Western Mail Profiles: Dr Edward Hodgson

‘Renewable energy – why one size won’t fit all’

Edward Hodgson is a research scientist in the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences at Aberystwyth University and leads the Low-Carbon Energy and Environment Strategy Network.

The effects of climate change and rises in energy and food prices has created a growing need to sustainably produce our food, fuels and other vital commodities. My research aims to work out how we can best support and develop sustainable production systems to adapt and mitigate against future climate change through development of integrated renewable energy and sustainable land use strategies.

The problem and challenge we face is how to shake off our addiction to fossil resources and improve the efficiency with which we use our energy and commodities. Frustratingly the potential solutions to this problem are more complicated and present a greater number of choices and decisions to be taken: Wind, wave, solar, biomass? Within each group of technologies we are presented with further sets of options and choices. So which should we be backing? Which would we want to live next to? Which will have the greatest benefit to us in the shortest time and over the longest period?

These technologies often seem to be competing against one another, for example “wind is better than wave” or “solar is better than biomass” but this is incorrect for two reasons. Firstly, it is important to recognise that we need all these technologies to stand a chance of breaking our addiction to fossil fuels and becoming more efficient and self-sufficient, and secondly in order to achieve this one size will definitely not fit all. Therefore we need to look at all of these options as complementary rather than competitive.

Solar, wind and other electricity-generating renewable energy generators can also produce heat but the electricity and heat cannot easily be stored except through battery sets. Biomass, despite the negative publicity it receives regarding land competition and the use of food crops for bioethanol production, is nevertheless capable of producing a product which is storable, transportable and available for a wider range of end products than the other renewable generators.

Biomass is not just about producing transport fuel but also many of our other essential commodities such as platform chemicals, plastics, building materials, and even medicines through a range of processes collectively referred to as “biorefining”. Using biomass material from plants and waste sources can produce a range of valuable and useful commodities as well as fuels. The BEACON project, a collaborative effort between the Universities of Aberystwyth, Bangor and Swansea is making considerable ground in this field.

Identifying synergies between these technologies and developing research which can help businesses and communities bring that research into the real world is the task of the Low-carbon Energy and Environment Network funded by the Academic Expertise for Business programme (A4B) of Welsh Government. The project is led by Aberystwyth University alongside the Centre for Solar Energy Research (Glyndwr University), The Biocomposites Centre (Bangor University), and the Centre of Alternative Technology. This network aims to form collaborations between the research and business communities across Wales to tackle Low-Carbon and Environmental issues.

Edward may be contacted at ewh@aber.ac.uk

This article first  appeared in the Western Mail on 11th November 2013, as part of the Welsh Crucible series of research profiles.