As our government has decided to place fracking back on the agenda I thought it about time to highlight promising and feasible alternatives for the UK which can potentially be used commercially. Did I mention that they are also renewable? Whilst research into onshore fracking is relatively new, it does beg the question as to why companies are even bothering when there are safer and more widely accepted alternatives. Alternatives with greater research prospects and that have an actual market for free trade.
The pressure is most certainly on for our government to find a solution to the current energy crisis, especially as tensions are high between big producers of gas and oil. Though is it fair to use this momentary ecopolitical dilemma to invest in what can be described as a short-term scheme at the expense of the environment? I say at the expense of, simply due to the scale and amount of proposed fracking sites (Frack-off.org.uk, 2015) considering the lack of long-term studies for onshore hydraulic fracturing and its detrimental environmental/health effects.
With that in mind we need only look to our Scandinavian neighbours to decide whether renewable sources of energy are feasible. Sweden are a country renowned for their green performance and perhaps they are the ones we should be looking to for a solid renewable infrastructure and green social initiative factoring in their population (10 million) compared to other high performing green countries.
Here are some statistics regarding the Swedish environmental technology strategy according to Statistics Sweden; the strategy is backed by SEK 400 million in total funding with SEK 100 million allocated each year from 2011 to 2014. Sweden’s environmental technology sector employs roughly 40,000 people and has revenues of about SEK 120 billion (sweden.se, 2015).
Figure 1: A comparison of renewable energy usage between various countries
As you can see from Figure 1, Sweden’s total energy generation was 22, 946 toe using renewable sources in 2015, whereas the United Kingdom generated 13, 786 toe. These figures make our dependency upon fossil fuels stand out, especially considering the government’s new scheme to promote fracking and endorse such companies. This data also highlights the lack of commitment from our government to progress to renewable sources of energy without taking the public’s concerns seriously. It is at this point that we should take a look at the renewable energy sources that could be giving you guilt free access to energy in the future. These forms of energy aren’t the only renewable energy types, but the types that are best suited for the United Kingdom.
When you think of geothermal energy your immediate reaction might be, well there isn’t any volcanic activity in the UK to take advantage of. What then is the use of sustaining an investment in geothermal technology? The truth is that we can utilize regions of the Earth with the use of geothermal technologies through both natural and unnatural convective sources.
Ground source Heat Pump
Domestic homes can obtain geothermal energy through the use of a Geothermal Heat Pump (GHP) or Ground Source Heat Pump (GSHP). A GSHP uses the ground as a heat source in colder months and as a heat sink in the warmer thus reducing the costs and energy used from a typical grid-connected heating and cooling system. A GSHP operates by utilizing the stored (absorbed) solar radiation in the ground at around 20 feet deep through a looped pipe system (ground loop) which circulates a mixture of water and antifreeze that absorbs heat from the ground. The fluid then passes through the systems heat exchanger and then enters the heat pump to heat or cool your home. What makes GSHP a viable renewable energy source is the ground remains a stable and consistent temperature throughout the year making it reliable and as the equipment is stored underground there are no aesthetically unpleasant structures to look at.
Enhanced Geothermal System
Another geothermal energy system is the Enhanced (Engineered) Geothermal System (EGS). The problem with geothermal energy within the UK is that there are a limited number of pure geothermal reservoirs to exploit, however an EGS fixes this problem. For a geothermal system to operate there typically needs to be high permeability (medium that a gas/liquid can pass through) in hot dry rock. An EGS can simulate this by drilling an initial bore hole into naturally fractured rock to pass water down the hole at pressure to induce shearing and offset the fractured surfaces. A second bore hole is then drilled into the selected reservoir to allow cold water to be pumped down which exchanges heat as it is pumped back up to the surface. This heated surface water can then be utilized through the use of turbines and then converted into electricity. An important distinction to make between EGS hydraulic shearing and hydraulic fracturing is that fracking requires engineers to blast through rock instead of simply revealing natural fractures like hydraulic shearing would do.
The planet is made up of over 70% water, 71% to be exact. So if our ocean holds approximately 96.5% of that water and is constantly in motion, shouldn’t we take advantage of such a vast kinetic resource and convert that potential into usable energy? Of course we should, especially here in the UK as an island nation.
Oscillating Water Column
An oscillating water column is a device, rather a structure which utilizes the tides rising and falling waters to produce a directional current of air. This air is then compressed in the structures capture chamber and then pushed through an opening where a turbine (Wells) catches the air in its blades and spins. Due to the nature of the turbine (bidirectional) and structure of the OWC, the airflow produced from the waves enters and leaves creating a consistent flow of energy that can be turned into electricity.
Although a rare phenomena in the UK (some might say), the sun is the largest resource to our disposal, ultimately giving life to the planet and radiating a massive [insert data] on our planets surface each year. Thanks to the continual advancements in solar technology we have and are going to see a massive solar revolution here in the UK.
We’ve all seen PV cells littering the roofs of our neighbours, even built as the architecture of some buildings but how do they work and how effective are they? Despite the widely held belief that there isn’t enough light or heat coming from the sun in the UK, the average sized home can produce more than enough electricity/heat in summer that can be sold back to an energy supplier and subsidise costs of electricity/heat in winter and other colder months. In essence these types of system operate by absorbing solar radiation via the PV arrays angled to suit the location of the building and then converted into electricity via an inverter (DC to AC). Typically a domestic building will be connected to the electricity grid where any excess electricity generated by the PV system can be sold back to an energy supplier. Hybrid systems integrate battery generators and other forms of renewable energy for when incident solar radiation isn’t sufficient to power appliances and heat the building. Depending on the individual needs, it is also possible to develop off-grid solar systems for regions that aren’t able to access electrical infrastructures e.g. in the countryside. Road signs, street lights and other municipal applications can also be embedded with an off-grid PV system to save energy and costs.
Hot Water System
Types of Hot Water or Solar Thermal Energy Systems best suited to the UK exist as either flat plate, evacuated tubes or drain back systems. Evacuated tubes are more efficient than flat plate systems and therefore can be produced at a smaller scale whilst delivering the same amount of hot water. Nonetheless, these types of hot water systems all operate in a similar way. Cold water is passed into an installed hot water cylinder where it then passes through a coil. An anti-freeze fluid is pumped up to the solar panels on a buildings roof and warmed by the solar radiation. The warmed fluid is then passed through a second coil where stored water in the hot water cylinder is heated up. If there isn’t enough incident solar radiation then a boiler can be used to supplement the system.
Rivers and streams run like veins across the Earth and are another powerful resource we can use at a large and small scale level. However, much controversy has been placed on large scale hydroelectric projects such as dams and for the UK it is unlikely a large dam will be built due to their invasive size and cost. So instead, this section will focus on the small scale hydro power systems.
Small Scale Hydro
The name is slightly misleading as small scale hydro systems can be quite large, spanning the entire width of a river and containing a large hydroplant. Small scale hydro projects can normally only be used to generate electricity for the area it is located in, though if communities located nearby a suitable site considered it, they could offset their costs. A typical small scale hydro system will have a few requirements including the amount of head and flow a river or stream has, however these can be artificially produced. As a case study, Rochdale Council have produced a small scale run-of-the-river project using a weir along the River Roch next to the town centre. This type of system required engineers to excavate down a fair few meters so that the water from the weir can fall on the turbine. Using an Archimedian Screw turbine the weight of the water falling onto it drives the turbine and in turn generates electricity. This hydroelectric turbine produces up to 86,000kWh of electricity every year, which will help to reduce the interchange’s carbon footprint by over a quarter (Transport for Greater Manchester, 2015). Another type of small scale hydro system is pumped storage, though they’re not considered renewable due to the pump requiring electricity. This can be changed however if coupled with a wind turbine or PV system. This type of system incorporates two reservoirs, one higher and lower than the other. If there is low demand (night time) electricity is used to pump water from the lower basin to the higher basin. When there is a high demand (day time) the water is released to create power.
Micro hydro schemes use the same principle as small scale hydro, though are as the name suggests smaller. These types of system are used on an individual basis where for example a home owner has a stream of sufficient size on their land. A micro hydro system in the UK will typically look like that of Figure 1, where the river/stream is diverted to the penstock to make the system more efficient or depending on the head/flow of the stream be placed directly into the stream.
The wind is the driving force for waves and has literally helped shape the planet. Most people don’t know how wind forms and take the magnitude of it’s power for granted. Like all natural phenomena on Earth the wind is formed from the sun and it’s radiation. As the solar radiation heats up a section of the atmosphere and Earth’s surface it begins to rise and is replaced by cooler air creating motion or turbulence. Now, because the Earth is rotating and there is uneven heating across the Earth, the direction of the air changes and this is in essence how wind is formed.
A feature upon many hills along the countryside, it would be hard to avoid seeing a wind farm in the UK thanks to the success of our councils pilot schemes. Of course they are not just restricted to land, but can be seen offshore where the wind is more consistent. Wind turbines have been included in this list because engineers developing the technology are always trying to increase their efficiency and have proven to be a major source of energy for some villages and towns across the UK. Just by observing the structure of a turbine it’s easy to see how they operate, by catching the wind in their blades to turn the kinetic energy into electricity via an internal generator. In the wake of many complaints by people living nearby wind farms, new designs for turbines are being developed which would remove for example their noise and blades which appear to cause localized psychological and health problems.
An important by-product of human activity we should be dealing with a lot more efficiently is waste. It has been estimated that in England alone we produce 177 million tonnes of waste per year (Gov.uk, 2015), a staggering amount. One such solution is to use the breakdown of organic material seen in landfill to produce energy from the gas it releases.
The gas released from decaying organic matter is mainly methane and carbon dioxide which can be used as a combustible when combined with hydrogen and oxidized with oxygen. The resulting reaction from the combustion can be utilized as a fuel, used in applications such as a cooking stove and even engines. What makes biogas a contender for fracking is that it can be compressed in the same way natural gas is and used as fuel for a motor vehicles. There exists today only a few biogas/fuel plants in the UK, however there are plans to build more in the coming years.
Whilst it is true that to create this technology it requires oil and gas, we need to take advantage of the current reserves and make renewable energy a priority in an attempt to supersede it. Renewable energy has come a long way and technological advancements are happening everyday which is why we should be focussing on them as a long-term solution to the energy crisis. The distinction this article is trying to make, is that we need to move away from the carbon economy and utilize the power of nature. If we are to get past this energy crisis we should be looking at regionally owned energy services, preferably maintained and managed by local engineers and technicians. Though the government should focus on an increase in available renewable technology courses.
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