End of our future

Talking prior to the Earth Summit in Rio, the UN secretary general Ban ki-Moon warned today that "if we really do not take firm actions [on climate change], we may be heading towards the end – the end of our future".

The biggest issue is access to energy and resources, both of which are becoming limiting while demand is rising.

Real solutions are being developed here in the Midlands, as seventy scientists and business experts who had gathered in Birmingham for Science Capital’s meeting “Solar, Wind and Biomass: power for the people” articulated.

Graham Hygate set up Fine Energy here in 2010, and although a physicist by training, he’s mastered the art of providing wind turbines to farmers and small communities. The first key was understanding what people want, that is, small, quiet systems that meet local power needs and have low visual impact. The second development was finding ways to store the energy, which is easily done on a farm by storing ice to cool milk. The growth of the business is driven by the rising energy prices, providing a promising future. Fine Energy is already selling systems all over the country, and has generated a dozen jobs with new offices in Birmingham and Edinburgh.

Rex Harris from the University of Birmingham raised the rare earth issue. He developed the materials which are needed to generate energy in wind and water turbines as well as in electric bicycles. With demand for the natural resources outstripping availability, and China in a controlling position, the world faces a looming crisis. Fortunately the university has developed new ways to recycle the essential materials, providing a way for the growing global appetite for energy to be met.

Tim Miller from the European Bioenergy Research Institute is implementing revolutionary new ways to make power from sewage, wood, straw, grass cuttings and waste from food and industrial sources for use in rural areas and cities. The technology has moved out of the lab, and a state-of-the-art industrial scale plant is being built at Aston University. Units are being tested with communities in India and there are plans for a ring of bioenergy plants to feed off Birmingham’s waste streams. Matthew Boulton, who once declared “I sell here, Sir, what all the world desires to have, POWER”, would have been proud.

These represent only some of the advances in the region, with many more in development. Start-up companies based in Birmingham such as Ergohome and Intelipac are collaborating with local universities and outsourcing to China to develop new products, demonstrating how Birmingham provides an ideal home for small but locally embedded companies to grow by reaching out to global markets. Thus, while Rio’s summit may struggle to deliver on a political consensus, Birmingham’s business prospects are booming.