Month: April 2018

Britain goes coal free

Britain goes coal free

This week the National Grid confirmed that Britain did not use coal to generate electricity from Saturday morning to Tuesday afternoon, our longest streak since the 19th century and only a few days after the previous record of 55 hours was set. Instead the majority of our electricity was generated from wind and gas.

In total coal generated just 7% of all our electricity in 2017, our lowest since it was added to the mix. In addition, Britain went it’s first day without using coal since the 1880’s in April of the same year.

However, despite the UK government pledging to phase our coal generated electricity by 2025 experts warned that power generated by coal largely being replaced by gas, another fossil fuel, rather than renewable sources would do little to reduce our overall carbon emissions. The 2008 Climate Change Act requires greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by 80% compared with 1990 levels by 2050.

Andrew Crossland, of the Durham Energy Institute, said gas generated 40% of the UK’s electricity and fuelled the vast majority of domestic heating: “As a country we consume nearly eight times more gas than coal.”

The daily consumption of gas was outstripped by wind on just two days last year, while all sources of renewable energy – including wind, solar, biomass and hydropower – beat fossil fuels for just 23 days of 2017 with gas making up the majority of the fossil fuel usage.

Hannah Martin, from Greenpeace UK, called on the government to provide more support for onshore wind and solar power – the “cleanest and cheapest energy sources”.

“Offshore wind has proven to be popular and able to provide affordable clean energy, as well as skilled jobs and fair bills,” she said.

“As we have more and more days without coal, we need to make sure it is replaced with the renewable technologies of the future.”

Mr Crossland also called for more investment in renewable technologies, such as solar panels and batteries, to store power for homes and businesses, along with better energy efficiency to reduce power use.

The gradual phasing out of coal generated electricity is pleasing, especially as we are managing for longer periods without it. The target of 2025 is realistic and we fully expect us to reach it comfortably. However we share Mr. Crossland’s concern regarding the use of gas as a replacement.

Although gas is a cleaner fossil fuel than coal it is still a fossil fuel and in the long term does little to affect our carbon emissions. If the government is serious about creating a cleaner environment for all we share Ms Martin’s and Mr. Crossland’s call for more support and investment for renewable energy and in particular onshore wind and solar generation.

Both are proven technologies with costs now on a par with other traditional generation methods but a lack of support at higher levels has stagnated both at a time when their growth levels were producing more and more clean energy each day.

We therefore believe that time is right to increase the amount of new onshore wind and solar projects with the aim of reducing our carbon emissions and creating a cleaner environment for us all to live in.




Innovative Energy Ideas from Scotland

Innovative Energy Ideas from Scotland

The British Geological Society are funding a new project looking into the possibility of benefitting from the vast reservoir of warm water that fills a web of disused mines underneath Glasgow. The naturally heated water that currently populates these mines would be used to heat homes and businesses in the city and if successful the same model could be used in other towns and cities with a similar underground structure.

The project – which will initially cost £9million will involve the drilling of boreholes to test the water temperature and other aspects relating to the project from which the long-term feasibility of it will be assessed.

Professor Michael Stephenson, the director of science at the British Geological Survey (BGS) said “The rocks below Glasgow are crisscrossed with tunnels that were hewed into the rock by coalminers in the 19th and 20th century. Eastern Glasgow was once the location of some of Scotland’s busiest mines. These old, long-abandoned tunnels should now be allowing water to flow freely beneath the city.”

“At present it is very hard to store energy and that is a problem when using renewable power plants – such as wind plants – which operate intermittently. Our second borehole array, again crammed with instruments, would allow us to test the feasibility of storing water – heated by renewable power plants – and then releasing that energy later when it is needed.”

The UK is on target to decarbonise electricity generation because of the growing numbers of renewable power plants. However, the nation is still heavily reliant on North Sea and imported natural gas to heat its homes. Combustion of these fossil fuels forms a substantial part of the carbon dioxide emissions which the UK has pledged to reduce to help limit global warming.

Professor Stephenson continued “One solution would be to use the energy beneath our feet. The temperature of the water that is sloshing through the old mines and in the rock layers under Glasgow is about 12C. That is not red hot, obviously. However, there is a great deal of water down there and by using heat exchangers we can turn that mass of lukewarm water into a moderate supply of very hot water which could be pumped into homes to provide hot water and heating in winter. At least that is the idea.

“Our underground observatory will determine whether it is feasible or not. It will analyse rates of replenishment, acidity, temperature and many other features. Based on that data we will know if we are on to a winner.”

Also, in Scotland scientists at Heriot-Watt University are tackling the challenge of producing hydrogen from sunlight which has a critical role to play in the UK’s energy future, with demand set to reach up to 860 terawatts (TWh) per year by 2050. Currently, the UK can only produce around 27 TWh of hydrogen power per year.

Dr Jin Xuan, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and associate director of the Research Centre for Carbon Solutions at Heriot-Watt University has been working with colleagues from Yale, the City University of Hong Kong and ​the ​East China University of Science and Technology. They are developing a new system to produce hydrogen from solar energy using a technique known as photoelectrochemical (PEC) water splitting. The technique uses solar energy to split the hydrogen and oxygen in water and collect the hydrogen as a renewable energy source.

The innovative microsystem generates unique microfluidic patterns to accommodate the pH differential, and acid and alkaline electrolytes can coexist in a single cell.

The new system will reduce the cost of PEC water splitting by around two thirds and increase the solar to fuel efficiency by up to 20 percent.

Dr Xuan said: “This project offers the chance to make PEC water splitting a viable route for hydrogen production.

“The main barrier to solar hydrogen production in the UK, and globally, is its high cost – it costs twice as much to produce as energy from wind and biomass.

“Our system will use cheap, widely available materials that mean the technology can be easily scaled up to meet the growing demand for hydrogen fuel.

“We have already proved that this system has potential. We’ve applied a similar design strategy in a number of energy devices, such as fuel cells and batteries.”

Hannah Smith, senior policy manager at Scottish Renewables, said: “Innovative projects like these show just how versatile our renewable energy resources can be. Renewable-fuelled green hydrogen can be used to store and transport electricity, to heat our homes and to fuel vehicles, making it a useful tool as we work to decarbonise our energy system.

“At this time of fundamental change in our energy sector, innovation becomes even more important. Continued support for research and development is critical if these technologies are to reach commercialisation and deliver real impact across our energy system.”

Innovate projects such as the heated water and hydrogen release are what will be the defining factor in meeting our carbon emission targets. Numerous smaller scale projects such as these will mount up giving us a real opportunity to meet our overall targets. Large scale wind projects should continue to be developed and will make a huge difference, but it is the addition of these other smaller scale projects that will tip the balance.

A 100% worldwide renewable future

A 100% worldwide renewable future

A new study into the intermittency of renewable energy and how to resolve the issue has concluded that there may be three methods by which consistent power could be achieved. The research was carried out by Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, with additional input from colleagues at California University, Berkeley, and Aalborg University in Denmark.

Mr Jacobson said: “I can more confidently state that there is no technical or economic barrier to transitioning the entire world to 100% clean, renewable energy with a stable electric grid at low cost. This would go a long way toward eliminating global warming and the 4-7million air pollution-related deaths that occur worldwide each year, while also providing energy security.

“There are multiple solutions to the problem. This is important because the greatest barrier to the large-scale implementation of clean renewable energy is people’s perception that it’s too hard to keep the lights on with random wind and solar output.”

The research looked the amount of energy required to supply full unbroken demand in 2050. To achieve this 139 were grouped into 20 regions based on geography and then matches supply and demand in 30-second increments for 5 years (2050-54) to account for the variability in wind and solar power as well as the variability in demand over hours and seasons.

A computer modelling system then predicted global weather patterns which in turn predicted the amount of energy that would be generated from weather based renewable sources, in particular wind and solar.

This estimated output was then compared to more stable renewable energy generation methods such as geothermal power plants, tidal and wave devices, and hydroelectric power plants, and of heat, like geothermal reservoirs. The second model also included ways of storing energy when there was excess, such as in electricity, heat, cold and hydrogen storage.

By comparing these the group was able to predict both how much energy could be produced through more variable sources of energy, and how well other sources could balance out the fluctuating energy to meet demands.

This led them to conclude that there are three methods by which consistent power via renewable energy can be attained at low cost for all 20 geographical regions by 2050.

This therefore goes against the long-held view that power supply can be consistent using only renewable energy generation. The research also predicted for each method, costs would reduce to approximately 25% out what they are now by 2050.

In addition, energy saving would be gained by avoiding the energy needed to mine, transport and refine fossil fuels, converting from combustion to direct electricity, and using heat pumps instead of conventional heaters and air conditioners.

Berkeley’s Mark Delucchi said: “One of the biggest challenges facing energy systems based entirely on clean, zero-emission wind, water and solar power is to match supply and demand with near-perfect reliability at reasonable cost.

“Our work shows that this can be accomplished, in almost all countries of the world, with established technologies.”

However, this still leaves the issue of cooperation across political boundaries: “Ideally, you’d have cooperation in deciding where you’re going to put the wind farms, where you’re going to put the solar panels, where you’re going to put the battery storage. The whole system is most efficient when it is planned ahead of time as opposed to done one piece at a time,” Mr Jacobson continued.

Energy storage therefore becomes vital in making this model successful and there is various research in this field currently taking place throughout the world.

In the USA, at Northwestern University, Prof Sossina Haile’s team has created a new ceramic fuel cell with exceptional power densities and long-term stability. “For years, industry has told us the ‘Holy Grail’ is getting fuel cells to work at 500-degrees Celsius and with high power density, which means a longer life and less expensive components,” Prof Haile said.

“With this research, we can now envision a path to making cost-effective fuel cells and transforming the energy landscape.”

The ceramic fuel cells high electrolyte conductivities failed to produce enough power. Her team has overcome this challenge by combining a high-activity cathode with a chemically stable electrolyte to produce exceptional power density and stability at intermediate temperatures.

“We solved multiple problems simultaneously by changing out the electrode, improving the electrolyte and creating good contact and communication between the two materials,” Prof Haile said. However, it should be noted that in order to make this method viable a reduction in manufacturing costs must be achieved.

At the other end of the of the spectrum researchers in Shanghai have developed a battery with organic compound electrodes that can function at -70C. Traditional lithium-ion batteries rapidly lose their ability to conduct and store energy when subjected to extreme low temperatures, so this technology will be especially useful in our harsher climates.

The Shanghai team have developed an ester-based electrolyte using organic compounds which has a low freezing point, enabling it to conduct a charge at extremely low temperatures. Although this is a positive step in battery technology Yong-yao Xia the team’s chief researcher has admitted that more work is required before it will be able to be used commercially.

Another new battery storage method currently at the development stage is taking place at Rochester and Buffalo Universities. Lead researcher Ellen Matson and her team are developing battery technology with increased redox performance.

A redox flow battery uses excess solar and wind energy to charge chemicals that can be stored for use when sunshine and wind are scarce. The key to this technology, called a redox flow battery, is finding chemicals that not only “carry” sufficient charge, but can also be stored without degrading for long periods. By making a simple molecular modification the team was able to expand the window during which the cluster of chemicals is stable, doubling the amount of electrical energy that could be stored.

The Rochester and Buffalo teams have applied for a US National Science Foundation grant as part of an on-going collaboration to further refine the clusters for use in commercial redox flow batteries.

As renewable energy and wind energy in particular became more prominent intermittency of generation and stress on the grid were debated throughout the world and were often used as sticks to beat it with. However, as capacity continues to increase neither of these have been a major issue.

If we are to aim for 100% renewable generation however we must look at viable storage solutions. At present we have the more traditional options such as industrial lithium batteries and pump storage hydro and as necessity is often the mother of invention new technologies such as those discussed above will start to become more feasible as their consistency increases and costs decrease.

Worldwide 100% renewable energy generation may seem like a pipe dream but it is a must. Our other options are either dirty, dangerous, or finite and in some cases all three. The advances in technology will benefit everyone and while we may not be there yet with them we can keep progressing in the knowledge they we will be ready when required.




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