by Aaryn Lambert

    Sustainable Energy Initiatives – Electricity Sector

    Moving away from Hydrocarbons? – Potential Technologies for Transition

    It is no secret that many of the world’s climate change advocates have called for the elimination of all hydrocarbon fuel sources. Many of these advocates have gone further and called for the elimination of nuclear energy. This intervention of sorts would involve the elimination of:

    • Petroleum (including gasoline, diesel, propane, heating oil, etc.)
    • Natural gas
    • Coal
    • Liquid biofuels, such as ethanol
    • Wood and other biomass
    • Nuclear

    All that would remain to produce Electricity would be wind, wave power, tidal energy, hydroelectric, geothermal, and solar. Because of the ambitious time frame, the only techniques that can be used are ones that work at large scale today, or are very close to working. One should question the feasibility and viability of these technologies in providing raw base-load power to the grid.

    It does not take an expert to realize that with the Earth’s population ever increasing; and the economies of India, China and much of Africa moving full steam ahead, the need for energy will be increasing for the coming decades. The emphasis must be put on increasing existing technology effectiveness and efficiencies while decreasing environmental burdens. The newer sustainable technologies will incur the same roadblocks, with the added factors of capital cost and true cost/kwh (kilowatt hour). This is the primary deterrent for investment into the sustainable energy sector, the second factor being the inability to provide base-load power for set periods of time. The reliability factor is a major hurdle. Let’s take a glimpse of some of these sustainable energy technologies, keeping in mind that the average costs/kwh of Gas, Coal, and Nuclear fired plants range from 3.9 to 11.1 cents/kwh, the share of global energy pie for these technologies is 15%, 38% and 24%, respectively.

    Wind – 4-6 cents/ kwh

    Wind is considered 30 % reliable, and supplies only 1.4% of global supply; although this number is expected to increase drastically in the future. Wind is currently the only cost-effective alternative energy method, but has a number of problems. Wind farms are highly subject to lightning strikes, have high mechanical fatigue failure, are limited in size by hub stress, do not function well, if at all, under conditions of heavy rain, icing conditions or very cold climates, and are noisy and cannot be insulated for sound reduction due to their size and subsequent loss of wind velocity and power.

    Geothermal – 4.5 – 30 cents/kwh

    Geothermal is considered 90-95 % reliable. Geothermal only supplies 0.25 % of global energy, hopefully this will increase, although costs are a major obstacle. New low temperature conversion of heat to electricity is likely to make geothermal substantially more plausible (more shallow drilling possible) and less expensive. Generally, the bigger the plant, the less the cost and cost also depends upon the depth to be drilled and the temperature at the depth. The higher the temperature, the lower the cost/kwh.

    Hydropower – 5.1 – 11.3 cents/kwh

    Currently supplies around 19.9% of the global electricity demand. Hydro is considered to be 60% reliable. Hydro is currently the only source of renewable energy making substantive contributions to global energy demand. Hydro plants, however, can only be built in a limited number of places, and can have significant impact on aquatic ecosystems.

    Solar- 5 – 30 Cents/kwh

    Currently supplies approximately 0.8% of the global electricity demand. Solar is considered very reliable when the Sun is shining, but this type of energy can even be harnessed on overcast days. This technology has really advanced leaps and bounds in the past decade. Solar power has been expensive, but soon is expected to drop to as low as 3.5 cents/kwh. Once the silicon shortage is remedied through artificial silicon, a solar energy revolution is expected. Starting in India, Africa and the Middle East.

    According to Scientific American, if humankind completely stopped using Nuclear and Hydrocarbons for electricity production we would need the following:

    • 3.8 million large wind turbines
    • 90,000 solar electricity generating plants
    • “Numerous geothermal, tidal, and rooftop photovoltaic installations”

    Costs are expected to be around 200 trillion over a 20-year time frame… and in light of the present day economy and potential inflationary effects this is a very rough estimate. Major global energy players will have to invest in these sustainable technologies, mitigation of risk and feasibility analysis will be critical.

    The transition from Hydrocarbon fuels to sustainable energy technologies will be a difficult task. It will require a paradigm shift in human behavior. We will have to use less energy, be more aware and conscious of our energy wasting habits.

    I truly believe that all humans, as individuals, care for the environment; we care about the future generations and their quality of life. Technologies are more environmentally friendly than they have ever been. One can look back into history and two other energy transitions come to mind; biomass to coal and coal to oil. The prima-player in these transitions was advancements in technology. These technologies must be robust and proven on the grandest of scales; this is even truer in the present day. It is safe to say the training wheels have not come off the sustainable energy bicycle; these must come off before a true and real energy transition can occur.

    Humans must help remove these training wheels; R&D investment must be made, feasible projects that “make sense” must be financed. Human behavior is and will continue to be the primary factor in the rate of transition; these time frames will be crucial for any sort of sustainable transition. Can humans learn to live with less tangibles? Can we as a global population learn to use less energy? Humans need to embrace this change with open minds and a clear conscience; the issues at hand are real and not illusions. History has shown that humankind in many instances has waited for last minute solutions; let us hope that this is not the case for this matter… the solution would be far too late.

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