Sunday, November 1

Renewable energy isn't reliable?

So often I come across the idea that environmentalists want to drive us back into the caves. To be honest, I guess there has always been an element of this in environmentalist thinking, although having worked in engineering, the idea of living in caves has never been on my agenda!

Anyway having a genuine interest in new technology and ideas, I am always looking for new stuff. One issue that is always highlighted by people opposed to renewable energy is that it is variable and unpredictable. For individual electricity generators this is obviously a problem, in fact it is a problem for large power stations as well. As an engineer I had the privilege of working on a major computer/software/electronics project many years ago and the client had their own power station to power the systems they operated. Unfortunately not long after our system had been installed in the clients premises, the clients power station suffered a brief over voltage situation (the voltage went above the tolerances set by the client) this knocked out all the memory boards on the systems we installed.

The point I'm making here is that dependency on a small number of large and allegedly stable power stations doesn't actually make for a reliable system. In fact a greater number of small power sources networked together can provide a more robust system, because the impact of one or two generators failing has a smaller impact on the system as a whole. This is also the conclusion arrived at by the International Energy Agency in a recent report about renewable energy variability. The reality is, renewable energy is at the cutting edge of science and technology, not at all primitive.

Some of the most advanced work is actually being done on energy storage, including batteries and other storage systems. Recently the US Department of Energy contributed some funding to some highly technical and advanced projects that are aimed at providing solutions to grid stabilisation and electric vehicle development. These include Liquid Metal Grid Scale batteries, Advanced high density Lithium-Ion batteries using nano-technology, Metal-Air Ionic Liquid Batteries and Nanotube Advanced Ultra-capacitors

Here in the UK, we missed the boat a bit with wind turbine manufacturing and all the key players in that field are in Europe, some are in the US, with China and India fast catching up with their own comapnies. The UK has no home grown large scale wind turbine manufacturers other than a few factories here owned by those foreign companies.

All is not lost though, because an American company called Clipper is developing the largest wind turbine in the world in the North of England. The Britannia project will produce a 10MW turbine for offshore wind farms and will hopefully create many jobs (most modern turbines are between 2MW and 3.5MW).

The UK is actually the lead nation when it comes to Marine energy development and research. With companies like Marine Current Turbines, Lunar Energy, Swan Turbines and Tidal Energy Ltd amongst many others, we have an opportunity to actually build a stable design, development and manufacturing base in the UK that can provide a long term future for us all. But it requires some short term investment that is probably lacking right now and the danger is that British companies will go elsewhere to find the facilities and funding to keep going.

The questions is, what is it to be?
Stacking shelves at Sainsburys, or a new era of science, engineering and technology?

No comments: