By Alona Armstrong, Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Science, Lancaster Environment Centre
- What is your current role at your Institution?
I’m a Senior Lecturer in Energy and Environmental Sciences within Lancaster Environment Centre – one of the largest centres for environmental research in Europe with over 85 academic staff members – and Deputy Director of Energy Lancaster, a cross-department grouping of energy researchers across Lancaster University. I’m currently a NERC Industrial Innovation Fellow which enables me to commit all of my time to energy and environment research and innovation activities.
I am dedicated, within and outside of EnergyREV, to ensure environment is front and centre in the energy transition. From my viewpoint (which I appreciate is biased!) it is perverse that the environment is being side-lined. You can read a blog I wrote about this but in brief:
- Fundamentally, all energy is controlled by environmental processes, whether that be wind energy or fossil fuels. Moreover, most renewable sources will vary under climate change. Given the longevity of energy infrastructure understanding future variability is important to ensure accurate projections of performance.
- We are transitioning because of the impact on the environment. Not taking into account the impact of environmental disruption could take us out of the frying pan and put us into the fire. Whilst climate change is often seen as ‘the’ environmental problem, land use change is actually more destructive to nature. This was captured in the recent IPBES (for ecosystems what the IPCC is for climate) that identified land use change as the biggest driver of decline in nature, over and above that of climate change.
- In a world of not many good environmental news stories, there is realisable potential not just to mitigate climate change through the decarbonisation of energy supply but also to embed environmental co-benefits. To do this, we need to understand the impacts first and then use that knowledge to inform policy and practice. I co-authored a paper on this that details this approach for solar energy – you can find a summary of it here: https://www.pv-magazine.com/2019/09/10/maximize-the-benefits-of-solar-energy-through-techno-ecological-synergies/
- How does this role build on previous work?
My research has always focussed on the implications of land use change. Over the last few years I have solely researched the interactions between energy infrastructure, such as large PV arrays, and the environment. Past and on-going research that is complimentary to EnergyREV includes understanding the implications of floating solar panels on water body function (see www.sunnywaters.co.uk), how to manage solar parks for ecosystem services (see www.lancaster.ac.uk/SPIES), and the potential to manage solar parks to boost pollination services (see www.energyenvironment.co.uk). In addition to using my environmental science training, all these projects capitalise on my ability to work with non-academic project partners, including policy makers, industry and nature conservation groups.
- What is the most exciting thing about the research that you have done to date?
There are two sides to this coin for me.
Firstly, finding out something new, quantifying something for the first time, is always exciting – it’s what attracted me to science in the first place. Some of the research around how renewable energy infrastructure alters the local climate fits this category. For example, we discovered that operational wind turbines raised air temperature by 0.2 °C and absolute humidity (AH) by0.03 gm−3 during the night, and increased the variability in air, surface and soil temperature throughout the diurnal cycle. We also discovered that soil under solar park arrays was over 5 °C cooler in the summer. It’s really important to quantify these climate effects as then we can investigate what happens to ecosystem processes such as vegetation growth and carbon cycling.
Secondly, it’s when knowledge, discovered through our research, is used to inform policy and practice. This can be tricky to trace – decisions are rarely made on one piece of evidence and nor should they be! We’ve had really good feedback on our SPIES (Solar Park Impacts on Ecosystem Services) decision support tool. It has been mentioned in the SolarPower Europe Operation and Maintenance Best Practice Guide (the authoritative guide for solar park management in Europe) and an ecological consultant has asked when we are going to start charging for it so they must be finding it useful!
- What skills and perspectives are you bringing to EnergyREV and how do you think being involved in EnergyREV will help going forwards?
I bring a unique environmental science focus to EnergyREV. This helps to ensure that broader environmental impacts, which are often challenging to quantify, are taken into account across the project and ultimately in the development and deployment of smart local energy systems. In addition, I’ve done much research and innovation working across disciplines and sectors – nothing is more motivating than people with different skills and knowledge aligned towards the same outcome. This is one of the great things about EnergyREV!