Reducing our fossil fuel reliance

A new study by analysts Cambridge Econometrics, commissioned by RenewableUK, has found that in 2013 electricity generated from wind reduced the country’s dependence on imported coal by an estimated 4.9million tonnes and imported gas by 1.4billion cubic metres.

The report which concludes the study stated that wind energy generated enough electricity to power 6.8million homes in 2013. To power the equivalent amount of homes using coal and gas would have cost the country over £579 million.

Not only is this cost effective but it also makes us more resilient to fluctuating costs of the imported materials and reduces our dependence on foreign fossil fuels.

In addition the report looked ahead at the difference between using more wind or fossil fuels would affect the country’s energy needs in 2020 and 2030. According to the study as UK gas supplies from the North Sea dwindle, using more gas would cost £3.1 billion in 2020, rising to £7.4 billion by 2030.

The report concluded that as the cost of generated electricity using wind power is predictable using it is greater amounts effectively acts as insurance against the unpredictable cost of gas and other fossil fuels.

“It is clear that the deployment of wind capacity has, and will continue to, reduce the demand for fossil fuel, most of which is likely to be sourced from imports. Today, wind-powered electricity is displacing imported coal and to a lesser extent gas, but in the future the alternative to wind is much more likely to be more (imported) gas and the trade-off could be substantial.

“Since the costs of wind energy are known once installation is completed, while the costs of gas-fired generation in the future depend on the future gas price, the installation of wind capacity will improve the resilience of electricity generation costs to future volatility in the gas price.

“Future energy and technology costs remain uncertain, but if generation from offshore wind remained more expensive than gas, a choice to invest more in wind would amount to paying an insurance premium to reduce exposure to future gas price volatility.

“Reduced reliance on energy imports and improved electricity generation cost resilience to future gas price uncertainty are two benefits that come with wind capacity deployment. Although there are many other factors to consider when choosing the next generation of electricity power supply technologies, this analysis shows that there would be clear benefits in terms of energy independence and resilience to fossil fuel prices.”

The full report can be read here.

Speaking of the study Phil Summerton a director at Cambridge Econometrics said beyond the environmental benefits brought about by the continued deployment of wind power, this report shows that wind energy is contributing to reducing fossil fuel import dependence and that this contribution will grow in future as wind capacity expands.

“Investment into wind power acts as an insurance policy against uncertainty in future wholesale gas prices and could provide a degree of stability to future electricity prices.”

Maria McCaffery Chief Executive of RenewableUK added: “This report shows how much the UK relies on wind power to reduce our dependence on sources of costly fossil fuels imported from abroad. In these uncertain times, we need to recognise the wider benefits of wind.

“The costs for the entire life of a wind farm are known very early on, whereas the volatile price of fossil fuels can never be accurately predicted. Wind power is already helping us manage future price instability, and industry is confident that by 2020 onshore wind will be the cheapest form of new generation of any form of energy.”

Moving on and Scottish scientists have been working on very different type of solution to help solve any potential energy crisis and alleviate global warming. Using photosynthesis as their base, research scientists at Glasgow University plan to harness photo- synthetic bacteria to create a hydrocarbon substance similar to liquid petroleum.

This new fuel type as well as being renewable would also be storable, potentially in underground systems and the as carbon dioxide would be used in the creation of the fuel overall production would reduce carbon emissions.

Speaking of the research Professor Richard Cogdell, joint project leader and director of Glasgow’s Institute of Molecular, Cell and Systems Biology said “The bacteria will take in power, plus carbon dioxide and water, to create an oil-type fuel that can be made into petrol and used in ordinary combustion engines.

“Emissions will be re-absorbed and used to make more fuel. If you didn’t want to make the fuel to burn, it could instead be stored – you could pipe it back into the ground, fill up the oil wells. It is all about storing electricity in the form of chemical bonds.”

“In natural photosynthesis that fuel is carbohydrate, and ultimately that provides all the food – not only for the plants but also for us. So the whole of life on Earth is powered by photosynthesis and as a by-product it splits water and makes oxygen, which provides all the oxygen we breathe. As a further by-product, excess photosynthesis millions of years in the past has been stored as fossil fuels.

“We are essentially now burning the products of photosynthesis millions of years ago. Everything would be ok if it wasn’t for the fact that we are now producing more carbon dioxide than the plants can take back in again. The concentration in the atmosphere has been rising to historic levels in recent times, and this is having drastic environmental effects such as climate change.”

The project plans to use surplus electricity from renewable energy to start the process which in turn will aid the energy harvesting stage. Professor Cogdell added “By tapping in earlier you can have much smaller requirements for surface area in order to harvest either solar energy or windmills.”

The search has now begun to find the most suitable bacteria to carry out the project and once this has been found it is likely that it will be tweaked via genetic engineering to reach the optimum performance stage.

Cogdell concluded by stressing that there would be no risk from the project and the bacteria used would not be harmful “These are naturally occurring, non-toxic, non- pathogenic bacteria, so there would be no risk from them.”

Commenting on the project Glasgow University vice principal Professor Muffy Calder praised the work, stating that it could have vital importance, “Artificial photosynthesis and solar fuels are tremendously exciting developments, with real potential to change how we generate, store and consume energy,” she said.

“They could help us reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and thus decrease carbon emissions and slow the progress of global climate change.”

As our demand for energy continues to increase we must reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to both cut our carbon emissions and also make us less vulnerable to fluctuating costs of imported fuels. The research work currently being done by Glasgow University is commendable and it is our hope that this comes to fruition offering us a genuine alternative carbon based fuel source.

However the research in its primary stage and even if successful, we are still years away from a successful conclusion. We need solutions that can be actioned immediately and renewable energy is providing that solution. Increasing our renewable energy generation cuts our carbon emissions, reduces our reliance on imported fossil fuels and as shown above aids the economy by saving us money. The advances in wind and solar power have brought them from the outskirts of our energy mix to the forefront and although they should remain a primary source in our long term energy strategy they can now also be seen as an immediate solution.

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