Replacing Fossil Fuels | Dissertation
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Published: Fri, 09 Feb 2018
This research provides guidance as to the most successful style of renewable energy in replacing the current dominant fossil fuels in the future. This success is based on a number of key variables, not least the implications of cost, management and longevity that are intertwined with developing, installing and running a renewable energy source. The case-study focused on the four main types of renewable energy, solar power, wind power, biomass energy and geothermal energy and came to some interesting conclusions.
A mixture of qualitative and quantitative research was used, with the majority of the findings coming from the qualitative research. However, the quantitative research was in the form of two case studies highlighting the effectiveness of two types of renewable energy in certain household situations and how the energy can replace that of traditional fossil fuels.
The findings show that while no one particular renewable energy type gained a majority backing from the research, knowledge about these types of energy is still perhaps too limited for any person to make a correct and informed choice as to the development of renewable energy. The qualitative research indicated that there are many strengths and weaknesses to each type of energy, while the quantitative research stressed that in certain situations renewable can be very effective. Another key finding of the literature was that general knowledge and understanding of renewable energy is not at an acceptable level in terms of the general public and leads to the recommendation of increased awareness.
Aims and Objectives
This section is designed to provide a detailed overview of the research aims and objectives of the present dissertation and the research questions that the study will try to answer in as comprehensive a manner as possible within time and resource constraints.
The aim of this study is to establish the possible options for renewable energy available in the United Kingdom for future use. This will be conducted through a comparative analysis of the four main types of renewable energy currently available, solar energy, wind, biomass and geothermal energy. The main aim of the research is to:
o Identify successful alternatives to the non-renewable energies in the United Kingdom
In order to achieve this, a number of objectives will need to be met. The aim of the research is to be able to conclude with clarity, the most attractive option or options available to the United Kingdom and its government in terms of renewable energy, for the current day and moreover, into the future. The uncertain prospect of the traditional non-renewable energies, coal, oil and natural gas, have meant that renewable energies have had to be developed with the aim that in the future, these newer, more environmentally friendly options will gradually take over the burden of energy supply in the United Kingdom.
Based on the research aim outlined in the previous subsection, the research objectives that the present study will seek to achieve are as listed below:
o To undertake an investigation into the four main sources of renewable energy; these include Solar Energy, Wind, Biomass and Geothermal energy.
o To gain an understanding of the history and development of these energies is needed to fully understand the extent to which the United Kingdom can rely on them in the future.
o An analysis of the benefits and disadvantages of each particular type of renewable energy
o To explore how well the government is backing renewable energy with incentives
o To examine the financial implications – to gain an insight to how much renewable energy will cost in installation, what grants are available?
o To examine design implications – installation of renewable sources, aesthetic, dimensional requirements.
There are particular research questions that will need to be addressed when attempting to analyse possible future energy alternatives. These include:
* How significant is the extent of cost when attempting to replace non-renewable energies with the more environmentally friendly types?
* How far does the government wish to develop all four types of energy? Do they have a particular idea as the market share that each one should ideally hold on providing energy to the United Kingdom?
* What can history tell the research about the likelihood that these renewable energy methods will succeed over a longer period?
* Can (and will) these renewable energies ever fully replace the non-renewable energies that the United Kingdom (and globally) has relied heavily and dependently upon since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution?
The research will attempt to address these questions and objectives whilst trying to meet the aim of the entire project; identifying successful long term strategies to replace dwindling non-renewable energy sources with abundant renewable sources while still enabling the United Kingdom to grow and hold its position of relative power and influence on a global scale.
Ever since the realisation that non-renewable energy sources (coal, oil and natural gas) are exactly as the description suggests, and that the level of these are reducing rapidly due to the global appetite for energy consumption in the continuing race for power, influence and development, it has been apparent that renewable energy sources would have to be developed to enable this global growth to continue. The United Kingdom, whilst overtaken in recent years by countries such as the United States and China in terms of energy consumption, has had a history intertwined with this notion. The Industrial Revolution, beginning in the United Kingdom in the 18th Century, acted as a catalyst for the rapid consumption of a large proportion of the world’s traditional, non-renewable energy sources. This has led to the necessity of developing renewable energy forms to supplement these more traditional energy types, with the aim to take over the burden of energy supply in the future.
Brown (cited in Miller & Spoolman, 2008:211) states that in terms of history, the 19th Century belonged to coal and the 20th Century to oil. However, the 21st Century will belong to the sun, the wind and energy from within the earth. This belief is widely held for a number of reasons and highlights the importance that the development of renewable energy sources has on the current agenda of policy makers and governments on a global scale. However, this will prove to be a difficult challenge. As Sawin (2004) stresses, over the previous decade, the World Bank funding for fossil fuel projects (totalling $26.5 billion) far exceeded that for renewable energy (Sawin, 2004:13). It is this type of obstacle that can make the development and mainstreaming of renewable energy difficult to implement and is why it is so crucial to research this issue, highlight the financial costs of renewable energy as a long term successor to the fossil fuels and increase public knowledge of renewable energies and their benefits. The renewable energy options are possibly limited to four main types. Whilst many various options have been and are being developed by researchers and scientists, only four are currently at a stage where they could develop enough energy to be able to supplement and then eventually succeed non-renewable energy. These are highlighted as solar energy, wind power, biomass and geothermal energy (Tiwari & Ghosal, 2005:17). These four types of energy will therefore form the focus of the research with each particular strand of energy being investigated to establish whether it is feasible that any one (or perhaps a combination) of these energies can ever be relied upon to replace fossil fuels. This is the long term aim of renewable energy, whilst at the current time, they are still on the periphery in terms of usage when compared to non-renewable energy forms.
The research will identify strengths and weaknesses of each of the four types of energy, particularly focusing on people’s opinions and other variables such as cost, performance and design issues that may gain or lose support depending on the results. The research will be conducted through two different approaches. Firstly, there will be a qualitative analysis of the literature available on each of the four main sources of renewable energy. This coupled with official government information detailing about each type of energy will form the majority of the research. In this manner, the proposed research will be qualitative based. However, the success of the mixed method approach to research, as championed by Maxwell (2005:183), highlights that the research should include quantitative data research as well. This will be conducted through two case studies, analysing the effects of two of the renewable energy sources on a small scale. These will be focused around particular individuals’ attempts to use a form of renewable energy to replace more traditional fossil fuel energy in their home. The quantitative data achieved by these two samples will provide evidence as the success of the renewable energy type in replacing more established non-renewable energy in an everyday life situation. This will enable the research to identify key areas that surround the debate over renewable energy sources and the suitability of each of the four main types in their possible future role as the majority providers of energy to the United Kingdom.
1.1: Solar Energy
Solar energy is perhaps the most prominent of all the renewable energy sources currently available. Solar energy has existed in many forms for thousands of years (Craddock, 2008:28). He stresses that early users of solar energy include the Romans who used the suns’ rays to heat their rooms and designed south facing windows to make use of the heat provided by the sun. In the modern era, technology has developed rapidly and solar energy is now seen as much technical and efficient than ever before. The literature review will analyse solar energy and emphasise the strengths and weaknesses of the energy as a possible candidate for large scale usage on a national level.
As Figure 1 highlights, when the sun’s rays shine upon a solar panel, the effect converts the light energy to electrical energy. In this instance, the power from the solar panel is directly proportional to the amount of light shining on it, so if the light from the sun is three times as bright on a particular day than the previous day, then you will receive three times the power. (Stubbs, 2008:4) The development of solar energy has occurred due to the understanding that our current way of life cannot continue if we remain economically dependent on fossil fuels. A champion of solar energy, Scheer (2004) supports the theory that it is imperative that we make comprehensive use of solar energy, not just to augment fossil fuels but to replace them before they either run out or critically damage the world through pollution and dangerous emission levels (Scheer, 2004:4). There are two main formats that solar energy takes. These are passive and active formats (Craddock, 2008). A passive solar energy system uses the sunrays directly to heat water or gas. The active system converts the sun’s energy into electrical energy by using a photovoltaic semiconductor material called solar cell (El-Sharkawi, 2005:89). The researcher also provides evidence that solar power can be relatively low in terms of its efficiency stating that the electrical power output of the solar panel, arrived at by multiplying the solar power input by the efficiency of the panel (Figure 2), can often produce a low amount of energy.
The energy produced in the equation above is only high enough to power two light bulbs. This can be countered by increasing the size of the panel and the efficiency of the panel. These two changes will increase the output (El-Sharkawi, 2005:89). Developments made recently should, according to Jones (2003:48), allow solar cells to operate more efficiently. The recent innovation of solar concentrators is used in solar thermal technology to generate heat to power turbines. With solar concentration technology, mirrors or lenses focus light onto specifically designed cells. The older versions of solar cells have solid absorbing layers that require clear skies and direct sunlight to produce energy. However, new solar concentrators follow the sun’s path through the sky during the day allowing a better chance at finding direct sunlight. This highlights that solar power is increasing in efficiency and from a relatively un-technical beginning, solar power is now a real possibility at providing alternative power to fossil fuels in the future.
Wind power is perhaps the most striking of all of the recent developments in renewable energy. The wind turbines that adorn high peaks across the country are constant reminders of the attempts by the government and industry to develop renewable energy. Wind power is generated through the utilisation of large scale convective currents that carry heat from lower latitudes to more northern destinations. These create rivers of air that are used by newly developed wind turbines to generate power. (Figure 3)
Winds are strongest at high peaks and specifically more frequent and at their strongest along the shores of lakes, seas and oceans, restricting the placement of wind turbines to coastal regions in many parts of the world (Gipe, 2004:24) As Figure 4 highlights, the power of wind can be increased to almost two hundred percent of its normal speed as it reaches the crest of a peak, thus ensuring the positioning of the wind turbines. These have led to many criticisms of the aesthetics of the turbines, given that they are large and seen as imposing by some onlookers. The wind turbines can produce a large volume of energy but are dependent on nature and days of unusually low wind speed can reduce the effectiveness of the turbines remarkably.
When the wind speed is above the level needed to produce the maximum efficiency, no power losses are achieved in the system. It is only when the wind speed drops below the necessary level that the efficiency of the wind turbine drops (Hau, 2006:489). There are a number of strengths and weaknesses of wind power and these will be assessed in the literature review. However, the UK has increased its share of the wind turbine market recently (at an average rate of 35% per annum) in its attempts to increase the percentage of which all electricity generated will come from renewable sources by 2020 (This has been set at 20% : Government White Paper, 2003).
There are various types of wind turbines, in different shapes and sizes, developed to harness the wind power at a particular geographical location. The main two versions of the modern wind turbine are based around the axis. The two different types are the horizontal axis and the vertical axis. The horizontal axis (Figure 5 above) is the most commonly seen in the United Kingdom and is popular due to the high efficiency rating. The higher the tall tower base, the higher the wind speed and the more output that can be created. This is why the horizontal axis is the most popular.
However, this is also one of the disadvantages with complaints arising about the sight of these wind turbines on the horizon from many locals when they are installed. Vertical axis wind turbines (Figure 6) are less common in the United Kingdom. These vertical axis turbines are less common due to the fact that they are generally less efficient, because of the nature of its rotation and the stress on the blades. This leads to frequent replacements and therefore a higher cost. They are, however, less tall than horixontal axis wind turbines and therefore less of a distraction on the horizon for those that are angered by the horizontal axis types.
Biomass energy is defined as any solid, liquid or gaseous fuel source derived from recently dead biological material. This is opposed to fossil fuels that come from long dead biological material. Biomass constitutes the largest non-hydroelectric renewable source of primary energy in the United States and its presence is growing rapidly in the United Kingdom (Turner & Doty, 2009:443). This is highlighted by Chiras (2006:21) who stresses that many countries are now turning to biomass as an alternative fuel source due to its relative ease in creating energy and the low cost involved.
Biomass includes a wide assortment of solid fuels, such as wood, and liquid fuels such as ethanol derived from corn and biodiesel, a liquid fuel made from vegetable oils. The wide variety of forms that biomass can take can be found in figure 7. Biomass is remarkably popular as an energy source, as stated previously due to the low cost and relative ease at obtaining the materials needed for conversion.
The three main conversion types are anaerobic digestion, fermentation to alcohol and the thermal process which produces a range of fuels and by-products including methane, methanol and ethanol that can produce heat, power and light, as well as fertilizers and fibres that can be used to produce food, textiles and plastics. (Figure 8)
This range of products and power that it can produce make it very flexible and attractive to those who support the development of renewable energy. However, one key advocate of biomass energy states that currently most use of biomass energy is not clean or sustainable. The pollution caused by burning wood, manure and agricultural waste is causing severe health problems. It is also true that some energy crops have a bigger energy and environmental cost than they return. Thomas (2007:44) indicates that if biomass is to be a vital part of the future energy mix then there needs to be methods developed to process and use it in sustainable way over a long period of time.
Biomass energy has accounted for over thirty percent of the United Kingdom electricity generation from various renewable energy types over the past five years. This amount is only second to that of hydro power (Institute of Physics Report, 2010). Although the total amount generated by renewable energy is still relatively small compared to that of traditional fossil fuels, it highlights that if biomass can be developed on a larger more industrial scale, and if more environmentally friendly processes can be created, then the usage of biomass technology may increase dramatically in the near future. Support within the United Kingdom exists for the development of the biomass energy industry. A recent report (European Wind Energy Association, 2009:524) highlights that the United Kingdom government has developed grant schemes (funds reserved from the New Opportunities Fund) for investments in energy crops and biomass power generation of at least £33 million over three years. This will hopefully enable the biomass industry to develop cleaner, more sustainable methods of creating biomass energy that can be used on a much larger scale.
Geothermal energy is identified as power extracted from heat stored in the earth. It has a long history of use, from simple ways such as bathing to the modern use; that of generating electricity. In recent years, geothermal power has developed but still only supplies around 0.5% of the global electricity. Geothermal power is identified as cost effective, reliable, sustainable and environmentally friendly. However there are setbacks in the development of the energy. The main negative aspect of geothermal energy is that it is has been historically limited to regions that are close to or on tectonic plate boundaries (Craddock, 1998) Geothermal power works through a relatively simple process, exploiting the heat of the earth and transforming it into electricity. Figure 9 highlights how this process occurs. Capehart (2007) underlines the abundance of geothermal power and states that the resource base for the power can be drawn from shallow ground to hot water and rock several miles below the Earth’s surface to even further down, to molten rock known as magma (Capehart, 2007:377).
There are three types of geothermal power plants operating in the world today. These are dry steam plants, flash steam plants and binary cycle plants. Dry steam plants directly use geothermal steam to turn turbines. Flash steam plants pull deep, high pressure hot water into lower pressure tanks and use the resulting flashed steam to drive the turbines.
Binary cycle plants pass moderately hot geothermal water by a secondary fluid to flash to vapour and then this vapour then drives the turbines (Capehart, 2007:337). Geothermal energy is seen as very reliable in that it has an average system availability of 90-95%. This is far higher than other sources of renewable energy. There is however a negative aspect in the aesthetics of the geothermal power plants, with many scholars highlighting the unattractive nature of the plants (figure 10) as well as negative public opinion on this matter (Saunders, 2007).
The benefits of geothermal power have been harnessed by countries such as Iceland and the United States for a number of years but only now is the United Kingdom beginning to realise the potential of this renewable energy process. An article by Morris (2009) notes that with the recent development of planning for the United Kingdom’s first geothermal energy plant, the most suited region may be that of Cornwall due to the granite located there lending itself to the process. Morris (2009) emphasises that those behind the Eden scheme believe that Cornwall could provide as much as 10% of the United Kingdom’s electricity for the next one hundred years from geothermal plants. He also identifies other granite basements in the north of England and the north-east of Scotland.
Geothermal power is therefore a currently underdeveloped source of renewable energy in the United Kingdom but has the potential to become a reliable and environmentally friendly source of power over the next few decades. The development of technology should also help to strengthen the support behind geothermal energy, given that at any location on earth, deep down in the core there is the potential energy for geothermal power. If developments can be made the energy to be harnessed away from tectonic plate boundaries, then the power of geothermal energy could perhaps become unrivalled when compared to other renewable energy sources. The literature review will continue this debate as to the strengths and weaknesses of each particular renewable energy resource.
2: Literature Review
This literature review will provide part of the secondary research into the research question posed at the beginning of the work. The aim; to identify successful alternative renewable energy sources to replace that of non-renewable energy sources (fossil fuels) that currently are in demand today. Morgan (2007:9) stresses that while fossil fuels bring enormous benefits to the world, in term of the production of mass energy that has allowed global industry and technology, as well as levels of living to rise rapidly in the last one hundred and fifty years, there a number of negative aspects to non-renewable energy sources. The limited nature of the resources is one, but also the affects that the use of coal, oil and natural gas has on the environment is also a key factor in the need to develop renewable energy sources that are environmentally friendly.
Therefore this literature review will attempt to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the four main renewable energy types; solar, wind, biomass and geothermal and highlight a possible successful candidate or candidates that could take over in producing the large majority of global energy. In this manner, the four main types will need to be analysed in a number of key areas; cost, effectiveness, affect to the environment and aesthetics.
A good overview is provided by Freris & Infield (2008). They highlight that after the United Kingdom government set the target of achieving 20% renewable energy in electricity supply by the year 2020, it became possible to analyse a cost for the proposed energy developments. An analysis completed in 2003 suggested that the extra cost for the development of renewable energy processes would represent an additional 0.3p/kWh on consumer electricity bills. This was focused primarily on wind power, as wind power is expected to contribute the majority of the renewable energy target (Freris & Infield, 2008:215). Other scholars also support the view that wind power is the most expensive of the renewable energy processes. Ackermann (2005:300) acknowledges that the use of wind energy in remote areas is an exceedingly expensive option when trying to harness power from the earth, rather than using non-renewable energy sources.
Quaak, Knoef and Stassen (1999) indicate their preferred method, through cost analysis, is that of Biomass. They state that the initial start up costs are less expensive than wind, solar and geothermal energy plants and also the longevity of the plants as compared to that of wind turbines (that need parts replacing on a regular basis) is a key factor in the cost analysis and that biomass is by far the cheapest of the renewable energy sources currently available (Quaark, Knoef & Stassen, 1999:1).
However, although Walker (2007) identifies that biomass is currently the cheapest form of energy, the scholar also states that solar power could become, over time, the cheapest form of energy. While solar panels are expensive, this is only because of the low number of them. Walker (2007:7) notes that solar cells would become dramatically less expensive if more people bought them, allowing the solar cell companies to reduce prices due to a healthy competition. The simple nature of solar power, combined with a drop in prices could aid the overall cost of the energy source, allowing it to become cheap and competitive with other renewable energy sources. Sass & Duffield support the view of the cheap costs of geothermal energy as opposed to wind, biomass and solar energies. They state that geothermal energy, despite high initial installation and start-up costs, can dramatically lower monthly energy bills and therefore in the long term, or within a few years, the cumulative energy savings equal the extra up-front costs and can become less expensive than other forms of energy. An interesting viewpoint is provided by Orr (2009:23) who indicates that at the current time, none of the existing renewable energies are cost effective and it is why governments across the globe are having to provide grants to develop them. The competitive nature of global society means that only cost effective and profit generating products succeed. Therefore, designers of renewable energy processes need to find ways to lower the costs of purchase for these energies in an attempt to rival cheaper and more established fossil fuel production. It is only in this way that renewable energies can hope to develop rapidly; to the benefit of the Earth.
Effectiveness and reliability
The effectiveness and reliability of an energy source is the most fundamental issue that surrounds its development. An energy that has low levels of effectiveness and low reliability rates will usually never be mass developed, due to the restrictive nature and high costs to gain a substantial yield. Wind power is suggested to have a relatively high effectiveness rating by Spilsbury & Spilsbury (2007). However, other scholars stress that wind power is the least effective of all of the different renewable energies due to the loss of potential power through its design (Petersen, 1999). Other energies such as geothermal, with a 95% availability (Bracaloni et al, 1995) have a far higher efficiency rating. Quaark, Knoef & Stassen (1999:52) also highlight the relative low efficiency rating of biomass energy, stating that conditions at times only allow a 25-35% efficiency rating. Lomborg (2001:134) stresses that the efficiency of solar cells is also around the 20% mark, indicating that geothermal energy is far more efficient that other forms of renewable energy.
One of the key weaknesses of the fossil fuels and their use in energy production today is the negative effects that they have on the environment. The creation of carbon dioxide from the processes needed to create energy from coal, oil and natural gas has acted as a catalyst in lowering climate conditions across the globe. Therefore, one of the main aims for new renewable energy sources is to promote an environmentally friendly strategy. Lomborg (2001) identifies that one of the renewable energy sources being discussed lacks this strategy. Lomborg stresses that biomass energy production gives rise to a slew of pollution problems such as suspended particles, sulphur, nickel, cadmium and lead. This is supported by the Council of Europe (no date) who indicate that the weakness of biomass energy is that it produces relatively large amounts of fine particles and often also other air pollution like polyaromatic hydrocarbons and heavy metals.
Compared to this, the Council stress that wind energy only causes some carbon dioxide and fine particle emissions in the construction phase, whereas solar energy appears to be the most environmentally friendly of the renewable energies. Chiras (2009) identifies this and supports the notion that solar power is perhaps the most environmentally friendly of all of the renewable energies. The construction phase causes less emissions than any other renewable source and the fact that industrial plants (such as that used for biomass and geothermal energy) are not required for solar power means that like wind power, once constructed there is no harm to the environment, with the solar panels soaking up the heat of the sun and transferring this into energy.
The aesthetics of renewable energy is a key factor in gaining support for possible renewable energy sources. Gipe (2004) stresses that wind power often comes under a lot of scrutiny due to the developments of horizontal axis wind turbines that dominant certain landscapes. Gipe indicates that communities are generally against these being developed because of the ugly aesthetical factor. However, he also notes that due to the nature of wind turbines and wind energy, these locations are generally remote and therefore do not affect the majority of people. There is also the development of wind turbines at sea, which could possibly aid the reduction of resentment towards wind turbines. Moreover, Scheer (2007:200) underlines that the rejection of wind power on grounds of aesthetic landscape pollution is treacherous and short-sighted and cites key examples of previous architecture such as skyscrapers as precedents. He also argues that the benefits of wind power far outweigh any argument on aesthetics and therefore feels it is a pointless debate. Chandrasekharam and Bundschuh (2002) feel that there is a similar argument for geothermal and biomass energy plants. The aesthetic factor may often be overriding but the success of creating environmentally friendly (geothermal in particular), renewable energy should outweigh any decision as to the aesthetical impact of these new sources of energy.
A number of key concepts were analysed in this literature review. The review suggests that opinions over renewable energy sources and their potential success rates are divided. While there appears to be agreement in the literature over the importance of developing renewable energy sources due to the fact that fossil fuel supplies are decreasing dramatically and that they have an adverse effect on the environment, there is real debate as to the preferred methods of renewable energy. Perhaps the most important contributing factor may come down to cost, and the literature review suggested that the current cost for all renewable energy forms are too high and
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