Thursday, 24 November 2016

SELA goes to Parliament

Yun-Hang Cho, SELA Cohort 2014

On 22 November 2016, I attended the luncheon debate on de-carbonization hosted by the All Party Parliamentary Engineering Group.

The day began nice and early with a train to London. There were reports of train delays due to flooding that morning however my hopes remained high. By the time the train had past Leicester, I was sure I was going to arrive on time. That all changed with about 5 minutes before arriving at London. The train conductor announced a 15 minute delay going into St Pancras. How typical. It was ironic that today I would be representing SELA to get some opinions from politicians on the Hyperloop concept: a transportation system delivering travellers from point A to B via a high speed pod inside an airless vacuum within a tunnel stretching across the countryside. This new concept from the US would seem quite apt for a country who invented railways.

Arriving into St Pancras, it was a quick dash to the underground, emerging before Big Ben. On arrival at Black Rod’s entrance, my e-ticket took its time downloading but luckily a senior member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers vouched for me so I could join the queue to enter Parliament. Though it was a breathless dash across London to arrive on time, the might of Victorian architecture made me even more breathless. This was a pinnacle of Engineering in that period, kept together by design using gravity (and without any computer aided analysis). It remains the centre of UK politics today.

At the drinks reception in Cholmondeley Room, I was met by portraits of important people from long ago and the physical presence of equally important people from the House of Lords. At our tables, I met Lord Davies of Oldham who was a historian with two children working in engineering. To my surprise, plenty of young people were present including aspiring students interested in engineering and part of the Young Engineers scheme.

Lord Broers, Co-Chair of the Group introduced the speakers, Professor John Loughhead, Chief Scientific Advisor and Director General at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Professor the Lord Oxburgh and Mike Thompson, head of Carbon Budgets at Committee on Climate Change.

Professor Loughhead began with a brief explanation of the energy trilemma: energy security, energy equity and environmental sustainability. He then explained that when it comes to energy demand and usage, one does not only need to consider electrical supply. Gas supplies to houses contribute a significant amount of pollution too and replacing these supplies so that houses are gas free is an incredibly difficult engineering task. In part because heat is so energy intensive, were all households to use purely electricity supplies for hot water and heating, the current electricity grid would need to be three times larger! To combat this issue, the government is trying to implement smart energy grid systems which will minimise the need to upgrade the current transfer capacity of the grid. However, smart systems will need to utilise power storage devices which can run between different seasons. Such devices are not currently on the market. To put into perspective the scale of the issue, were all the vehicles in the UK connected to the grid to supply power from its battery, it would take 30 minutes for every battery to become completely depleted.

On the subject of vehicles, he moved onto discussing current emissions of vehicles. Current alternatives to fossil fuel cars were hydrogen cell and electric vehicles. Alternatively, we could stop travelling all together. This is a real alternative since sooner or later, we’re going to run out so our way of life must change. Lastly, Professor Loughhead touched on Mission Innovation; a cooperation between 22 countries (including China, Australia, EU, UK and US to name but a few). It aims to reinvigorate and accelerate global clean energy innovation with the objective to make clean energy wide affordable.

The next speaker, Mike Thompson, talked about the role of the CCC (Committee for Climate Change) and the yearly reviews which are conducted to check progress of greenhouse gas reductions against the 2050 target. The CCC also asks questions such as what should be UK be doing and what could the UK be doing? He emphasised the role of vehicular emission. Especially as more and more people are wanting to travel. The CCC is a sort of bridging organisation between what the UK is and what the UK will be like. To conclude, he notes the development of UK modular fusion and its independence from the ITER fusion project over in Europe. This shows that the UK government is seriously considering the problem of climate change in a world post Brexit.

When it came to question time, it was quite difficult to get selected. I had a mic at one point only for it to be taken away before I could even ask. Nonetheless, I finally got one in and asked about how the Hyperloop could contribute to de-carbonisation and reduce car traffic congestion on motorways. The response from the speakers was that any new system must be cheaper than existing systems. Whether that is in terms of land purchase, or any other associated costs with the entire project. Sustainability was also key and this did not just mean environmental sustainability. It meant the ability of the UK government to keep maintaining such infrastructure over the lifetime of the system, considering how long the London underground has been around, the Hyperloop sustainability time scale could be hundreds of years! Finally, the speakers empathised flexibility. Such transportations need to be able to adapt to different needs of users as life evolves and new ways of living are introduced. Can it take cars? Cargo? People to different points? Is it fuel efficient/energy efficient? No air resistance but energy required to power the pumps?

After question time, the luncheon finished and after bidding farewell to fellow attendees, I headed for the new Lego store in Leicester square!

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