A “sunflower company” to fight global warming

An EMPA study suggests concentrating energy consumption in the summer and around noon, to reduce it to a minimum in winter and at night

A field of sunflowers through a smartphone camera
The sunflower, whose bud chases the sun's rays during flowering, can serve as a model of contrast to global warming

To limit the warming of the planet Earth below the threshold of 1,5 degrees Celsius, it is necessary to restructure our energy system as quickly as possible. But the speed of this transformation is physically limited.
A study carried out in Switzerland by EMPA, the Swiss Federal Laboratories of Materials Science and Technology based in Dübendorf (Zurich), St. Gallen and Thun (Bern), calculated the influence of energy storage systems on maximum speed of possible transition, and therefore also on the probability of successfully overcoming the climate crisis.

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The more fossil fuels “invested” at the outset, the faster the transition will be

Building infrastructure for a renewable energy system, such as solar panels and storage batteries, is inherently energy intensive.
At the beginning of the transition to a climate-friendly society, this can only be supplied by the existing, predominantly fossil-based energy system and is therefore a cause of CO2 emissions.
However, the more fossil energy and therefore emissions that are “invested” upfront, the faster the transition will be and, more importantly, the fewer greenhouse gases will be released into the environment as a whole.

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The biodegradable battery developed by the EMPA team
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The more storage plants will be built, the longer the transformation of the system will take

Energy storage facilities play an important role in the restructuring scenarios of the energy industry: from batteries to pumped storage plants up to synthetic fuels from renewable sources.
If they are built and operated in addition to solar-capture infrastructure on roofs and facades, the energy demand for the transition will increase.
The scenarios developed by researchers at EMPA's Technology and Society Laboratory show that the more energy storage plants are built, the longer the transformation of the system will be and the higher the overall greenhouse gas emissions will be: this obviously depends on the technologies used and technical progress.

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Without changing habits in the world, today 60 percent of solar energy would have to be stored

An example among all: if we were to maintain our current energy use habits, about 60 percent of the world's solar production would have to be stored and the overall storage capacity would have to be sufficient to meet the entire global energy demand for about three weeks.
Even with extremely optimistic assumptions, this scenario would exceed the 1,5 degree goal with at least a 50 percent probability.

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Electrification of building heating and smarter appliances

However, the storage requirement can be significantly reduced by technical measures.
For example, the electrification of heating systems in buildings and intelligent controls of household appliances in many cases allow energy demand patterns to become more flexible, without having to change user behaviour.
Such a scenario could already reduce storage requirements by about half.
For the goal of 1,5 degrees Celsius of maximum global warming, what would that all mean?
In the best case scenario, this target would only be exceeded with a 14 percent probability, ie if mainly pumped-storage plants with a high efficiency were used for energy storage.
If, on the other hand, a lot of energy were stored in synthetic fuels at the current technical level, which have a rather low efficiency, the goal would be difficult to achieve.
By comparison, an energy industry that requires almost no storage could reduce the probability of exceeding the 1,5 degree goal to just 3 percent.

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The trolleybus is a particularly ecological means of transport
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We need to move away from a model whose guide is the "demand" to look at... the Sun

Energy storage therefore has a fundamental influence on the dynamics of the transition and its consequences on the climate:
The less storage is needed, the faster we can go without fossil fuels.
Of course, this will require a paradigm shift: moving away from a demand-driven energy system, where everyone can use energy when they want.
And towards the approach of an energy system that follows the path of the sun.
The common sunflower (whose scientific name has been Helianthus Annuus since 1753) is an annual plant with a large flower head inflorescence belonging to the Asteraceae family.
The genus name (Helianthus) derives from two Greek words: ”helios” (sun) and ”anthos” (flower) in reference to the tendency of the plant to always turn the bud towards the sun, before flowering, and this meaning finds citizenship in many other European languages: Italian (Girasole), English (Sunflower), French (Tournesol), German (Sonnenblume), and so on.

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Building insulation can help reduce energy expenditure
Building insulation can help reduce energy expenditure

Effective insulation of buildings instead of heating and a return to the trolleybus

Consumers such as industry, transport, households and public institutions concentrate their energy-intensive activities, if possible, around midday and in summer.
At night and in winter, however, they are reduced to a minimum.
Possible measures are, for example, the replacement of "active" energy measures with "passive" ones.
This means, for example, promoting efficient building insulation instead of heating systems, which have a particularly negative impact in winter.
Although the production of this type of insulation requires energy, it could be implemented in periods of energy surplus.
Or you could switch to means of transport such as trolleybuses, which require no storage.
Even simple changes in consumer behavior could help: for example, running the washing machine at lunchtime instead of during the night.
Bottom line: If implemented consistently, the “sunflower society” has the potential to significantly reduce climate risks and significantly accelerate energy system transformation.

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Climate protection, but also preservation of natural resources and cost reduction

This would not only help protect the climate, but also conserve natural resources and reduce costs, as energy storage systems are also material-intensive and expensive.
In the EMPA study, the global transformation of the energy system was analyzed taking into account the feedbacks in the energy balance.
The global energy system, with all its components, has been computerized into two separate parts, the so-called "machines": a "fossil machine", i.e. today's energy system, and a "solar machine", the future system which includes the energy storage.
Both "machines" provide energy to society, but the solar one must first be created or built using additional energy.
Depending on the amount of fossil investment, the reinvestment of solar energy during the transition, the storage technology (which inevitably takes into account technical advances) and the size of the storage required, different scenarios emerge with faster or slower and with more or less high CO2 emissions.
The study, which produced the idea of ​​a "sunflower society", was financed by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) under the "National Research Program 73", or "PNR 73", dedicated specifically to the sustainable.

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A farmer with a personal computer in a sunflower field
The sunflower, whose bud chases the sun's rays during flowering, can serve as a model of contrast to global warming