mixture of all these different areas of expertise. I've been here eight years, and I feel I'm still discovering the outer reaches of what's on offer. And the thing is, we've got a big societal problem. Well, we've got a few. But climate change is really important. And we've got all this expertise here. And what the podcast is about is bringing all of that out. So connecting together ideas, but in a way, in a practical way, not just the theoretical stuff. But actually, what can we actually do? What are the pros and cons, what mistakes might be weak, but how do we actually get stuff done quickly, but with the best knowledge available?  

Matt Winning  3:38   

Great. And what we're going to cover Mark, what are the kind of topics going to be  

Mark Maslin  3:42   

so hopefully we're going to be covering COP itself. So Matt, you and I are going to be there right in the thick of it with all the Glaswegians basically cheering on the countries of the world. And hopefully we will get a meaningful agreement out of that. We're also going to be looking at energy and how we can store it and transport it. That's incredibly important with the Green Revolution. We're going to be looking at sustainable fashion and yeah, I gather that I've picked the short straw,  

Matt Winning  4:08   

You are the most fashionable one among us  

Mark Maslin  4:09   

Yeah, and that's not true Matt and you know that and what else are we doing Matt?  

Matt Winning  4:13   

We've got another episode on trees that I'm going to be looking at why do people wake trees so much? That sort of thing?  

Mark Maslin  4:21   

Why they suck so much carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere? Yeah, my mate Matt Disney would be on that he's brilliant.  

Matt Winning  4:27   

Also, we want you guys to be part of this that as the other thing. So if you do have any questions, having listened to this first episode and like we want another episode about something specific, or you've just got a general comment, make whatever please do email us at podcasts that's plural podcasts@ucl.ac.uk and on Twitter, Instagram, all that malarkey use the hashtag generation one. UCL generation one I've just been west, somebody whispered in my ear. So I had this idea that basically the future is going to be different, isn't it? The future is gonna be different and we need to speak to those people that are, you know, in 30 years time, how is the future going to be different? The point is, what would you put in a climate time capsule, whether that's something that we need to get rid off, whether it's something we need for the future?  

Helen Czerski  5:14   

Well, so obviously, what I would like is a time machine. So I can ask the future what they need, and come back and tell us and leave that. But in the absence of that suggestion, I would like to leave the off switch, because technology is neutral, but the value systems, that's what determines how you use the technology, and actually, all this technology that's always on feeds this way of thinking, which is part of the climate problem, which is that more is always better. efficiency matters most, you know, you need to be connected all the time. And it's stopping as being human. And actually, I can see a lot of devices where the off switch is starting to vanish. And I'm like, no, no, we need the off switch. Keep it with it. So I want it in the time capsule. Yes.  

Matt Winning  5:53   

So we need to keep binary decisions like on and off in the future. Mark?  

Mark Maslin  5:59   

I love the fact, Matt, that you thought that we were as academics, we're going to put an item in this box, etc. Where's I'm going to put solidarity. So solidarity. I mean, for me, I think the key thing about having that incredible, better, safer, wealthier future is actually solidarity because I think we actually need countries to pull together and actually address some of the major issues of the world. And yes, climate change is a major one. But we also have environmental degradation, we have huge losses of biodiversity. And we've seen that when that happens, it bites us because look at COVID, we also have to deal with the poverty issues and lifting loads of people out of extreme poverty. And we also have to deal with global security. So these are the four big things that we need to deal with this century. And the really interesting thing is when you talk to young people, they're already getting how small and fragile our planet is. And that solidarity I want to take from the youth and actually spread out to the leaders of the world. And actually, in I think, say 50 years time, we will actually look back and go, Wow, the world really does work together.  

Matt Winning  7:08   

I'm going to put petrol pumps in there, if that's okay, the idea of not having to ever fill up a tank of petrol, I have a panic attack, every time I go into a petrol station that I'm going to do the wrong thing and put diesel in the road, you know, like, you can't put the wrong electricity in a car. So that's mainly what I'm looking forward to.  

Helen Czerski  7:25   

So you're putting the petrol pumps in to get to leave them in the past to weave them in the past year. This is quite a weird concept that I've come up with it isn't particularly clear. But I'm going to put like, here's the thing we used to do in the past, we'll have a look at this. And people going oh, what's that? You just plug you plug your car in? Have a bit of solar panels, have some energy and go for it? I agree. It's brilliant. Great. Okay, well, we've got a few things there. We'll ask our guests over the coming weeks for they would like to keep or disappear, I guess, or create which or create yet something new. As Helen said, we need the choices to still be there. So thanks very much, guys. Let's get on with the podcast. You're listening to generation one from UCL turning climate science into action. 

So let's get into the serious stuff. And our topic this week is a big one. Energy is the fundamental currency of the universe. And without it, nothing happens. But as we move on from burning fossil fuels, we really need to think about how we access energy, and especially our most flexible source of it, electricity, it's no good having energy over there if you need it over here. But the thing about electricity is that it's only really useful for moving energy about not actually for storing it. And so as we look at building an electricity supply system that's fit for a more sustainable world, there are a few big things to think about. Where does our electricity come from? What sort of network can connect electricity sources to where it's needed? And how do we store energy to make sure we can fill the gaps when the wind isn't blowing and the sun isn't shining? And so that is the focus of our attention. Today, we're going to be looking at how energy in an electrified world will flow. Where will it start? Where will it stop? And what kind of network will connect the whole thing together? And to talk about it, our guest is Dr. NICUs, from the Institute for Sustainable resources, who is an expert on all of this kind of thing. So Nick, let's start with a big question. To begin with. We plug things into the wall, and we assume that electricity just appears. Just give us a brief overview of what is happening behind that plug. 

Nick Hughes  9:30   

Conventionally, and historically, most of our electricity was produced by thermal power stations, that's big power stations, factories out in the outside of cities, producing a lot of heat by burning coal or gas or by creating nuclear reactions that boil water, create steam and drive turbines. As we transition more to a zero carbon economy, then what's behind that electricity are going to be other kinds of technologies such as wind turbines, solar panels, and possibly nuclear too. And the challenge that goes on behind the scenes as it were behind the plug, is is the balancing of the electricity that's that's being demanded by us at any one moment, with the amount that the system is producing the system operator National Grid, would have an idea. That's a very good idea because we're quite predictable. It turns out, when most of our power is going to be demanded, when when the highest peaks in our power demand will occur.  

Helen Czerski  10:33   

People used to say that the I don't know if this is true that the maximum energy demand was halftime at the FA Cup Final because everyone went to put the kettle on. And obviously, the wind doesn't know about that. So as we're shifting to a more renewable set of energy sources, what needs to happen in the grid, because obviously, this is all connected together by bits of metal, basically wires that are distributed under the country that we've basically made invisible. What how does the electricity network of the future need to be different once it's once you start to use sustainable energy sources?  

Nick Hughes  11:05   

Well, on the kind of big scale, it's, it's possible that we might want to invest in increasing kind of big sort of high voltage transmission links between different parts of the country, and indeed different parts of the sea. So there might need to be quite a bit of, you know, forward planning, and building out of the network in order to enable that that power to be to be used and to be able to get on to the system. At the sort of more micro scale, there is also a lot of a potentially very important contribution from the demand side, which means that as, as you said before, you know, and you alluded to the anecdotal example of the the FA Cup final in the halftime, and everyone's putting their capitals on and so on, our use of energy or use of electricity is not being particularly influenced by any other factor, then then when we want to use electricity, it's possible that in the future, if we were able to become a bit more flexible, and a bit more responsive to when is a good time to use electricity. And when it's not a good time, then that could be a great deal of help to the system. So maybe, if it's half time in the FA Cup, and you want a cup of tea, I'm obviously saying, you know, you're allowed to have a cup of tea, 

Helen Czerski  12:21   

The football fans can rest  

Nick Hughes  12:21   

I don't want to rely on a major Twitter controversy here. But you know, so that that's, that's safe, that's safe. There might be other things which we're less worried about shifting. So say, for example, I came out this morning, and I put the put my washing machine on, I don't really mind, if I'm out all day, I don't really mind when the cycle occurs. As long as it's done by the time I get back. So I could I can't at the moment because I don't have the technology. But in the future, you could imagine setting a programme such that your washing machine would know, when was the best time in the day to do that hour or two hour cycle, whatever it was.  

Helen Czerski  13:00   

So your devices in the home would effectively be talking to the network about when there's a bit of spare energy going and you know, make use of that now rather than in two hours time.  

Nick Hughes  13:10   

Exactly. And then there's a big question about to what extent do we think we as the consumers, or the householders citizens ought to be involved in actively making those decisions? So do we want the network to just give us to give me personally a signal, like a green light? Yeah, good time now switch it on, if you like? or to what extent would we find it desirable and convenient to actually hand over a lot of those choices to you know, increased automation and increased IT within the system? And of course, that has implications for how much data we're about our lives that we're prepared to share with the system with the energy companies  

Helen Czerski  13:49   

tricky, isn't it? We never, I don't think anyone ever thought privacy would be a concern of the electricity network. Now, what about the times when the wind doesn't blow? There was a case just a few weeks ago, where there was a problem somewhere in the power network, and it happens to be a week where the wind wasn't blowing very much. And that caused all kinds of problems with it with energy supply. So what do we do? You know, it is the case with renewable energy that it is it is intermittent. It's not, you can't just, you know, have your big tank of oil and get it out of the tank when you need it. The wind blows or it doesn't, we're not controlling the weather yet. So what what do we need to do about to make sure that we have enough energy when we need it, not just when the weather cooperates?  

Nick Hughes  14:31   

There are perhaps sort of four big categories of thing you could do. One thing is on the demand side, which is which we've already talked about, so the extent to which we can become more flexible and the demand side that can really help. Another thing is interconnection with other countries, the more interconnected we are, for example, across the European continent, the greater the potential that we might be able to smooth out those issues in particular places. Another category of option is to is to maintain more conventional plant on the system. So we could maintain our nuclear fleet and have that as a base load.  

Helen Czerski  15:12   

we should say here that the base loads are kind of the foundation that's always there, you can rely on it. That's what we mean by baseload.  

Nick Hughes  15:19   

Yes, exactly. And we could have thermal plants as well of one kind or another, we really need to get to absolute zero in the electricity system. I mentioned to absolute zero. That's a whole other, you know, it's the physicists. Yes, exactly. Sorry, apologies, we really want to get to zero as in, you know, not not simply net zero in the power sector, because we're offsetting it with other things, but actually, sort of, we really wanted to get to zero emissions in the power sector. And so the idea of keeping a few gas thermal plants on a standby is not ideal, but it's possible. The other things we could do are have other kinds of zero carbon thermal plants, such as ones running on hydrogen, this could be a form of storage in a way, because if a few few weeks or months previously to that event, that to which you refer, there had been a lot of excess power due to high winds, then that could have been absorbed potentially to make hydrogen and that could have been stored and then use perhaps potentially, in a hydrogen power plants.  

Helen Czerski  16:21   

Let's talk about storage, because that seems that's something that I think is not seen at the moment, it's not visible at the moment yet, the idea that's in our heads is you have a power station over here, you have some wires, and you have a person with a something to plug in over there. And we don't have a mental image of the being any storage, any energy warehouses along the way. How is storage going to help us  

Nick Hughes  16:42   

Storage, again, is another of those is perhaps the fourth of those those categories, right? That that we might want to look into. Certainly, it could be really important to deal with those kinds of longer term weather systems that come in when you've got a renewable dominated system. And so the storage could be could be large scale, or possibly distributed storage. So the more for example, if we have lots of electric vehicles being owned on the system, in the in the country, in the future, each of those has got a has got a battery. And when they're not in use, they could be called upon to donate a little bit of energy back into the grid in order to help supply the demand.  

Helen Czerski  17:30   

So this is the idea of vehicle to grid electricity, which is brilliant, because you've got a massive number you would have in an electrified with a massive number of batteries. And they're all just sitting there quite a lot of these things are sitting in people's garages, and why not use them to feed both ways? I mean, it's a brilliant idea. Do you think it's going to work in practice?  

Nick Hughes  17:46   

I think similarly to the demand response question. For me, I think the key thing is to work out, what are the sort of market arrangements and the institutional systems, that will mean that this, the benefits of this arrangement are fairly shared out between the different people who are involved. So if I have an electric vehicle, if the grid calls on it to feed a bit of energy back into the grid, well, that's great for the grid. So they like that they've saved money means they didn't have to build expensive backup plan, you know, they're pretty happy. But what about me, I feel like I would need to get some reward for for taking part in in the system in that way. So  

Helen Czerski  18:26   

So you have to be very cooperative to make this work. Now, we've got a question here that was asked by one of our students, Rory Quick, and here's his question.  

Rory Quick  18:35   

The transition to EVs will require a large amount of charging points. To what extent should the provision of these points be left to the private sector? And what is the role or should the role of governments be ensuring that a smooth transition across the country takes place?  

Helen Czerski  18:50   

Okay, so what's your response to that?  

Nick Hughes  18:53   

It's it's a great question. I think the issue of infrastructure and charging is absolutely critical to the development of electric vehicles having a very extensive public charging network is essential. The main highway to the main motorways and the main a roads are reasonably well serviced at the moment in the sense that you are supposedly never more than 20 miles away from a charger. However, sometimes it literally is just a charger. So if somebody else is using it, then you have to wait. The other challenging thing about that is that there are numerous different comp retail companies that are involved in the the management and the selling of the power from these charges. So if you travel up the country, every time you go into a service station at the moment, you might have to sign up online with a completely different company download a different app into your smartphone. If you haven't got a smartphone, then you know, you can't you can't do that  

Helen Czerski  19:53   

That is a place for government  regulation, I mean, the government's actually already doing something about that right. They're starting to bang heads together a bit to make them all talk to each other 

Nick Hughes  20:01   

I think there absolutely is a role for government in doing that. So even if the government doesn't have a taste for completely turning that into a nationally owned network, which some governments might be interested in doing that, potentially, but even if they didn't want to do that, I think there's still a strong role for government coordination, exactly, as you say, to, you know, provide the structure, that means that private sector providers are putting the charges in places where they're needed to do to ensure things like interoperability so that, you know, there's not all various different types of plugs that don't go in the right charger, and so on. And to kind of do something about this sort of messy situation where it's just not very convenient for consumers to go in and pay for their electricity and the way that they might might be intuitive.  

Helen Czerski  20:50   

So one final question, because we're running out of time. So as you if you step back and look at the whole problem of electricity supply in this country, you know, there's lots of things we can think about changing. What for you are the priorities if you could wave a magic wand tomorrow and just fix one problem? What's the what are the big challenges that are facing this that we just need to sort out?  

Nick Hughes  21:11   

I think that we're in a very exciting moment in the development of renewable technologies, per se. So on a unit energy unit comparison, they are extremely competitive now with with fossil fuel generating tech, not generation technologies. So we're no longer in the debate about well, you know, how do we subsidise renewables? And how do we share out the costs of doing that because they cost more, we're very much moving beyond that. And so the next phase is, is all about that system integration problem. It is precisely about the issues of how you balance the system, when the when there is more variability on the supply side, how to deal with that needs to be a kind of collaborative endeavour between government, the energy companies and the consumers, because energy companies and the and the grid system operators are going to want to draw on the cooperation of consumers increasingly, and citizens, I should say as well. To differentiate slightly between those two different terms, they're going to want to draw on our cooperation through things things like demand side management through things like smart metres, to really do what we can to help the system operate. And there's a lot of potential there for that to be bring a lot of benefits all round. But it has to be done in a way that that's fair, so that those benefits are not just simply absorbed by the private sector companies who are happy to have a, you know, a nice cheaper way of running the system. But that actually, we get something back in return for that. And the potential is that once the system is operating in this more efficient way, with our contributions and involvement, overall, the system will be cheaper to operate. And that should bring down cost of energy, which should be a great benefits to people across society.  

Helen Czerski  23:13   

What I like about that is that up till now, in, you know, the development of technology, the whole point of electricity has been to make it invisible. And actually, what you're saying is that what we use shift here where our electricity networks start to become visible, rather than just being hidden away, we actually need to think about them. And I think that's a really great, it's a really great thing to think about, we can all go around and think about not just the electricity we're using, but where it comes from. And it's it's great to think about that cooperation in the future. Thank you very much, Nick, for joining us on The generation one podcast.  

Nick Hughes  23:43   

Thank you. It's my pleasure. 

Unknown Speaker  23:45   

You're listening to generation one from UCL turning climate science into action. 

Matt Winning  23:52   

So that was Helen talking to Nick Hughes from UCL about energy storage and transmission. Next week, generation one is going to be broadcast from inside the United Nations COP 26 Climate Summit in Glasgow, where I'm from, I'm going to be there with Mark Maslin as well, Mark and I are going to be there we're going to have some handheld recording devices. We're going to be pestering Joe Biden and other delegates to see what they've got to see and bring you Yeah, what's happening and trying to explain what cop is to people in general. Mark is up know he's going to give you a roundup of the week's news stories on climate that he thinks you should know. 

Mark Maslin  24:33   

This episode you have been listening to was recorded last week, and I'm here now in the heart of cop 26, bringing you the latest news. Now we are in the heart of these international negotiations. And there's already some exciting news. The first thing is of course 100 countries, including Brazil, Indonesia, and the DRC have agreed to stop deforestation completely by 2030. So in nine years time, there should be no deforestation around the world. A sweetener to this is a course, that there's been a $20 billion, put on the table by rich countries to actually help that transition to a zero deforestation world. However, bit of a caveat, we've heard this before, we had this sort of announcement in 2014. And actually, it didn't happen. As we know, deforestation rates have actually increased markedly, particularly in Brazil, over the last two or three years. But it is a move forward. We've had other announcements, as well as country after country are now putting their pledges out there to actually show how much they're going to decarbonize in the next 10 and 30 years. The big announcement was India, saying that they will hit net zero by 2070. Now, this is a major issue, because China is only going to hit net zero by 2060. India by 2017. If you look at the Paris Agreement, which all countries have signed up to, which says we will keep temperatures significantly below two degrees, and if possible, at one and a half degrees warming maximum. These pledges will not make that because the Paris Agreement is very clear. We need to get to net zero, globally by 2050. So certain countries like India and China, Josh huge emitters aren't going to do that until 10 or 20 years too late, then we're going to have a major problem. So there's still all to play for at COP 26, because we're hoping that negotiations will tighten up some of those pledges, and make sure that they are tied directly to the ambition of the Paris Agreement, which was signed six years ago. This is Mark Maslin from the heart of COP, hoping we're going to get a brilliant negotiated agreement. 

Matt Winning  27:15   

I've been Matt Winning. And that's it from this episode of generation one from University College London turning climate science into action. If you'd like to ask a question or suggest a guest or Weaver's, a voice note and an email that you would like to hear, then you can do that at podcasts@ucl.ac.uk. Otherwise, for more information about UCL work in the climate space, and where staff and students as well as our researchers are doing to make sure that we don't just talk the talk but actually walk the walk to a more sustainable future, head over to UCL generation one website, or use the #UCLGenerationOne