Q&A with Professor Nigel Brandon

The New Statesman speaks to Professor Nigel Brandon, Director of the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial

The New Statesman speaks to Professor Nigel Brandon, Director of the Energy Futures Lab at Imperial College London, on how to fill the energy gap by 2050.

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Three-quarters of people will live in cities by 2050. How can we fill that energy demand?

We can plan cities that are more efficient users of energy - where people have to make shorter journeys, for example.Provision of energy is an absolutely critical factor in taking people out of slum conditions into "high-energy-density housing". By providing energy, we can get people clean water and, through that, sanitation. Then we can transform places that are currently slums. That should be our ambition.

What are the challenges?

As the population grows, that intrinsically places more demand on energy. If we want to move people out of poor-quality living, we will quite rightly demand more equitable distribution of energy. Then there is the technical question of how to provide people with a safe, secure and sustainable energy supply. The challenges are as much social and political as technological.

Are these factors considered in city planning?

There are movements to put in place sustainable planning, but it is not at the top of every planner's agenda. London is trying to think about these things, but there are challenges in the day-to-day operation. Local authorities have an important role to play. I don't think anyone can tell you what the energy of the future will look like, but there is a range of technologies that could help.

What changes in infrastructure and behaviour are needed?

The behavioural side is tied in to energy demand. The choices we make individually - about how we get to work, how we heat our homes - add up to make an impact. Individual choices are important, but so is infrastructure. If you asked engineers today if they could build a low-carbon energy system, they would say "yes". The question is how much it would cost.

Will developing countries prioritise low-carbon technologies?

Cost is even more important here, as you might expect. I've done a lot of work with China, and I've seen a step change in the official stance on energy production. China is looking very hard at low-carbon technologies, electric vehicles being one of them. China is the world's largest manufacturer of solar panels. India is a little more risk-averse in its technology choices. But both of those countries are looking very hard at the opportunity not only to deploy technologies, but also to manufacture and sell.

You're involved in Planet 2050, which aims to reduce carbon emissions in the UK. What would a low-carbon London look like?

We recently conducted a survey looking at the carbon emissions associated with rush hour in different cities in the UK, and London came out the lowest, because it has by far the highest use of public transport. London has a real opportunity to embrace new technology such as electric vehicles. The other thing is how we heat and cool our buildings. There are some challenges - the city's ageing stock, retrofitting and improving the thermo-efficiency of buildings. It's certainly going to be an exciting time.

What is the role of fuel cell technology?

Fuel cells are an energy efficiency technology: for the amount of fuel we put in, we get more useful work out. There are a couple of exciting areas where people are looking at this at the moment. One is around cars and buses. In London, at the moment, we have a small fleet of fuel cell buses running on hydrogen, carrying fare-paying passengers around Covent Garden. Companies such as Toyota and Daewoo are looking at the launch of commercial fuel-cell-powered cars. The other area, one I've spent a lot of time working on, is looking at fuel cells in the home.

Should we be more worried about not having enough energy or not having the right kind of energy in the future?

There may be some local tensions, but globally we have more than enough fossil energy to push us into dangerous climate change. It's more about how we choose to use that energy. Undoubtedly the world will use its fossil resource, so we have to think hard about how we address carbon emissions from those fossil fuels.

Where does the main responsibility for cutting emissions lie - with consumers, government, or business?

It depends on which sector we're talking about. Transport is a sector where consumers play a major role. Consumers have to be given a choice - do you buy a large energy-consuming vehicle? An electric vehicle? Some of that is about cost, which can be dictated by the technology's readiness and the subsidies the government makes available. The consumption of electricity is, for most people, a passive process, unlike transport choice. So there, industry, and government regulation and frameworks, clearly have a stronger role to play.

Have you ever seen any of your scientific assessments proved wrong?

Scientific assumptions haven't changed, but the energy sector has a very clear role, both positive and negative, in terms of the sustainability agenda.

Are we all doomed?

Definitely not. There are lots of bright ideas. There are lots of bright people.