Green energy – the new wave
This article has been taken from The Gen Newsletter - Summer 2007.
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Energy use and supply is at the top of the agenda again. The current level of interest hasn’t been so intense since the oil crises of the 70s. Whilst security of supply is still a key concern in many circles, the environment, climate change and reducing CO2 emissions are all significant factors now.
It is easy to jump on the green energy bandwagon. Householders can pick up wind turbines from DIY outlets. Companies can erect larger versions in their car parks. However, this may actually do more harm to the environment than good and be considered a ‘green wash’, not to mention a possible waste of money. Because high average wind speeds are needed to start with, a wind turbine in London will likely never produce as much CO2-free energy in its lifetime as the CO2 consumed during its manufacture.
However, that same wind turbine on the northern coast of Scotland will have offset the CO2 required to manufacture it within a few years. Similarly, solar panels are an excellent choice in places near the equator. So much so that even in less developed countries adoption rates are high.
Transportable renewable sources (as distinct from static sources such as wind, wave and solar) also have their problems. To provide sufficient biofuel to meet the EU’s petroleum needs would require all the agricultural land within it and a significant chunk of the Amazonian rainforest. Nuclear power is also not the magic solution touted by some, as the majority of energy consumption is for heating and transport, yet most of the current infrastructure is based on gas and solid fuels to provide this. Taking the UK alone, the planned next generation of nuclear power stations will only contribute 3.8 per cent to the overall power demand.
Is it all doom and gloom? Thankfully not. But the approach to how we generate and use energy is changing. A mix and match approach using a combination of renewables tailored to individual energy needs and geographical location, coupled with a robust lifecycle analysis (to avoid a green wash scenario), is vital.
Innovations in technology are also moving in leaps and bounds as illustrated by just three examples from the solar energy sector:
• ‘mining’ municipal waste sites to recover waste silicon
• technology to screen print solar cells from cheap, non silicon, raw materials
• step changes in solar cell efficiency from emerging quantum dot technologies
Other renewables and traditional sectors are seeing similar advances. Clean coal technologies, CO2 sequestration and bacterial fermentation for biomass production are the tip of the iceberg of an array of technologies that will deliver clean power.
We’ve had the industrial revolution, the IT revolution and now we have the green revolution. Successful innovation in energy is uniquely challenging. It requires thorough understanding, from business creation to fundamental physics. Our knowledge, coupled to an established track record, gives us the rare capability of meeting that challenge.
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