Anyone who knows me knows I am an avid supporter of renewable technology. I am dedicating my masters research project to solar power. However, there is concern that renewable energy technology is not the silver bullet we are hoping for, with intermittent supply, low generation and poor storage some of the biggest challenges. This short read looks at why renewables are seen as the answer, as well as why they may not be and what might be.
In the UK there are 3 main types of renewable energy: Solar, Wind and Biomass, each with its own benefit and hindrance. The most obvious is solar. The UK is not a sunny country, yet in 2019 an average of 1.276GW was produced by solar energy, equating to 4% of the UK’s power requirement. For a cloudy, grey and rainy country, that is a significant percentage especially given the lack of space for large solar farms. However, there is a problem, solar energy fluctuates daily with spikes between midday and 4pm. This is a problem, as sometimes this energy becomes surplus to requirements, meaning that the energy collected will be wasting away on the national grid as heat.
Wind turbines are fascinating, massive structures which are a marvel of modern engineering. In 2019 wind accounted for 17% of the UKs energy generation, which is an impressive feat. Wind is similar to solar in the sense of the fluctuations; however, they are more unpredictable and much more reliant on weather conditions. Wind farms are becoming more common, with offshore wind being a good alternative investment to offshore oil rigs. This is only good news, as wind is unlimited, once set up the costs are only maintenance which is far lower than a traditional power plant. Similarly to solar, the fluctuations can cause an overload of energy onto the grid, which results in the wastage of energy.
Biomass is the most reliable form of energy generation, with significantly lower fluctuations compared to solar or wind. In 2019, Biomass accounted for 6.4% of the UKs energy generation. However, Biomass is not necessarily clean. Biomass energy is extracted by burning fuels which have recently been created. Examples include alcohol fermented from sugar, methane fermented from food waste and purposely grown energy crops. It is considered renewable as the carbon dioxide released was previously in the atmosphere in the past 100 years, meaning that unlike fossil fuels, the burning of these fuels will not have added extra CO2 to the atmosphere. Biomass therefore is not as ‘clean’ as other renewable sources, however it does have the benefits of using waste products such as food waste or sewage, eliminating two birds with one stone. The other benefit is the ability to keep a constant level of supply. Unlike the other two methods of generation, biomass is very similar to a traditional gas fired power plant where it is easy to predict and control the electricity production.
So, as mentioned, there are some problems with renewable energy, mainly storage. The UK has some energy storage facilities mostly in the form of gravitational potential energy, where water is stored at a high point, then released down a pipe to power a turbine when energy is required. However, these systems were built many years ago and with renewables becoming more and more important, there need to be different methods to capture this surplus energy. Electric cars are being hailed as one of the answers. Imagine your car being able to act as a battery for your home, collecting energy off the grid when it is at surplus, then releasing to your home, when needed. This is something that could be programmed into new electric cars to attempt to increase the renewable capacity of this country. Another example is Tesla’s powerwall, designed to save people money, the powerwall will act in the same way as described for the electric car, enabling people to control when they get their energy from the gird, as well as enabling renewables to extract more energy from the environment without fear of waste. The problem is cost. A single module Tesla powerwall can cost $6,500, not including installation, an astronomical expense for many. The problem is the cost of batteries. If battery cost reduces as forecasted, large scale battery technologies will be affordable enough to be installed across the UK allowing renewable energy to take off in the manner needed for the goal of net carbon zero.
In conclusion, it is clear that for renewables to really take off, battery and energy storage technology needs to improve dramatically. Renewables are the answer, however, so is batteries and the sooner both government and industry understand that, the faster we will be able to move to a low carbon future. Investing in energy management systems, enabling employees to make green decisions and pushing clients to adopt the greener solutions are all ways your business can not only help, but gain and profit from the inevitable move to a greener future.