Written by Jane Burston
Measurement is a fundamental part of our everyday lives. From medical treatment to international trading, many of the things we take for granted today would not be able to operate without measurement. As new challenges and technologies arise, the measurement infrastructure needs to stay one step ahead.
One area where measurement is becoming increasingly vital is carbon emissions. The world is setting ambitious targets to reduce emissions and we are seeing increasing pressure from governments and interest groups to find ways to keep the lights on whilst dramatically cutting carbon emissions.
The main ways to do this are through cleaner energy production, low carbon technologies and behavioural change. The first two in particular present opportunities and challenges for the energy industry, and ones where accurate measurement will be vital to its success.
There are lots of great technologies which can reduce emissions, such as electric cars, fuel cells, photovoltaics and offshore renewables. As well as looking at the supply side, we also need to reduce and manage demand, for example through building energy efficiencies and smart meters. All of these need measurement – both to assist their development and validate their effectiveness.
Take fuel cells for example. NPL has worked with industry to focus on the three fundamental problems facing fuel cells: cost, durability and the need for a refuelling infrastructure. Working with fuel cell developers, NPL is addressing knowledge gaps in temperature distribution, catalyst activity and degradation. It is also giving industry measurement and modelling tools to characterise fuel cell performance in a number of environments. Using this data, manufacturers of fuel cells could speed up development of an infrastructure and supply chain for this emerging market.
Such technologies also need scientific validation of their performance. This can be easily overlooked, but being able to prove the claims of low carbon technologies is vital to providing confidence to investors, regulators, and customers – all essential if you want to actually commercialise the technology.
New energy sources don’t just need measurement support in their own right. If they are to make a serious dent in our reliance on fossil fuels, some need to be able to feed into the electricity grid. If we are to develop new energy sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels which produce energy at different levels to power stations, we need to measure power quality so we can develop systems that can usefully feed that energy into the grid.
The energy industry is a key stakeholder here, not only in managing emissions from power generation, but also in technologies that underpin energy conservation and efficiency, such as carbon capture and storage, monitoring energy loss from buildings, and smart metering. All of these rely on accurate and reliable measurement. Because of the benefits to industry, the centre has already received public backing from the National Grid and energy companies like E.ON.
The Centre will also operate further down the chain, helping policymakers and businesses reduce energy use, for example by supporting the carbon markets. Carbon markets price carbon emissions, thereby encouraging people to reduce or offset emissions.
In the EU, heavy industrial sectors such as power are regulated by Emissions Trading Scheme, which caps their carbon emissions. To meet some of their obligations, companies within the scheme can purchase carbon offset credits, produced by projects in developing countries, to help them meet their target. Companies with the lowest cost abatement opportunities will reduce emissions by changing to cleaner fuels, improving efficiency or, in the future, through carbon capture and storage (CCS).
How well these projects help mitigate climate change depends on the accuracy of the measurement behind the tonnes of carbon being eliminated or produced elsewhere. Without a proper scientifically underpinned system of measurement, we can’t reliably verify projects to reduce emissions and so reward people fairly (or otherwise) for their carbon reduction. The whole concept of carbon trading is undermined if we don’t have a scientifically underpinned value for a tonne of carbon.
NPL is a world leader in atmospheric measurements and, with industry partners, has developed a range of technologies for carbon measurement and is constantly developing these to measure carbon dioxide emissions in new situations, such as CCS sites.
Despite progress in many areas, there is acknowledgement that at present the tools used for carbon trading and pricing globally are at an early stage of development and limited in scope. As the international community requires and develops more sophisticated and coordinated tools, it will become increasingly important that the underpinning measurement infrastructure keeps in step. The work by the Centre for Carbon Measurement will enable regulation, ensure fair and stable carbon markets, support businesses in reporting and managing emissions, and provide confidence to establish and meet international agreements.
These capabilities will create the infrastructure to provide and disseminate a definition for the weight of carbon and provide practical ways to measure this when it is being traded, emitted, sequestered or offset. It will provide validation techniques for new technologies or low carbon demonstrator projects and a national and international network to disseminate these capabilities to those who stand to benefit from them. The Centre at NPL will act as a ‘hub’ for these capabilities with partners providing ‘spokes’ around the UK and internationally.
All of this will help the carbon market operate effectively, support businesses trying to do their bit, accelerate the development of low carbon technologies, and empower policy makers to create more effective incentives for carbon reduction.
Jane Burston recently joined NPL from Carbon Retirement, a social enterprise she co-founded in 2008 that takes an innovative approach to carbon offsetting and for which she won several awards. Jane was a British Council Climate Change Ambassador and has worked as a consultant on climate change policy for Transport for London and the Mayor of London’s office, among other organizations.