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Can renewables avert an energy crisis?

The depression of the 1930s spawned the phrase, 'When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold'. Today, in a more interconnected and interdependent world, economic poor health can be spread more quickly and more easily. Natural disasters, changes in government and i...

The depression of the 1930s spawned the phrase, 'When America sneezes, the rest of the world catches cold'. Today, in a more interconnected and interdependent world, economic poor health can be spread more quickly and more easily. Natural disasters, changes in government and increasing demand for certain commodities are factors which can now affect all of us. The recent stare-off between Russia and the Ukraine is a classic example - although the dispute was localised, the effects - specifically on the EU - could still be very significant. Russia turned off its supply for a total of three days and supplies were affected in Italy, France and Poland as pressure dropped. EU Energy Commissioner Andris Piebalgs confirmed on 11 January that energy had 'Moved up the agenda' to become a clear priority in EU policy. He warned of a 'severe energy crisis' within 20 years unless something is done. Renewable energy resources are forms that are replaced rapidly by natural processes. These sources can be thought of as limitless in our lifetimes and the lifetimes of our distant descendents. Examples include energy from the sun, wind, sea and earth's crust in addition to natural living resources such as plants. Why Renewable sources? The EU imports 35 per cent of its gas from Russia. Should Russia decide to turn-off that supply today, we would not be able to fill the energy gap. Fossil fuels are also huge contributors of greenhouse gasses. Renewable sources of power generally have far lower or no emissions, making them attractive for meeting Kyoto Protocol targets. European strategies focus on diversification of energy sources, and a medium-term plan for a pipeline through Turkey carrying gas from the Caspian Sea is on the drawing board. Some 80 percent of Europe's oil comes from the other side of the Mediterranean-from the Middle East and Algeria - Algeria is the source of a further 20 percent of Europe's gas. EU policy is to keep good relations with all these countries, but should instability break-out in these areas, another potential problem arises. One traditional energy source that is safe for the moment is coal, with large reserves within the EU, and 'safe' supplies in Australia and South Africa, where sources which are cheap, plentiful and governments politically stable. Stocks of fossil fuels are however limited. Current estimates put natural gas reserves at around 60 years. What does power cost? In the long-term, the only reliable energy will be from renewable sources. Today, conventional sources cost 0.04 euro per kwh. Biomass and wind costs between 0.04 and 0.08 euro, geothermal and concentrated solar thermal cost between 0.1 and 0.2 euro and photovoltaic between 0.2 and 0.4 euro. Wave technology remains at the prototype stage for now. If prices for coal, oil or gas increase, then two things happen - firstly, fossil fuels currently considered uneconomic to extract may become economic. Secondly, the price differential between conventional and renewable sources narrows. As the technology exploit renewables improves, this gap narrows further. Current use of renewables In the 25 EU Member States, six per cent of energy is renewable or 'green'. When electricity is considered alone, renewable sources account for 14 per cent of output. Of that figure, large hydroelectric power from dammed rivers is by far the largest contributor, producing almost 11 per cent of all the electricity in the EU. However, the damming process cannot extend, and many question the green credentials of large hydroelectric power, although it is emission-free. The EU is the world leader in renewable energy. Renewable sources of power are actively encouraged, as are the development and refinement of renewable technologies to increase efficiency. Targets for 2010 posit an increase in renewable sources from 14 per cent to 21 per cent of electricity production. Biofuel is a particular target, with the percentage set to increase from about 1 per cent now to 6 per cent in 2010. A number of renewable energy projects are currently receiving funding under the EU's framework programmes for research. Biomass Biomass refers to the use of wood or wood residues and products for burning or energy crops grown specifically for burning, or waste and biogas production for burning. The CHRISGAS project is a pilot scheme based in Sweden producing hydrogen-rich gases from wood biomass, funded under the Sixth Framework Programme (FP6) and the Swedish government. A pilot site is designed to provide combined heat and power, and currently provides 6 MW of electricity and 9 MW of heating. The hydrogen-rich gases produced through the CHRISGAS project can be used for a multitude of tasks, including fuel cells and liquid fuels, such as di-methly ether (DME), methanol and diesel. The site is now undergoing a refurbishment to improve the efficiency of the research and development activities. The current project is due to run until 2009, with the refurbished plant beginning testing in 2008. Two FP5 projects, CLEAN and AFFHORD, have investigated ways of minimising the overwhelming reliance on fossil fuels for transport. Together, they have found that biodiesel fuels give startling reductions in emissions, and that fuels high in DME can be used to power conventional vehicles with only a very basic reconfiguration of diesel engines. Photovoltaics Photovoltaic technology uses the sun's energy to chemically produce electrical current. This technology is currently a priority for the EU. The CONMAN (Photovoltaic Concentrator Systems for Manufacture) project, funded under FP5, investigated efficiencies in photovoltaic concentrates and has succeeded in reducing the costs for energy production and installation. The UK's Reading University, the lead partner, has established an offshoot company, Whitfield Solar LTD, to develop and manufacture cells. Under FP6, two projects - CRYSTAL CLEAR and FULLSPECTRUM - are investigating ways of improving efficiencies in both manufacture and generation. CRYSTAL CLEAR examines cost reductions in the manufacture of expensive silicon photovoltaic technology without a loss of efficiency. FULLSPECTRUM aims to better target the solar spectrum for photovoltaic cells. Wind Generation Wind generation is one of the oldest, most reliable and cheapest forms of renewable electricity generation. Several countries have already invested heavily in wind turbines, and technology has already made a huge difference. In 1980 the average power output from a single turbine was 50kW from a 15m blade length. Today, the average output is up to 2,000kW from an 80m blade length. Off-shore turbines have been planned with an output up to 5,000kW per turbine. The FP5 ANEMOS system aims to make super-accurate short-term weather forecasts to maximise the efficiency of wind turbines. In FP6, the DOWNVIND scheme aims to use oil platforms that are coming off-line as the infrastructure for offshore wind turbines. Geothermal Geothermal energy is the oldest of renewable energy sources, using warmth in the Earth's crust to heat water which is then used to drive turbines. The ongoing Soultz facility in France, initially funded under FP5, offers possibilities for Europe-wide energy. The Hot Dry Rock technique heats cold water in natural fissures. Electricity generation requires depths of up to 5 km to attain the necessary temperatures. The pilot plant can in theory produce 6MW of electricity. Concentrated Solar Power This technology uses mirrors to reflect and concentrate the sun's rays onto a receptor. The heat gathered can be used to power a turbine for electricity, drive chemical reactions or simply be used for heating or cooking. Concentrated Solar Power has great potential for small communities that have a great deal of sun, both in the EU and in developing nations. Although expensive to install, there are then few further costs. The FP5-funded PS10 project near Seville in Spain uses a tower design to produce a working 10 MW generator, contributing directly to the national grid. The scheme uses 624 mirrors, known as 'heliostats', each reflecting sunlight onto a 100m high tower. The heat (up to 1,000 degrees centigrade) drives a steam turbine, generating electricity. Similar tower systems can be used to drive thermochemical systems, such as the cracking of natural gas to produce hydrogen (such as the FP6-funded SOLHYCARB project) or develop solar-hybrid microturbines, such as the SOLHYCO scheme. Wave Power Wave power has enormous potential, but so far only prototype models are available. The Wave Dragon project is currently undergoing testing off the coast of Denmark. The final Wave Dragon will be a huge beast - the one-quarter scale prototype is 237 tonnes, and works by storing water from wave tops in a reservoir. The stored water is used to run turbines as it returns to sea-level. The prototype could be used in a number of sites across non-Mediterranean seas (the Mediterranean has insufficient waves). Small hydroelectric powers from turbines driven by river flow, and tidal barrages to exploit large differences in tides are also undergoing research. How quickly can these schemes be implemented? The EU is the world leader for renewable energy, and aims for growth and penetration to increase by double digits year-on-year. In places such as Northern Spain, Denmark and Germany, there are already areas where 15-20 per cent of electricity production is already completely renewable, mainly from wind power. The EU also leads in use of biodiesel. Up to 50 per cent biodiesel is not uncommon in public transport vehicles within the EU. Rudolf Diesel's first engines actually ran on what would now be referred to as biodiesel, derived from peanut oil. Biodiesel has far lower emissions and an equivalent efficiency to conventional diesel. Ways of exploiting new sources of oils for biodiesel will be the test. To replace fossil diesel with biodiesel now would require a vast investment in oil-rich crops. Algae may provide the answer, but commercial production of oil from algae does not yet exist. The innovations of the CHRISGAS project have brought biomass technology to the cusp of commercial viability, and the same goes for geothermal projects as detailed above. For many of the other technologies, there is some work to do before realistic, commercial models can be adopted and put into place. There are also limits on where certain technologies can be used, for example, sources needing the sun will be far more useful in southern Europe, where there is more sun, and wave power will have more use around the Atlantic coast and North Sea. However, as improvements in technologies increase all the time, the costs associated also drop, bringing these technologies closer still. How to increase green uptake The EU members do actively encourage green uptake by placing a variety of subsidies on green energy, but there is not yet an integrated EU energy plan. The funding of renewable sources of power does reveal a perceived Achilles heel - that renewable energy sources are only possible thanks to heavy subsidising from either the local government or the EU. However, research from the European Environment Agency in 2004 suggests otherwise -in fact the biggest recipients of subsidies are the fossil fuel industries. One more way to encourage renewable uptake is to review the model of electricity delivery. Currently, large producers pipe electricity to hubs, then to substations and then to further hubs and then to homes. This model presents a problem, as it makes the addition to the grid of small producers more difficult. Ways to overcome this are also the subject of ongoing research. Conclusions The nuclear industry has been growing its green credentials in recent years, but there are serious questions over the overall safety of some models of reactor, and how to safely dispose of radioactive waste. If gas supplies were to suddenly run-out, then there would indeed be an immediate problem for Europe and the rest of the world. However, assuming that stocks of natural gas have been accurately estimated, then there is sufficient time to refine renewable sources as gas supplies dwindle. There is also the question of energy consumption - today, the more we consume, the less fuel remains. More efficient uses of the available resources of power are essential now. If we are able to reduce our energy consumption, we will be more able to adapt more readily to reductions in power in the future, and this is something we can all contribute to now.

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