Sun for Future II - Outlook 2050

 First published 3 May 2019 - Version of 5 July 2021 - time to read: 15 minutes  

Introduction

t would be very desirable to stay below the 2 degree target in the long term. However, it might be wise not to hope for only 1.5 to 2 degrees of temperature increase, but to take the precaution of reckoning with 3-4 degrees for the next 40 to 60 years.

The effects of the climate crisis and the outlook of climate researchers offer sufficient reasons not only to increase biodiversity, but also to focus on the food supply of the future in addition to the energy turnaround.

That is why I advocate a transformation of industrial agriculture towards extensively managed agroforestry systems with diverse cultivated and wild plants, so that we do not have to suffer complete crop failures in the event of expected extreme weather. 

Why agroforestry systems make sense in the face of rising temperatures is demonstrated by forestry expert Tony Rinaudo in the Sahel. However, this will probably not be enough to guarantee a secure food supply. Therefore, weather-independent production of food in vertical farms and greenhouses or other protected environments will increase. 

For even more security, I also recommend the production of proteins, fats and carbohydrates using fungi or bacteria in bioreactors.

Agriculture 5.0 in 2050 in Germany

This is what it could look like in 2050


3 million hectares of formerly almost 17 million hectares of agricultural land are used for so-called biodiversity agricultural solar parks and generate about 3,000 terawatt hours of energy per year. Diverse open-land habitats have formed in the biodiv-solar parks and biodiversity has increased massively. Many solar parks have water management systems. Rainfall is collected at the module table, stored in cisterns or ponds and can be used both within the biodiv solar park and on surrounding agricultural and forest land.

The volatile supply of renewable energy is completely decoupled from the easily predictable consumption through a variety of storage technologies (Power to X, P2X). An infrastructure company (comparable to transmission grid operators) takes over all electricity from renewable plants and delivers it to transmission grid operators and distribution grid operators in the form of electricity, e-gas, or X according to demand. Distribution takes place via electricity, gas pipelines, heat grids, ships, trains, trucks. 

The supreme discipline of waste heat utilisation to increase the efficiency of all P2X and X2P processes requires a very close-meshed network of transfer points so that the waste heat can reach the consumer with as little loss as possible. 

Reducing the carbon dioxide content of the atmosphere to the pre-industrial level of 280 ppm has also become an urgent project in order to slow down and eventually reverse the further rise in temperatures. This is done by taking carbon dioxide directly from the air. CO2 has evolved from a climate killer to a valuable raw material.

In the form of carbon fibre compounds, they complement and replace wood, steel and concrete in the construction sector. Aviation fuel, fuel for combustion engines and heating systems for buildings are produced from it. The chemical industry is excited about this alternative to petroleum .

These projects were started on a large scale when the majority of the energy supply was converted to 100 % renewable. This is because it takes an extremely large amount of energy to reverse more than 200 years of burning fossil carbon within a few decades.

Vegetables, herbs and flowers thrive in greenhouses, also on roofs, multi-storey car parks, office buildings, schools, exhibition halls, etc. The electricity from photovoltaic modules in the roofs and walls of the greenhouses powers the CO2-neutral air-conditioning technology. Especially in the increasingly hot cities, they also serve as weather-independent meeting places with cosy seating areas and cafés. If you want to grow something there yourself and don't have a green thumb, Farmbots will help you with the work.

The remaining agricultural land of about 14 million hectares is extensively and sustainably cultivated with agroforestry systems, afforested or converted into nature reserves.  Even formerly drained moors are back to what they once were: Plenty of water and valuable CO2 reservoirs.  In vertical farming facilities, food is produced regardless of the weather. 

If necessary, food could also be produced in bioreactors. This is an old NASA idea for supplying food on long space flights, rethought for spaceship Earth. Bacteria shorten the carbon cycle and produce carbohydrates, proteins and fats directly from CO2. Food technologists supplement this with micronutrients and trace elements and bring it into edible, appetising forms. Bavarian radio explains very clearly what such "bio-food" could look like.

This is what it could look like in 2050, if we gradually and constructively deal with the diverse demands of nature and species conservation, the energy transition, the consequences of the climate crisis and a growing world population.

The projects of energy transition, agricultural transition, nature conservation and thus the preservation of a biosphere worth living in pose a huge task for all of humanity. However, this transformation is a worthwhile challenge not only for nature but also for the economy.

Conclusion

My thoughts may seem difficult to digest at first glance. That we need a paradigm shift in many areas of our lives is actually no question. Preserving the biosphere so that all inhabitants of the earth can live well in it cannot succeed without changing our way of life. In the end, thinking globally, acting locally is indispensable.

Food from vertical farms, greenhouses or even bioreactors seems more sensible to me than hoping that our "old" agriculture can simply cope with the consequences of the climate crisis.

Photovoltaics are more efficient at harvesting sunlight than photosynthesis. Solar-powered vertical farming, greenhouses, agro-forestry systems and bioreactors provide sufficient and safe high-quality food. This means less pressure on farmland and no monocultures in the field.
The maltreated nature (soils, plants and animals) will thank us and can recover. We use freed-up areas for reforestation and nature conservation. There is a rich supply of edibles in the form of wild plants and animals.

So it could be a good strategy in several respects to generate electricity and food differently than today, because:
Extreme weather and further rising temperatures will make farming more costly, risky and in some cases impossible. Vertical farming, greenhouses, agro-forestry systems and bioreactors can help to ensure food security in all weathers.
Agroforestry systems and afforestation reduce CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Flora and fauna recover and provide ecosystem services without end.
There is a secure, low-cost, multi-sectoral energy supply.
Power-to-X technologies generate the fuel and basic raw materials for the energy, mobility, building heating and chemical industry sectors.
Additional benefits: If we deal with the climate crisis in this way, it will be easier to get over if the 2-degree target cannot be met.

Addendum 1: Railways in 2050

The railways have invested heavily in infrastructure in recent decades. It is not only microplastics from car tyres that have led to almost every village in Germany having a well-connected railway station. The allocation of the external costs of automobility to car taxes have also contributed to a radical reduction in the number of private cars. In addition, all major cities have been declared virtually car-free areas. The railways have become the mobility provider par excellence.

In addition, it is an electricity and heat provider for industry and private households throughout Germany. The railways have expanded and converted their traction power plants. Solar and wind parks deliver electricity to the nearest railway substation in storage facilities operated there. With this, the railway operates its hydrogen production by electrolysis. The oxygen released in the process is sold, the hydrogen produced is fed into the hydrogen pipelines (similar to today's natural gas network) and kept in stock in local long-term storage facilities.

With the addition of CO2 - delivered in wagons from cement factories - bacteria are also used in the substations to convert hydrogen into methane suitable for the natural gas grid. Biological methanation with bacteria works synchronously with the fluctuating electricity supply from solar and wind parks at 10 bar pressure and 65 degrees Celsius. The heat generated in the process is used via the heating network (see below). The safety and operational requirements of technical methanisation, which takes place at 30 bar pressure and 400 degrees Celsius, are eliminated.

Via the natural gas grid, to which all substations are connected, the energy from the sun and wind reaches households, industrial plants and gas-fired power plants. At filling stations, E-CNG (compressed renewable natural gas) is the CO2-neutral fuel for cars.
(Note: CNG instead of diesel cars and trucks would, by the way, be the already possible solution to the nitrogen oxide issue. In 2019, CNG will consist of fossil natural gas and in 2050 of e-methane. CNG is massively underestimated as a sensible alternative to battery technology in the mobility sector).

From the solar and wind power buffered in batteries, combined with electricity production from the stored hydrogen and methane, the railway not only generates the traction current, but also supplies electricity to the medium or high-voltage grid safely and on demand.

The waste heat from electricity production - as much as 30-50 % of the energy stored in the hydrogen or methane - as well as the waste heat from the biological methanation process, is distributed via heat grids to large and small consumers in the catchment area, who use it for heating or cooling. Businesses with a permanent or temporary surplus of heat can also use the heat network to feed in their heat instead of releasing it unused into the environment.

Addendum 2: Energy mix of the future

The price issue will be an important criterion for the energy mix of the future. If the following, long-term costs in euro cents per kilowatt hour are realistic

2 (solar parks)
4 (onshore wind power)
5 (rooftop PV)
6 (offshore wind power)

then the annual costs in euros for 3,000 terawatt hours of electricity would be

60 billion (solar parks)
120 billion (onshore wind power)
150 billion (rooftop PV)
180 billion (offshore wind power)

By comparison, Germany imported fossil raw materials in the form of natural gas, mineral oil and coal for approximately 52 billion euros in 2016.

In addition to monetary costs, environmental concerns (external costs) and acceptance by citizens (political costs) must also be taken into account.

This is particularly evident in the current discussion about wind power, which is well illuminated in the Geo issue 8/2019. Click here to go directly to the article. As is well known, there is also an acceptance problem with the expansion of north-south power lines, which are supposedly without alternative.

With a maximum potential of 200 gigawatt-peak roof and façade systems, the 3,000 gigawatt-peak PV capacity needed in total will mainly be generated by solar parks for reasons of price, environmental protection and acceptance. Unless someone invents something even more clever.

Addendum 3: Energy grid of the future

Currently we have about 100 gigawatts of conventional generation capacity on the grid and that is also the maximum amount of electricity that electricity consumers will take as maximum instantaneous consumption without the grid collapsing. It might be a very bold undertaking to try to link the volatile supply of renewable energy directly to consumption when in 2050 the majority of renewable energy will be generated with photovoltaics.

Consistently from the end and thought through to the end, it would make sense - not only for dark lulls - to decouple renewable energy sources and energy consumption. Another advantage of a complete decoupling would also be that one can reasonably simply rely on the cheapest renewable energy source.

The role between supply and demand is then played by the "X" from - hopefully soon to come - Power to X or X to Power plants.

X can be hydrogen, methane gas, methanol, heat, batteries, etc. Then the old power plant park could be converted into an X2P-compatible power plant park in the next few decades. This could also be done at biogas plant sites. If P2X and X2P plants were distributed regionally throughout Germany, then no additional thick power lines would be needed, but rather gas pipelines and well-developed local and district heating networks. X2P-capable plants could very well be combined heat and power plants operated by municipal utilities and fuelled with hydrogen or methane gas. These provide electricity and heat in villages and urban districts. The waste heat generated by all P2X and X2P processes could be used in this way and not just blown into the environment.

The energy grid design of the future requires joint planning of electricity, gas, district and local heating grids..


Further information


Food production in the future:


"Protein food from air and microbes", Scinexx.de from 20.May 2020

"Meat substitute of the future, microbes are good protein suppliers", Spektrum.de of 19.11.2019

On the history and new interest in old future technology, Telepolis.de part 1 of 20.10.2019, part 2 of 20.10.2019, Part 3 of 29.12.2019

"Algae, the super substance of the 21st century", Welt.de from 1.8.2015