How our 'geosphere' could power us to a more sustainable future
From a geologist’s perspective, the Isle of Man was a blank canvas when we started fieldwork here in 1994.
We had a feeling there was something significant to find when we assembled a research team to start the reconnaissance work. And sure enough one of the discoveries was the boundary between two ancient plates - the mystical Iapetus Suture, which marks the junction between pre-Atlantic America and pre-Atlantic Europe.
Since then, our appreciation has grown of the rocks exposed on the Island leading us to set up the Manx Geological Survey (MGS).
Through our website, talks and fieldtrips, MGS aims to promote an appreciation of the world class geological localities on the Island.
Although my parents were Manx, I was born and grew up in Northern Ireland where ammonites and volcanoes drew me in to geology. Every year we came back to the Isle of Man, where my brother and I collected minerals on the spoil heaps at Foxdale or fossils around Castletown.
Back in Belfast, the first oil platform for the North Sea was built at Harland and Wolff shipyard. While I gazed at this impressive structure, my Dad mentioned that oil came from fossils (sort of) and I was hooked.
At eight years old, I knew I wanted to work as a geologist exploring for oil and gas.
Back then, the North Sea oil industry was seen as a good thing for a country’s development and there was a tangible excitement in geological and engineering professions… as well as in governments as they realized the scale of the financial windfall.
In the case of Britain, it might be difficult to see where the £350 billion petroleum revenue went but in Norway, The Netherlands and Denmark, the economic benefits were immense.
Of course, we look at hydrocarbons in a different way now. While we still all use them, there is a growing realisation that burning oil, producing plastics and driving petrol-fuelled cars is not sustainable.
The UNESCO Man and the Biosphere Programme is aimed at promoting a sustainable relationship between people and their natural environment.
One of humanity’s greatest challenges is climate change and the Isle of Man has pledged to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by 80% by 2050. So MGS decided to investigate whether the natural resources of the Isle of Man - the 'geosphere', so to speak – can power the future.
The calculations show that wind and biomass (specifically solar energy from fast-growing trees) can quite easily provide the 100MW the population needs. Tidal and geothermal energy could also play a part, although their potential appears more limited.
As wind does not always blow when needed, an important consideration is storage of energy, the technology lagging somewhat behind that of power generation. The current storage options include pumped hydroelectric, large scale batteries and hydrogen.
The latter might present the best long term solution, both for combustion in power stations and in fuel cells for vehicles, provided difficulties with transporting and storing hydrogen can be overcome.
Several of the major vehicle manufacturers already market hydrogen-powered cars and these can tank up as quickly as petrol or diesel. The issue is having a network of fuel stations which sell hydrogen and this is where the Isle of Man could play a role in helping demonstrate its feasibility.
The largest hurdle is how to pay for the transition to a sustainable Biosphere. Here is where another geological resource may help. Natural gas was discovered in 1982 in an exploration borehole east of the Isle of Man in what is now Manx territorial sea.
At the time gas failed to flow to surface but there is the distinct possibility that, using modern technology, a new well in a different location would produce gas at commercial rates. The potential revenue could then be used to develop new forms of energy.
In anticipation, MGS has started building a digital database of onshore and offshore scientific information which will facilitate assessments of Manx natural resources with the aspiration of a carbon-neutral Island.