What would be the best Sustainable Energy solution, if we can finally change over from the current set of energy options we have today? That it would be a renewable and clean energy is obvious, but which among the ones would it be? With various opinions and expert advise, the common persons tends to get confused. However, it would finally be the common person who would finally choose the Energy Next. It is therefore important to make them aware from a holistic point of view about all the Energy Mix that is available and help make a informed choice, because the Earth as we know today, hurtling towards cataclysmic GHG induced Climate Change, does not have the luxury of time to learn from mistakes any-more.
Conventional Energy – the total conventional energy field of Nuclear, Coal, Oil and Gas is considered cheaper than the Renewable and Alternative Energy which are being advocated. I am not discussing Hydro, neither Macro nor Micro, because with the pitiable state of Water in the World, having enough for irrigation and drinking would be a challenge in itself. And nobody in there right mind would like to build another huge dam, without inviting controversy. And for the smaller ones, finding a fast flowing stream close to civilisation is difficult. Perhaps one must also tread with caution when we look at the total boutique of Alternate and Renewable Energy source and not take things at face value.
We will explore through this article each form of energy and do a comparative analysis of the pro & cons. And in the most simple way possible.
1. Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provide about 6% of the world’s energy and 13–14% of the world’s electricity. Although now considered conventional due to the time frame it has been around, Nuclear technology is both an alternative energy as well as a renewable energy. Nuclear fusion and nuclear fission are two different types of energy-releasing reactions in which energy is released from high-powered atomic bonds between the particles within the nucleus. The main difference between these two processes is that fission is the splitting of an atom into two or more smaller ones while fusion is the fusing of two or more smaller atoms into a larger one.
Proponents, such as the World Nuclear Association and IAEA, contend that nuclear power is a sustainable energy source that reduces carbon emissions. It’s more environmentally beneficial solution since it emits far fewer greenhouse gases during electricity generation than coal or other traditional power plants.
Opponents, such as Greenpeace International and NIRS, believe that nuclear power poses many threats to people and the environment. Radiation isn’t easily dealt with, especially in nuclear waste and maintenance materials, and expensive solutions are needed to contain, control, and shield both people and the environment from its harm.
2. Coal, is composed primarily of carbon along with variable quantities of other elements, chiefly hydrogen, sulphur, oxygen, and nitrogen. Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams.
Proponents, Coal could be the world’s most attractive fuel in years to come thanks to the methods of coal purification which are resulting in more cleaner coal, removing sulphur and other dangerous elements. Coal is not only burned directly, but it can also be transformed into liquid or gas form. Its claimed that liquefied or gasified coal burns cleaner, meaning less air pollution.Coal is one of the world’s most plentiful energy sources. Compared with other energy sources, such as oil and natural gas, coal is inexpensive. It has been a useful resource for human consumption throughout history. It is primarily burned as a fossil fuel for the production of electricity and/or heat, and is also used for industrial purposes such as refining metals. Coal, a fossil fuel, is the largest source of energy for the generation of electricity worldwide.
Opponents, Coal usually has a negative impact on environment, mining can damage ground and surface waters and when coal burns as the fuel it releases CO2 which is the main greenhouse gas that causes global warming. The soft coal, which many power plants burn, contains sulphur. When the gaseous by-products are absorbed in clouds, precipitation becomes sulphuric acid. Coal sometime also contains radioactive material. A coal-fired power plant may also emit some radiation into the air, and is one of the largest worldwide anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide releases.
3.Petroleum or crude oil is a naturally occurring, flammable liquid consisting of a complex mixture of hydrocarbons of various molecular weights and other liquid organic compounds, it is a fossil fuel.
Proponents, Due to its high energy density, easy transportability and relative abundance, oil has become the world’s most important source of energy since the mid-1950s. No other energy source can move vehicles with greater speed at longer distances than oil. Petroleum is also the raw material for many chemical products, including pharmaceuticals, solvents, fertilizers, pesticides, and plastics wax, sulphur, asphalt ; the 16% not used for energy production is converted into these other materials.
Opponents, Oil may contribute to global warming in its production and use by releasing carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Burning oil releases extra carbon dioxide, that has been stored in the earth for millions of years. This is disrupting the natural carbon cycle. It also causes strong localized effects. CO, NOx, and particulates damage local ecosystems and directly impact life expectancy (think smog, asthma, etc). Separating and refining oil takes a lot of energy. Oil exists as a mixture of hydrocarbons with traces of sulphur and other compounds. For useful products to be separated from crude oil, it must be treated with “thermal cracking,” an energy-intensive process that separates and reforms different hydrocarbons based on their boiling point.
4.Natural Gas is a naturally occurring hydrocarbon gas mixture consisting primarily of methane, with up to 20 percent concentration of other hydrocarbons as well as impurities in varying amounts such as carbon dioxide. Natural gas is widely used and is an important energy source in many applications including heating buildings, generating electricity, providing heat and power to industry and vehicles and is also a feedstock in the manufacture of products such as fertilizers.
Proponents, Widely used, contributes 21% of the world’s energy production today. Used extensively for power generation as well as heat.Cleanest of all the fossil fuels. Burns quite efficiently. Emits 45% less CO2 than coal. Emits 30% less CO2 than oil. Low levels of criteria pollutants, (e.g. SOx, NOx) or soot when burned. Can be used as an automotive fuel. Burns cleaner than gasoline or diesel
No waste (e.g. ash ) or residue to deal with. Lighter than air, safer than propane which is heavier than air. Can be used to makes plastics, chemicals, fertilizers and hydrogen.
Opponents, Emits carbon dioxide when burned. Contains 80-95% methane, a potent greenhouse gas (GHG). Additionally, there are significant environmental risks associated with “fracking”. Water pollution due to run-off of fracking chemicals. Water can also bring up adsorbed underground toxins including arsenic. GHG footprint of shale gas greater than coal over 100 year time frame.
Fracking has been linked to earthquakes.
The most important fact of Coal, Petroleum and Natural Gas that they are a finite source. And with the World Human population growing to 9 Billion strong, finite source of Energy would soon divide the World into haves and have nots. Wars have been fought for less. Of Nuclear as far as attracting controversy, it can be considered the champion.
So that brings us to the New age energy mix, one one hand is the Alternative Energy and on the other Renewable Energy.While RE is in itself an alternative energy source to the conventional energy, I would still elaborate it so that the common person does not get confused by the smart use of words. Let me explain. The definition for alternative energy is found thus –Alternative energy is an umbrella term that refers to any source of usable energy intended to replace fuel sources without the undesired consequences of the replaced fuels.
Say the undesired consequence from coal fired thermal power plants is sulphuric acid rain, so can the alternative be, oil fired power plants or wood is used as fuel ? They would not have the same “undesired consequence” of the replaced fuel but bring in some other equally undesired results such as decimation of the rain-forest. Or instead of ‘fracking’ the gas, extraction of Gas Hydrates is propagated as the next alternative. The problem related to it I have already dealt with and can be read via the link. Then there are some alternative energy source, like bio-fuel which presently at a nascent stage to really make an impact. And that too has its own set of problems. One would require vast land mass to cultivate the cash-crop and other than it having the potential of destroying indigenous plants of the region, it would also require large security to keep it safe from natural disasters and man made mischief. One may also consider Nuclear, but unless the science fiction cold fusion becomes a reality, the present form has its own set of disadvantages. Therefore one must pause at the explanation for Alternative fuel which says “undesired consequences of the replaced fuels.“
Corporations with vested interested use these very languages to confuse the common person in accepting solutions which are not truly beneficial but can be presented as such till the problems it creates becomes endemic and the proverbial cat is out of the bag.
The bitter truth is there are no real solutions to the problem at present, all the solutions which are being presented are lets say – “bridge solutions”. Although I am a self declared fan on all Renewable Energy source. (even Nuclear, if its safety can be guaranteed ; unlikely in the present understanding of the technology), the fact can not be denied that for manufacture and transport and assembly of the New Age renewable energy machines, we still need to use mineral and machinery which can not be considered to be “clean”. This we must bear in mind while advocating for the RE technology. Therefore it is imperative that we back the right technology, lest “the sacrifice” we need to make in terms of environmental damage, to create the ultimate clean technology leaves us with no room to manuvere.
This brings us to the Gen Next solution of Renewable Energy. Let’s see how they stack up.
Krafla Geothermal Station. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1.Geothermal Energy is thermal energy generated and stored in the Earth. At the core of the Earth, thermal energy is created by radioactive decay and temperatures may reach over 9,000 degrees Fahrenheit (5000 degrees Celsius). Thermal energy is the energy that determines the temperature of matter. Earth’s geothermal energy originates from the original formation of the planet (20%) and from radioactive decay of minerals (80%). The geothermal gradient, which is the difference in temperature between the core of the planet and its surface, drives a continuous conduction of thermal energy in the form of heat from the core to the surface.
Proponents,Once produced, geothermal energy is nearly completely non-polluting. Geothermal power plants are relatively inexpensive to operate. The energy is technically renewable and can be used as direct power source. These power plants are environmentally friendly and leave few carbon footprints. Fossil fuels are not needed to bring geothermal power plants on-line. Geothermal energy (geothermal power) is a vast, renewable, clean, green, low carbon energy source that can be converted to electricity, and used to condition building environments. Improved technologies have the potential to access vast untapped sources of geothermal energy estimated to contain 50,000 times the energy of all oil and gas resources in the world. Geothermal energy requires no combustion; its energy already exists as heat. Capital costs for geothermal installations are lower than for comparable-size fossil or nuclear-fueled plants, and once a plant is built, there are no fuel costs.Where resources are abundant and accessible, geothermal power is already an energy bargain, usually less expensive than electricity generated by coal and nuclear plants It is flexible in its applications. It is well-suited for integrated industrial use – producing electricity, process steam, and heat for a a variety of industries and agricultural activities in a single region. There are no major economies of scale in production; small generating modules can be added one at a time as local development and need dictate.
Opponents, Technology only makes geothermal energy available from certain regions on the planet. Initial drilling costs are expensive and the process is complex.Geothermal energy requires a wide area. It needs to have a massive area in order to lay the pipes and to build the power plant itself. Studying an area if there is enough geothermal energy source is costly. Geothermal energy plants have the possibility to cause earthquakes. It is not viable in areas where geothermal heat is not abundant. Geothermal characteristics change with the area, so exploration is not easy. Geothermal turbine efficiency is comparatively low due to the low temperature and pressure of steam input. Overall plant efficiency is estimated to be about 15 percent less than that of a fossil-fuelled plant. Possible environmental dangers posed are land subsidence; production of waste water with high mineral content; release of noxious gases, such as hydrogen sulphide, ammonia and boron into the atmosphere, and large amounts of water vapour; and noise produced are substantial. Initial construction cost is expensive.
© Guerito 2005 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
2.Wind Energy, Wind is the movement of air across the surface of the Earth, from areas of high pressure to areas of low pressure. The surface of the Earth is heated unevenly by the Sun, depending on factors such as the angle of incidence of the sun’s rays at the surface (which differs with latitude and time of day) and whether the land is open or covered with vegetation. Also, large bodies of water, such as the oceans, heat up and cool down slower than the land. The heat energy absorbed at the Earth’s surface is transferred to the air directly above it and, as warmer air is less dense than cooler air, it rises above the cool air to form areas of high pressure and thus pressure differentials. The rotation of the Earth drags the atmosphere around with it causing turbulence. These effects combine to cause a constantly varying pattern of winds across the surface of the Earth. Wind power is the conversion of wind energy into a useful form of energy, such as using: wind turbines to make electricity, windmills for mechanical power, windpumps for water pumping or drainage, or sails to propel ships. ‘Wind Energy’ is the kinetic energy of air in motion.
Proponents,Wind energy is a green energy source. Wind energy is friendly to the surrounding environment, as no fossil fuels are burnt to generate electricity from wind energy. Wind Power is free and in abundance in certain areas. The Wind Speeds are always higher on the shoreline, at the top of a hill, and in places free of obstructions. Wind Power does not generate “Pollution”, or radioactive waste. It does not consume any of the non-renewable resources such as coal, natural gas, or oil. Wind Power can generate enough energy for large numbers of people. By using larger turbines connected to an electrical grid it allows people the benefit of wind power without owning their own wind system. With new technology, the cost of a residential wind power turbines have decreased significantly while increasing in their efficiency. Small Wind Turbinesgaining some traction – While Wind Turbines are not generally used in distributed form, it is possible to now use small wind turbines being built by a number of companies to power small establishments.It is reported that costs have decreased well over 60% since the 1980’s. Wind power has no hidden costs, and it has become more cost-effective with each new round of technological advancements. It is a “permanent energy”. Wind turbines take up less space than the average power station. Windmills only have to occupy a few square meters for the base, this allows the land around the turbine to be used for many purposes, for example agriculture. Another advantage of wind energy is that when combined with solar electricity, this energy source is great for developed and developing countries to provide a steady, reliable supply of electricity. The offshore Wind Energy sector has the advantage of no land usage,no noise problems and the wind is much better leading to higher load factors. The costs are currently higher but in the future are expected to come rapidly come down. Wind power may be used to provide electricity to individual homes or other facilities on a self-reliant basis, with no need for fuel or other materials to be supplied. If a natural disaster severs power lines, residents with windmills will not lose their supply of electricity. The wind will exist until the end of the sun. About 5 billion years.
Opponents, Wind is unpredictable and the availability of wind energy is fluctuating. In many areas, the winds strength is too low to support a wind turbine or wind farm.Wind energy is therefore not suitable as a base load of energy source . This is why wind turbines have to be used together with other renewable or even non-renewable to meet the power demand. Another of the disadvantages is that they can be damaged in thunderstorms, partially because of their tall, thin shape. The website of the US National Lightning Safety Institute indicates that most damage to wind turbines is caused by lightning. This is more of a problem in warmer parts of the world, where they are frequent.Wind turbines generally produce a lot less electricity than the average fossil fuelled power station, requiring multiple wind turbines to be built in order to make an impact. The noise pollution from commercial wind turbines is sometimes similar to a small jet engine. Wind Turbines can sometimes use large amounts of land if not properly planned and built.The construction of roads to access the wind farms etc also takes up some land. Environmentalists express concern about the loss of trees, because the large turbines require turbulence free wind and also for bird life as they can intrude on birds migration flight path.
3.Wave Energy, Wave power is the transport of energy by ocean surface waves, and the capture of that energy to do useful work,for example; electricity generation, water desalination, or the pumping of water (into reservoirs). Machinery able to exploit wave power is generally known as a wave energy converter (WEC).Wave power is distinct from the diurnal flux of tidal power and the steady gyre of ocean currents. Different regions of the earth’s surface receive different amounts of heat from the sun – the polar regions, for example, receive less sunlight than equatorial regions. This uneven heating creates differences in air temperature and pressure that cause wind. Winds blowing out at sea cause waves to form; these waves travel across the ocean surface and break on shores and beaches around the globe. In many areas of the world, the wind blows with enough consistency and force to provide continuous waves. There is tremendous energy in the ocean waves. Wave power devices extract energy directly from the surface motion of ocean waves or from pressure fluctuations below the surface.
Proponents,Wave Energy does not produce any GHG emissions or cause air pollution from the combustion of fossil fuels unlike coal,oil or gas.This makes them very attractive as a source of cheap,non carbon dioxide producing electricity. Wave Energy does not require any fuel like most other sources of energy. Wave Energy Generators can be installed in various sizes with as little as 1 MW.This is not possible for other energy forms which require a minimum large size such as Coal,Nuclear etc. Compared to wind,wave energy has a major advantage. The air that drives the turbines is about one thousands less dense than the water just below the ocean surface. The energy that can be harnessed and used in electricity generation is parallel to the density of the medium. This means that wave energy could be harnessed at much lower speeds.The amount power in that comes in waves is huge. The energy density is typically around 30-40 kW for every meter (3.2 feet) of wave along the shore. Further into the ocean 100kW for every meter may be achieved. Waves are hardly interrupted and almost always in motion. This makes generating electricity from wave energy a reasonable reliable energy source ( when compared to solar and wind). Wave energy source ultimately comes from the heat energy that is emitted from the sun. Thus will exist until the end of the sun. About 5 billion years.
Opponents, strong ocean storms and salt water corrosion can damage the devices, which could increase the cost of construction to increase durability and/or cause frequent breakdowns. This especially holds true with the increased complexity of the devices. Sea life could be harmed or have habitats disrupted or displaced by the operation of the devices or the mooring of the devices. The potentially larger footprint of ocean-dwelling device farms could reduce shipping channels and fishing and recreation areas. The movement of Attenuators or Point Absorbers or intake and movement of water in the OWC and Overtopping devices could produce a loud, constant noise. This noise is unlikely going to be significantly louder than the waves would make on their own.
4.Solar Energy, Solar Power, as the term is commonly used, applies to energy systems that produce energy directly from sunlight. Solar energy is the conversion of sunlight into electricity, either directly using photovoltaics (PV), or indirectly using concentrated solar power (CSP). Concentrated solar power systems use lenses or mirrors and tracking systems to focus a large area of sunlight into a small beam. Photovoltaic convert light into electric current using the photoelectric effect.
Proponents, All forms of solar power are extraordinarily clean and abundant. They produce zero pollution when operating. Well suited in also providing power in home or single building applications, such as rooftops of home owners, office buildings, etc. This reduces loss of power in transmission from utilities. Ability to harness electricity in remote locations that are not linked to a national grid. Very efficient in a large area of the globe, and new technologies allow for a more efficient energy production on overcast/dull days. The technology is proven by its ability to harness electricity in remote locations that are not linked to a national grid. A prime example of this is in space, where satellites are powered by high efficiency solar cells. Small solar power systems are easily installed. Solar energy systems can be used in solar heating water systems, photo voltaic solar systems, solar home heating systems and solar home cooling systems. Its scalable & portable to be used in products like calculators, flash-lights, camping lanterns, attic fans, pond heaters and racing car kits. They are silent and have no moving parts. It is the most reliable form of energy -The sun rises daily, without fail. Will exist until the end of the sun. About 5 billion years.
Opponents, Solar energy is only able to generate electricity during daylight hours. Although there is a variety of options for storage, the most obvious is batteries, which are quite expensive. The weather can affect the efficiency of solar cells. Pollution levels can affect a solar cells efficiency. Low efficiency, requires large surface areas. Solar panels take up quite a bit of roof space and there are reported problems from glint and glare.
The above completes the complete energy mix available to Humankind of the 21st Century. But it also opens up more questions than answers as to which would be the final energy medium to be declared the Champion. To find the answer we must explore a bit more.
The two essential components of all generators on the power grid are dispatch-ability and reliability. Dis-patchability means that generators can be started when operators need them, any time day or night, regardless of weather conditions and Reliability means that a generator will, virtually every time it’s fired up, produce constant, controllable power exactly as required by the power plant operator. The electrical grid system, run through conventional power works not because every piece of equipment is one hundred percent reliable, but because there are hundreds of components with a large amount of reserve output capability (back-up) that work together to form one, very large, reliable system. The modern electrical power grid is designed and managed to operate 99.9% of the time with less than a 2% variance in voltage, regardless of the load swings placed on the system. The new age renewable energy systems need to match up to this.
Now if we bring in Geo-thermal and wave technology, the former was never considered as a major source of energy by many nations, not because it does not have potential, but because it is limited to a great extent by geography, and even where it may be present in abundance, it can not be totally green because the basic method of extraction is drilling, which is similar to fracking and can have similar problems and hazards.
Lets look at Wave Energy. There are many forms of this technology.But none are having the ability to produce large amounts of power yet. But if you look at the one devised by Palamis which I wrote in my earlier article it holds a lot of promise. Yet it too is not completely dis-patachable or reliable. High waves are not always a constant feature and vary from on geographical location to another, therefore reliability would require customisation depending on which part of the globe it is to be installed.
Wind power also isn’t completely dis-patchable; it can’t be started unless the wind is blowing. Solar power also can not be produced in absence of sunlight. Wind power also fails the reliability test because, even when the wind is blowing, it rarely blows at a constant speed. Wind tends to blow in gusts with an ebb and flow that makes wind generated power difficult to control. Solar too faces the uncertainties of weather. Also Solar insolation is not the same throughout the globe.
So as of now there seems to be no ‘perfect solution’ in sight, unless we combine the three, Wind – Wave – Solar. In an article some time back I had written about the benefits of Wind-Solar and Geothermal, while keeping Wave power separate in another article. But if you combine the three, the probability that at any given time one would be producing power can not be discounted. However, the problem therefore would be how to calibrate the power generation between the maxima and minima. Therefore breakthroughs in energy storage technologies is required to change this in the future. Already lot of work is being done, but it is not a ready solution yet.
But learning for Humans is a continuous process and I too have learnt that the Final winners for ENERGY NEXT would only be the combined strength of all the three. TRI -RE. ( pronounce – tree )
The most important advantage is that all the three energy is renewable and cannot be depleted. As long as the sun heats the earth and winds drive ocean waves, we will never run out of wave energy either. Fossil fuels, by contrast, are replenished so slowly by natural processes that for are essentially non-renewable. Once we run out of fossil fuels, we won’t have any more. If the tri-energy combine proves practical, it might help to replace fossil fuel combustion as a source of electric power. To do this we must look towards the sea, away from visual horizon, to take the aesthetics in mind and more power extraction, yet closer to the coast – for minimizing it from natural hazards and easier transmission. (The moorings can act as artificial reefs, thus attracting fish and other plant life, while keeping the deep-sea trawlers away. ) And complementing the loss in transmission by creating relay system using which ever technology among these is appropriate for the geographical place, thus minimizing the impact on land surface area.
Yet, they would be the ‘bridge solutions’ till the science fiction Nuclear Cold Fusion happens and can be packaged as fuel cells. Perhaps its time for WBCSD to think of Vision 2075 and look at all the Green Energy Combine.
Courtesy to :wikipedia, energy-consumers-edge, nuclearpowerprocon, ehow, energyformankind, energy-green, energyinformative, clean-energyideas, greenworldinvestor, renewablesguide, hubpages, windturbine, ocsenergy, idebate, gentle-earth, earth911, greenfuture.