It is indeed possible for sustainable process engineering to enhance sustainability and profitability in the energy sector. Let’s dive in together by first examining the concept of sustainability in the energy sector.
The concept of sustainability in the energy sector
Sustainability in the energy sector has largely been concerned with the shift (just and sustainable energy transition) from fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas which have been powering the global economy for centuries to renewable energy sources. Even though we acknowledge that renewable energy sources have a great potential to contribute to the global energy mix, we are not oblivious to the fact fossil fuels still power the global economy today. The Environmental and Energy Study Institute reported in 2021 that fossil fuel-derived energy makes up over 80 percent of energy (oil – 33.1%, coal 27%, and gas – 24.3%) used by the world currently with only 15.7% being renewables energy sources such as hydropower, solar, wind, bioenergy. Available data also shows that the burning of fossil fuels for energy is not decreasing as in the last decade, total fossil fuel production has increased from 116,214 to 136,761 TWh; even though the general production of fossil fuels decreased in 2020 relative to 2019 (-5%) largely due to the global COVID-19 health crisis.
So let’s not deceive ourselves here, though low-carbon energy sources (i.e., sustainable energy) would be ideal and must be encouraged and promoted, currently fossil fuel-derived energy sources still play a big part in the world’s total energy mix considering that 75% of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are traced to burning fossil fuel derived energy. Interestingly, the energy sector of the European Union contributes 75% of its GHG emission. Therefore sustainability in the energy sector should not only be discussed within the realms of just transition to renewables but how to ensure energy security in providing energy to all people to meet their basic needs infinitely by utilising resources efficiently when using (both renewables and non-renewable energy sources) to promote healthy living and economic growth while minimising the negative impact of the energy sector in order not to compromise the environment.
Fossil fuels, like all other natural resources, are not bad. The problem is how that natural resource is exploited. Just look around yourself and think through the question of whether the 21st century can live without fossil fuels. For us, yes but we must be ready to adapt accordingly. The Global Energy and Climate Outlook has forecasted that the share of fossil fuel-derived energy in global trade would drop by 80% in 2050 compared to today.
That said, let’s not be quick to forget that the benefits of fossil fuel transcend energy and include by-products such as plastics which are used in sectors such as packaging, agriculture, textile, construction, healthcare, and electronics – like the phone or laptop you might be reading this on. Although the issue of sustainability has been raised on several platforms such as COP27 where the importance of a sustainable economic model for energy transition was highlighted, we believe the world needs to have a conversation on whether we can live without fossil fuels with meaningful participation of Gen Zs and Millennials in order to decide the way forward. In the meantime, we propose below that sustainable process engineering could contribute immensely to the sustainability and profitability of the energy sector.
Sustainable process engineering in the energy sector
Process Engineering can be defined as the understanding and application of principles and laws, that enables one to convert any raw material into a desired product through chemical, physical or biological process. It primarily deals with the design, operation, control, optimization, and enhancement of processes and can be employed across several sectors that depend on energy to function such as chemical, petrochemical, food, drinks, water, and pharmaceutical sectors.
Sustainable process engineering (SPE) on the other hand is a methodology to design new and redesign existing processes that follow the principles of green chemistry and green engineering, and ultimately contribute to sustainable development. SPE also involves the use of economics, lifecycle assessment, project management skills, and use of computer-aided tools to solve engineering problems (see Fig. 1 below) and has been applied in several studies. SPE in the energy sector could include optimization of polygeneration systems, biomass tri-generation systems, modeling of solar and biomass hybrid power generation, optimization of oxy-combustion, and gasification power plant, and energy end-use technologies. SPE can also be used in other sectors such as manufacturing and the biomass industry.
Figure 1: Engineering Design Process
In other to achieve sustainability and profitability in the energy sector, SPE could be used to among others:
- Research ((re)design, (re)integrate, and optimise) the development of existing and new energy plant processes and equipment to improve the performance of energy models/plants now and in the future toward a sustainable energy transition.
- Monitor and evaluate processes, markets, and policies to ensure efficient operation of the energy sector.
- Improve waste management and control of environmental pollution.
- Analyse (process, equipment, model) and present real-time data to stakeholders to enhance decision-making within the energy sector.
Having identified some general contributions SPE could offer towards the sustainability and profitability of the energy sector, the remainder of the article briefly discusses the benefits. For the benefits discussed below to resonate with readers, we use ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) factors to categorise the benefits SPE could provide toward sustainability and profitability in the energy sector.
Several environmental factors are important as a metric for sustainability such as waste reduction and management (adoption of waste hierarchy concept), climate change mitigation and adaptation strategies due to greenhouse gas emissions, water usage, the environmental impact of the entire supply chain of the energy firm, product sustainability and eco-design (adopting circular economy principles). SPE can enhance the ability and capacity of a firm to meet these environmental metrics by developing computer-aided models and pilot plants that can be used in curbing any of these environmental problems.
Through SPE, analytical studies can be achieved which will emphasise improving the overall efficiency of waste management projects and plans. SPE can also help in developing infrastructure for both renewable and non-renewable energy sources that improve energy efficiency, improves water usage, emits fewer GHGs, and can be maintained (repaired and upgraded when needed) for a long time particularly renewable infrastructures such as wind turbines, solar photovoltaic panels, and batteries which can contribute to saving cost. Furthermore, applying SPE during the design and development of energy infrastructures can help ensure that these equipment are recycled instead of the linear economy model where obsolete infrastructure is either dumped in the deep sea or landfilled. SPE could also be used in developing other technologies such as biomass technology to limit CO2 emissions into the atmosphere and help firms stay within the newly proposed Earth system boundaries.
A recent study projected an annual death of some 10.2 million people globally is attributed to fossil fuel combustion with coal identified as the most deadly. This support the assertion by scientist that fossil fuel emissions increase among other heart and respiratory diseases which reduces the average life expectancy of the global population. Clean and renewable energy sources also cause deaths albeit lower than fossil fuel-derived energy sources with wind and solar energy recording 0.04 and 0.02 deaths respectively.
From the socio-economic standpoint, a report by the Center for Research on Energy and Clean Air (CREA) indicated that the cost of burning fossil fuels has on the global economy in terms of lives lost, low productivity due to absence from work, and premature deaths is about USD 8 billion per day or 3.3 percent of global GDP. Social factors such as labour standards and working conditions, human rights practices, and the social impact of a company's supply chain could be enhanced when energy firms apply SPE in their operations to lower emissions to the bearest minimum and reconfigure processes to ensure employees work in a safe working environment. Safe working conditions will also benefit the local communities as more green energy jobs will be created, and power expansion and usage to all stakeholders will also be ensured.
Some specific governance factors that SPE could help improve include transparency and accountability by improving data integration and standardization, audit and risk management processes, compliance with laws and regulations, identifying gaps and designing global sustainability strategies as well as data privacy and security to ensure effective decision-making and oversight. One will ask how so? Well, to begin with, SPE can be used to research, design, model and install equipment with computer-aided programs such as Aspen Plus, Artificial intelligence models that can generate state-of-the-art data analytics to conduct among others cost analysis that will ensure transparency and accountability and boost shareholder confidence. Additionally, available data can also help in evaluating and conducting risk analysis to make informed predictions and forecast eventualities; develop energy transition strategies such as energy storage, energy system models, and energy markets integration; and aid in complying with the appropriate international and national laws and regulations.
To conclude, although the initial financial, technological, and technical burden might be a hurdle in applying SPE towards energy sustainability and profitability, we opine that it is a hurdle worth leaping over considering its long-term benefits.
Future Thought Leaders is a democratic space presenting the thoughts and opinions of rising Sustainability & Energy writers, their opinions do not necessarily represent those of illuminem.