Innovating for the triple bottom line

A week ago, CC put forward a team to take part in the British Antarctic Survey’s Decarbonisation Hackathon. The aim was to find new solutions to completely decarbonise the Rothera research base in Antarctica, beyond those that British Antarctic Survery (BAS) had determined could account for the first 70% of their energy demand. Our team had a day to identify candidate options to close the 30% gap in energy generation, and to present those options back to the BAS and Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) team.

With a workforce that loves a challenge and wants opportunities to put our capabilities to the test on society’s most pressing issues, we easily found budding volunteers to fill our team of six. We assembled together on-site in our Cambridge office for a fast paced and fun day of workshopping. Contending with unique technical requirements (including icebergs and seals) while testing the boundaries of innovative thinking, we were absolutely in our element.

Team from left to right: Alistair Morfey, Nathan Wrench, John Jessop, Isobel Ashbey, Joseph Welford and Peter Loveridge

For BAS, the goal was to identify technology options that could genuinely form a critical part of their decarbonisation journey. Being at the forefront of Antarctic research, it’s unsurprising that BAS are happy to settle for nothing less than 100% decarbonisation, but as is so often the case, reducing the first x% of carbon emissions is worlds away in terms of technical challenge compared to 100%. BAS and their team had already conducted a review to find a long list of potential technology options and assess their applicability, and wanted to bring in fresh eyes to find what they’d missed.

Our approach was to break down the problem into the fundamental options BAS have: reducing power consumption, increasing renewable power generation per unit area, and increasing the amount of area available for power generation. This isn’t ground breaking, but it allowed us to show that there aren’t whole new categories of routes forward that they were missing, or a magic bullet to get something from nothing. From there, we generated ideas around each of these categories and sorted them to find those which BAS hadn’t already considered but which were genuinely promising in terms of their feasibility and impact.

Power consumption high on the agenda

Sometimes a specific innovative technology to drop in within a wider unchanging context isn’t the first thing to look for, and it helps to take a step back and view the problem as a whole. We identified that BAS have an opportunity as they build a new research base to design the whole building with power consumption at the top of the agenda. Specifically, the shape of the building should minimise surface area and the internal configuration should be designed so that the much smaller workforce who are present in Winter can occupy a smaller area towards the centre of the base, reducing energy needed for heating in those months.

To increase power generation per unit area, we looked at optimising the use of well- established technologies within the specific context of Antarctica. There are more unorthodox technologies for generating renewable power, but BAS and their team had done a thorough job of identifying them already, and it is worth utilising the many years of development that have already gone into optimising the generation capability of established technologies. So we proposed that BAS could make better use of solar PV panels by mounting them in a much more vertical orientation than a typical installation, and by tracking the sun with rotation and tilt.

This is an established approach, but its advantage increased in Antarctica where the sun stays low in the sky, and in Antarctic summer tracks day and night 360° around the horizon. The capability of tilting the panels would also help to prevent snow build up, which was a key concern.

Generators tethered to sea floors

Finally, there is the option of increasing the area available for power generation. Although Antarctica is huge, the land area available to BAS is very limited and is further reduced by Antarctic wildlife, and restrictions near the air strip and scientific measurement equipment. Our solution was to make more space at sea with a floating platform that could house solar PV and/or wind turbines and be tethered to the sea floor via a buoy. This may seem fanciful, but such systems have been demonstrated offshore already.

In Antarctica, a key challenge is huge icebergs that can move into an area overnight and scrape or crush whatever is in their path. We argued that through a combination of robust design borrowed from off shore structures, and the freedom of movement offered by the buoy plus tether arrangement, such a system could potentially be made to work. If it could, the scale of additional power generation could be very significant.

Want to learn more?

While the hackathon was focussed around a specific research base in the Antarctica, there was an explicit aim stated by CISL that innovation in this environment could lend itself directly for use in other remote communities around the world. That aim resonated with the CC team as we often transfer knowledge and technologies across industries and are inspired when our work has a far reaching impact. Even if the technologies identified by us and other teams are not specifically applicable elsewhere, showing that complete decarbonisation is possible in one of the most challenging settings on Earth will hopefully demonstrate that it is possible elsewhere.

We’re delighted to have had this opportunity to contribute in a small way to that mission. Please feel free to email me if you’d like to continue the conversation, I’d love to hear from you.

Isobel Ashbey
Senior Physicist

I am a Physicist working across projects for consumer, industrial and energy clients. I am particularly motivated by projects that put my broad Physics background to work in addressing key societal challenges, such as the climate crisis and biodiversity loss.