Design and innovation holds the key to addressing climate change

16th December 2015
by Ben Stark

The 2015 UN Climate Change Conference in Paris had world leaders making all the right noises about their intentions to limit emissions and support renewable energy. But it will require more than just soundbites to save the planet. It’s product designers, inventors and entrepreneurs who hold the key to real progress.

The Earth’s average surface temperature is now 1°C higher than it was 100 years ago. Eeek. This means we are halfway towards the 2°C limit required to avoid dangerous climate change, agreed by the snappily-named United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Peru in 2010. This month’s COP21 in Paris is getting more attention than ever but it remains to be seen if any legally binding framework of any note will result from it. Ironically, hot air tends to be the major output.

According to legendary ecologist and writer Steward Brand in his book Whole Earth Discipline, “Romantics love problems; scientists discover and analyse problems; engineers solve problems.” At Seymourpowell we’d phrase it slightly differently. It might be the visionaries and engineers like Elon Musk and Sergey Brin who solve problems, but they need a supporting cast of designers and innovators to help deliver it in a style the market will go for.

Sir James Dyson may have come up with the idea for a bagless, dual cyclone hoover but it took 5,000 prototypes and years of collaboration with his product design team to produce the first production model, the DA01 in 1993. And it was a combination of the technology and the signature industrial look in parallel that was so crucial in making it into a lifestyle brand rather than just a slightly better domestic vacuum cleaner.

Similarly, it took more than just technology to make the Nest learning thermostat such a success in 2010: it was the product’s arresting form and addictive ergonomics that made people actually want to use it. The product experience made controlling your central heating a joy, not just ex-Apple engineers Tony Fadell and Matt Rogers’ new tech solution. That is the role of industrial design in a nutshell: to plunder from what scientists and engineers have shown is possible, and turn it into a beautifully satisfying user experience so the technology has the best chance of making a real difference.

So what does this all mean for climate change? At Seymourpowell we often say that ‘if you don’t innovate, you die’… but can we really innovate our way out of global warming? Here are 4 examples of how engineers, designers and innovators have been working together to tackle the single biggest problem facing mankind:

1. The world’s biggest solar power farm in Morocco

Harnessing the ultimate renewable power resource has long been touted as a key way of reducing our reliance on fossil fuels and their associated environmental impact. Later this year Morocco will open the first phase of its ambitious Noor Solar Project: a gigantic concentrated solar power plant (CSP) in Ourzazate. Row after row of half a million mirrored parabolic troughs will produce a combined 160 megawatts of solar power. By 2020, when the remaining 3 Noor CSPs are built, the site will help renewables provide over half of Morocco’s total energy needs. 

Solar power farms like this are very different beasts to the tiny photovoltaic panels that your eco-warrior neighbor has stuck on their south facing roof in Twickenham.  For starters, each mirror is 12 metres high, and Noor 1 will be able to continue producing power even when it’s not sunny. The mirrors reflect the sunlight onto a pipe filled with a salt-like solution that can retain the heat for up to 3 hours after the sun sets. And at an estimated cost of $9bn and a final footprint larger than the capital city of Rabat, this is not a cheap option.

Morocco has big ambitions for exploiting its enviable climate (with over 3,600 hours of sunshine every year in the desert, it has one of the highest rates of solar insolation in the world). It is the only African country with a power cable link to Europe, and aims to export serious quantities of solar energy to EU countries.  The ultimate objective given by the king of Morocco is to transport the power as far as Mecca in the east.

2. Turning CO2 into birthday cakes

Innovation is also helping us lower the impact of existing power generation. In October last year, Canada opened the world’s first ‘clean coal’ power plant in Saskatchewan. The Boundary Dam can capture 90% of its own carbon dioxide emissions (nearly 1 million tonnes). However, currently, there’s not a huge demand for massive quantities of carbon dioxide which is why you rarely see it listed on eBay. The Boundary Dam currently sells it to Cenovus Energy who pipe it deep underground to flush out oil reserves. But what if the CO2 could be turned into something more useful?

That is the dream of Skyonic, who have developed a process for turning CO2 into baking soda which can then be sold on the open market. In October 2015 they opened their first facility in San Antonio at a cement mill. The Capitol Skymine is around the size of two 50 foot trailers and will capture 75,000 tonnes of CO2 a year from the cement plant. Not only are these emissions no longer released into the atmosphere, but they become commercial products worth around $48m of revenue. Who knew saving the planet could be so profitable?

Skymine first removes sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide from the flue gas. It then simply injects salt and water into the remaining pure CO2 to turn it into sodium bicarbonate (baking soda), bleach and hydrochloric acid.

So what’s the catch? Well as always, cost is a major barrier for technology. The Boundary Dam refit will cost $1.2bn and has only progressed thanks to $240m of government subsidies, and guarantees over increased electricity revenues for the local energy supplier SaskPower in the form of 15.5% higher electricity prices. Similarly, the Capitol Skymine cost $125m initial outlay for the first operational system.

But there’s a bigger problem. A single coal, gas or oil plant can produce around 300,00 tonnes of CO2 a year, which would be turned into twice as much baking soda. And there are thousands and thousands of these power plants around the world.  There simply isn’t anywhere near that level of demand for baking soda. Assuming two tablespoons (30g) in every cake, we would need to make 520 trillion Victoria sponges in the UK. Or 8,000 per person. Even with the popularity of The Great British Bake Off, that might be a challenge.

3. Hydrogen powered cars

The hydrogen gas side product from Skymine could be of great interest to automotive manufacturers. Hydrogen cars are essentially electric vehicles like a Tesla… except instead of a huge battery, they inject hydrogen from large tanks into the fuel cell where it reacts to create electricity.  

As a consumer, the main benefit is that re-filling a hydrogen tank takes about the same time as visiting a petrol station, whereas recharging an electric vehicle requires plugging it in overnight. Ecologically though a hydrogen car is much more interesting. While the electricity for a standard electric vehicle or hybrid generally comes from heavily polluting power plants, hydrogen can be produced from cleaner methods like natural gas or indeed clean coal plants like the Boundary Dam.

In late 2014, Toyota released the world’s first mass-production hydrogen car called the Mirai in Japan. It’s now on sale in the US too. Last month the first buyer, an ex-engineer who worked on the space programme for NASA, excitedly picked his up from Sacramento at a list price of $58,000 that included free fuel for the first three years. Not that he can drive it very far yet.

There is currently only one re-fuelling station in Sacramento built in the corner of a petrol storage facility in the industrial quarter in the west of the city (things are a little better if you’re in L.A. where there is a choice of three). This means the car has to be driven back there every 300 miles before you literally run out of gas. With no other hydrogen stations in the country, right now the Mirai would be a terrible choice for a road trip.

With an installation cost of $1-3m per, a retail hydrogen filling station is nowhere near as cheap at an electric charging point that costs less than £10,000. At that price, having enough stations to make hydrogen fuel cell cars a practical reality is going to take quite some time. But there are ambitious plans to open up 45 new stations in and around the urban hubs of San Francisco and Los Angeles by the end of 2016. Ultimately, they will start to deliver real environmental benefits when the stations can not only dispense hydrogen fuel but also create it on-site using solar or geyser power, and thus, avoiding the need for deliveries from petrol-guzzling trucks.

4. A phone that helps us be more sustainable

Product innovation also has a crucial role to play in changing the way we behave as consumers, and allowing those who want to make a small difference to the planet to do so.

When your toaster last broke, what did you do? Did you fix it, or throw it out and get a new one? How about your last fridge, washing machine or radio? Efficient manufacturing and cheap foreign labour has allowed brands to produce complex electrical and white goods at such low prices that it is often more cost-effective to throw something out and buy a new one than pay for it to be fixed. And that means masses of consumer electronics going into landfill.

Seymourpowell has helped deliver two generations of Fairphone, a smartphone handset that is designed with the environment in mind.  All the materials in Fairphone are sourced ethically and every component is traceable.

It’s also a phone that is designed to last, unlike the 18 month obsolescence seemingly built into other manufacturers’ phones. Fairphone is a modular phone designed to be taken apart: not just the battery but the processor, screen, sound, memory and camera. If one part breaks, you can repair it. When a newer version comes out, you can upgrade without needing to change the whole thing.

In 2015 it’s hard to imagine life without the smartphone. But before Fairphone came along it was impossible to keep up with this technology in a way that wasn’t harmful to the environment.

Fairphone is a great product, not just for the user but for the planet ,and we hope it achieves the success it deserves. Not least because that would encourage more brands to think about launching consumer products with an overtly sustainable angle.

5. Conclusion

Designers and inventors have come up with lots of other whacky ideas about how to save the planet. Our current favourites include gigantic space mirrors to reflect 1 to 2% of the sun’s heat back into space which would help cool the planet; and algae farms on the walls of buildings that absorb vast quantities of CO2 from the air. But it’s not until ideas like these or the Skymine, or the hydrogen fuel cell car are turned into reality that they become useful. And that requires product designers, entrepreneurs or corporations to take a risk and realize the commercial as well as environmental potential.

Unsurprisingly, cost is often the major hurdle. But cost is not static. Innovation and economies of scale will help make hydrogen fuel cell cars, clean power plants and renewable energies like solar much more viable in the coming decades. A decade ago shale gas was barely on the radar in America, but it now contributes around 42 billion cubic feet every single day (around 50% of the total U.S. natural gas production).

Innovation in horizontal drilling, hydraulic fracturing and well stimulation technologies dramatically altered the economic cost of shale gas and turned a niche energy source into a huge one. Once the economics changed, there was a real incentive to scale up production.

Who is to say that the same can’t happen with solar and wind farms, or carbon dioxide-extracting power plants? The technology for solar energy and the supporting supply chain it requires has been developing for 30 to 40 years. With just a little more innovation and possible regulation, solar power could reach that economic tipping point against other forms of power generation where it becomes a no-brainer not just environmentally but financially. When it’s cheap enough, it will become hot stuff.  

Until then it’s up to product designers, inventors and dreamers to step up and try to save the planet, one tiny step at a time.