It's electric!

A global vision for sustainable power must include the social dimension

Winner of the 2015 People's Choice Award

"Assessing the global  sustainability of different electricity generation systems" was voted as the  favorite Atlas story of the year.  Elsevier has made donations to the  charities chosen by the author (Juan José Cartelle Barros): Oxfam and Cocina  Económica de Ferrol.

Atlas: Research for a better world

Each month the Elsevier Atlas Award recognizes research that could significantly impact people's lives around the world.

December 2015 winner (free access)

Assessing the global sustainability of different electricity generation systems
Juan José Cartelle Barros, Manuel Lara Coira, María Pilar de la Cruz López and Alfredo del Caño Gochi
Energy, Volume 89, September 2015, Pages 473–489.

Read the story about the award-winning research

In the wake of the Paris climate deal, there’s plenty of buzz about how to cut carbon emissions to keep global temperatures within 2°C of pre-industrial levels and how to do it as cheaply as possible. But, the authors of an Atlas award-winning study to assess global electricity say, the quest for a more sustainable future isn’t only a question of economics and the environment.

According to the United Nations, sustainability “calls for a decent standard of living for everyone today without compromising the needs of future generations.” In other words, in limiting energy consumption as much as possible, social considerations will also be key.

“The mistake is sometimes made of associating sustainability solely with caring for or respecting the environment,” said Juan José Cartelle Barros at Spain’s Universidade da Coruña. “Sustainable development is something more. It covers aspects related to the economy, society and the environment. Thus, it is time to think about electricity generation in a broad sense, covering all three pillars in depth.”

In the September 2015 issue of the journal Energy, Cartelle Barros and his colleagues set out to do just that, producing a new model for assessing the global sustainability of the most common conventional and renewable power plants. Their model is based on the MIVES method (which stands for Modelo Integrado de Valor para una Evaluación Sostenible or Integrated Value Model for Sustainability Assessment), which has been applied before to the sustainable design of concrete structures and the selection of materials for use in pavements, among other applications. It had never been put to use in the energy sector.

Their MIVES-based model makes it possible to calculate a single global sustainability index for each power plant type based on a combination of environmental, social and economic factors measured in completely different ways. The method involves several steps: defining the problem to be solved, establishing the criteria to be considered and their relative importance, defining and evaluating the design alternatives and, finally, making decisions.

The researchers applied their model to evaluating 10 common energy systems based on 27 parameters. Those parameters included costs, from obtaining the fuel to operating the plant; environmental impacts, such as global warming, ozone depletion, and noise; and social dimensions, such as jobs, population displacement and visual impact.

With the exception of biomass fuels, their model shows renewable energies consistently come out on top. Their analyses found that renewable energies have a sustainability index between 0.39 and 0.80, with 0 being the lowest relative contribution to sustainability and 1 being highest. By comparison, the sustainability indices of conventional power plants ranged from 0.29 to 0.57.

Pie charts with the model results for the ten alternatives, ordered regarding their contribution to sustainable development.The best options based on the current model include temperature solar-thermal plants, wind farms, photovoltaic solar plants and mini-hydroelectric power plants, in that order. However, the researchers explain, it’s important to note that there will not be a single best solution. Rather, the best solution for limiting energy consumption while meeting the needs of the people will vary from place to place based on many factors. There will also be considerable subjectivity and uncertainty in weighing among the options.

This new model is only a first step, the researchers say, providing a kind of snapshot of the most common power plant alternatives. They are now working to produce a model to include uncertain and changing conditions.

Ultimately, a sustainable energy future will need to look beyond existing approaches to electricity generation.

“We have the obligation of achieving a responsible consumption with the objective of ensuring that future generations can satisfy their own needs,” Cartelle and his colleagues said. “In this respect, it is important to remark that every hour and a half the sun provides the equivalent of all primary energy we consume annually. Moreover, the oceans store annually the equivalent of more than three thousand times the world primary energy consumption in a year. Developing ways to make use of these sources should be a priority.”

Co-authors of the study include Manuel Lara-Coira, María Pilar de la Cruz-López and Alfredo del Caño-Gochi. The work was funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation.


A Conversation with Juan José Cartelle Barros

In this podcast, we’re speaking with Atlas award winner Juan José Cartelle Barros at the Universidade del Curuña about assessing the global sustainability of various electricity generation systems, including both conventional and renewable alternatives.
The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.

How do we need to think about electricity and its generation differently?
Unfortunately, almost every activity has some kind of effect on its surroundings. Resources are wasted or consumed in irreversible processes. It is therefore impossible to achieve full-scale sustainable development. While sustainability in absolute terms may not be feasible, at least for the moment, there has to be research into how to work toward it. Obviously, the energy sector is not an exception.

The mistake is sometimes made of associating sustainability solely with caring for or respecting the environment. Sustainable development is something more. It covers aspects related to the economy, society and the environment. Thus, it is time to think about electricity generation in a broad sense, covering all the sustainability pillars in depth. On the other hand, we have to realize that some of the energetic resources are limited such as coal, lignite or natural gas, among others. Therefore, we have the obligation to achieve a responsible consumption while ensuring that future generations can satisfy their own needs.

What kinds of knowledge gaps exist in sorting out the future of electricity?
Actually, there are a lot of knowledge gaps related to the future of electricity. As mentioned before, some energetic resources are limited, so we need to find appropriate alternatives that can substitute the present sources in the future. This affects not only the electricity generation but also other sectors such as the transportation one. This problem needs a solution in the medium and long term.

The United Nations introduced the definition of sustainability in 1987 in the Brundtland Report. Since then, many authors have performed studies for assessing the sustainability of power plants. Nevertheless, the majority of them fail at considering all the sustainability pillars in depth. Social and socio-cultural aspects are not usually treated with the importance they deserve. It is important to remark that social differences can seriously affect economic activities, even if only as a result of insufficient purchasing power to consume beyond survival needs. Consequently, social dimension should be at least as important as the economic aspects.

To sum up, in the short term, there is a need of performing studies that improve the model presented in our paper as a way of determining the real contribution to sustainable development of power plants.

Tell me about the approach you took to begin to fill those gaps. How did you go about assessing the sustainability of various types of power plants?
We decided to create a compensated model in which the three main pillars of the sustainability were treated with the importance they deserve. After an extensive literature review, we made a selection of the most important aspects that necessarily have to be included in the assessment. Accordingly, we included all the costs of the considered life cycle from obtaining the fuel to operating the plant. We also included the most important environmental impacts, such as global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, eutrophication, acidification, noise, odors, among others, as well as the geographical range of these impacts. The majority of previous studies only include a very small number of social indicators. We decided to incorporate a great number of social aspects, in particular those related to the economic boost for less developed areas, decentralizing energy production resulting in equality and development; employment generation; risk of accidents; population displacement and visual impact.

We used the MIVES method. This approach has some advantages over some of the most commonly employed methods in the energy sector. For instance, MIVES makes possible the integration of environmental, social and economic aspects in a global sustainability index. In other words, with MIVES we can compare aspects that are measured in different units. What’s more, it allows the comparison between quantitative and qualitative indicators. MIVES also makes it possible to consider possible non-linearity in the assessment.

What can members of the general public do to encourage a more sustainable future?
In reality, we can do more than we think. That is, the responsible consumption of the energetic resources begins in our daily life. Regardless of the configuration of the national energy mix, we have to control our energy consumption in daily tasks—for example, turning on the lights or using the heating only when necessary. Recycling and using public transportation on a regular basis are other ways of contributing to a more sustainable future. We think it is necessary to encourage learning of sustainable concepts, in particular, those related to the various dimensions—environmental, social, economic and technical-functional pillars—not only at the higher academic levels but also at the lowest levels of education. In the same way that modern societies have basic standard for good behavior, we should put in place sustainable standards of living.


About Energy

Energy is an international, multi-disciplinary journal in energy engineering and research. The journal also features related topics such as energy conservation, energy efficiency, biomass and bioenergy, renewable energy, electricity supply and demand, energy storage, energy in buildings, and economic and policy issues.


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