We have a problem in the developed world. We’re greedy for more and more power. We can never have enough. We take energy for granted. Plug a hair dryer or a kettle into a socket and switch it on and it just works. Cold? Turn up the thermostat or adjust the timer on the central heating and we’re warm in minutes. We don’t have to think about the amount of energy we want to use, it is there for us whenever we want it at the flick of a switch.
It’s the same with our cars. Get in, fire up the engine and you have an enormous amount of power under your right foot. Even a small family car has an engine that could produce enough power to provide electricity for one hundred houses or more.
What has made all this possible is fossil fuel: oil, gas and coal. These fuels are amazing. They pack a huge amount of energy in a very compact form. The amount of energy in one litre of petrol (gasoline) is around the same as the energy stored in 250kg (550 pounds) of batteries. We’ve become pretty good at transporting fossil fuels around the world and we use them when we need them. As a form of usable energy, fossil fuels are pretty much unbeatable.
Of course, there are problems with fossil fuels. Supply and demand, climate change, the occasional war… I’m not going to list them all here. But the issue is this: we have become addicted to oil and the benefits it gives us. We don’t want to lose those benefits. Whatever we use to replace fossil fuels, the public demands that we should be able to carry on doing the same things we currently do.
And that is a big mountain to climb. Renewable energies are very good at producing smaller amounts of energy, but harnessing it on a utility scale is a huge undertaking. A single solar photovoltaic panel will produce, at most, around 300 watts of power: enough to watch TV, perhaps, but only a fifth of the power required to run a washing machine. Wind turbines can produce far more, but in comparison to the power output of a conventional power station, the numbers are tiny.
One of the biggest issues with most sources of renewable power is that we get the power when nature dictates. Solar power relies on sunlight, wind turbines rely on wind. Even hydro-power, which is one of the more reliable and controllable sources of renewable energy, ebbs and flows with the seasons.
That simply does not fit in with our demands for energy when we want it. It means that renewable energy technologies have to be supplemented with other forms of energy production. Here in the UK, a huge wind turbine building scheme now means that it is quite common for wind power to supply 20% or more of our nation’s electricity at any time. Yet on a calm day, the power output from wind turbines can be as low as 1% of our demand. The supply of this energy can fluctuate in just a few hours, making it difficult to manage supply against demand.
Traditional power stations struggle to manage this fluctuation. Coal and nuclear power stations are at their most efficient when running at a constant rate. In the UK, gas-turbine power stations are being used as load-balancers, increasing production when wind energy is low and reducing it when wind energy is higher.
Technology is evolving and we are resolving the issues. Tidal and wave energy, for example, has the potential to provide large quantities of reliable around-the-clock energy, whilst the development of stored solar thermal technologies in Spain demonstrates a way of providing a reliable 24-hour energy source from the sun. Right now in Sweden, I’m working on a wind farm project working with hydro-electricity to handle the peaks and troughs. It has the potential to eradicate the need for fossil fuels for electricity production in Sweden within the next four years.
We are getting closer. We have the technology and the ability to generate an abundance of electricity from renewable sources. We will be able to do it cost effectively and we will be able to have energy when we want it, not when nature decides to give it to us. We don’t have all of the answers yet, but we will do.
Will fossil fuels be redundant within my lifetime? Probably not. But at least we will have broken our addiction to oil and have a greener and cleaner source of energy, provided by nature, which will never run out.
Written by Michael Boxwell, bestselling author of the Solar Electricity Handbook.