By Scott Bradley
For The Stroud Courier
Coal-fired power plants, still in use worldwide and undergoing new construction in many nations, put a great deal of carbon into our atmosphere.
Natural gas-fired power plants are on the rise, and though much better than coal, they are not carbon free.
And although nuclear power is carbon free, it offers a potential for catastrophe if malfunctions occur, as well as the continuing burden of nuclear waste storage.
We often focus on alternative energy sources, but what are these alternative sources, and are there any drawbacks to harnessing them?
Solar and wind come to mind right away. Next, we find geothermal energy is getting billing. Less discussed, but being researched, are wave and tidal power generation.
Further out are fuel cells, hydrogen power generation, natural gas converters like the Bloom Energy Server (the Bloom Box), a solid oxide fuel cell (SOFC) from Bloom Energy, and on the fringe are kinetic energy generators and clear glass solar window systems from New Energy Technologies, Inc. (NENE).
Solar and wind are limited by source-related issues. Simply put, the sun isn’t always up and the wind isn’t always blowing. So their limiting factors reduce their production; however, the impact is less than some might think.
Solar, especially advanced solar, is showing responses to all light levels and may evolve, with advanced graphite construction, to yield some output regardless of time or weather, though snow and shading prove to be issues driving placement, focusing (direction), and element cleaning.
Wind is not always dependable, but, again, production may be effectively engaged at lower wind speeds, and sea-based systems, prairie systems, and those on ridgelines often approach continuous operations.
Interestingly, wind seems to yield more sustainably at night, so when placed on the grid with solar energy, there are some synergies available.
Biomass, hydrogen, and SOFC systems are proving functional, but they are slow to ramp up. Production of the first, and available filling stations for the second are both limiting, and privately held Bloom Box, a SOFC manufacturer, had an $80 million loss in 2013.
Geothermal offers interesting potential. Using the earth’s heat to make steam and then porting that to turn standard turbines offers a good plan for delivering energy, but the drilling systems used to access the heat-beds for steam production, and the turbulence of the steam escaping, have demonstrated instability and even caused low-order earthquakes.
Iceland is proving geothermal as it strives to eliminate all non-renewables, and they are succeeding due to the shallow nature of their thermal layers.
To remain open minded about sustainability options, coal needs to be looked at as a critical source.
Worldwide coal plays a vital role in electricity generation, currently fueling 41% of global electricity, according to the World Coal Association.
In some countries, such as Poland, China and Australia, coal fuels more than 78% of electrical generation Even in the US and Germany, it fires up to 45%, which is a considerable amount, since these countries consume a great deal of electricity.
To use coal calls for these generators to be cleaner, but is clean coal doable? The International Energy Agency, among others, gives high promise to the development of clean coal technologies (CCTs), which use coal in an environmentally and economically viable way.
One basic approach to the cleaner use of coal is to reduce emissions by reducing the formation of pollutants such as NOx and cleaning the flue gases after combustion.
In some situations it appears that CCTs offer the possibility of satisfying even more stringent standards, at acceptable costs. This has yet to be seen on a large scale, and may not be realized as plants are rapidly being converted to natural gas in developed nations.
Another concern in the production of energy is the use of water, which is critical in the generation of electricity, as well as the extraction, transport, processing of fossil fuels, and the irrigation of crops that go into biofuels.
Water shortages in India and the United States, among other countries, have limited energy output in the past two years, while the heavy use of water in unconventional oil and gas production (fracking) has generated considerable public concern.
Moreover, the energy sector’s water needs are set to grow, making water an increasingly important criterion for assessing the viability of energy projects. In some regions, water constraints are already affecting the reliability of existing operations, and shortages will introduce additional costs.
The IEA analysis draws on the “World Energy Outlook 2012” central policy scenario to show that expanding power generation and biofuels output demands an 85% increase in the amount of water consumed (not returned to its source after use) through to 2035.
The planet is headed toward a new energy paradigm worldwide.
Developing nations are demanding more energy, and they are producing it today using many of these sources, and these demands will continue to grow.
To achieve energy sustainability, a globally acceptable solution that can be engaged everywhere needs to be developed, along with an infrastructure in which locally produced energy services populations without the use of an international grid.
Like any other delivery system, smaller is better, especially if line losses can be turned into improved energy employment.
Unless coal can be employed with zero pollution, it needs to be eliminated, and natural gas has carbon release issues demanding improvement as well.
Nuclear power is safer than most think, but there is that nasty side issue of non-manageable waste.
Alternatives are capable of picking up a great deal of the load even today, and some have a secondary advantage of reducing water consumption for operational systems.
Policy needs to open the way for alternatives, not hinder them to benefit outdated methods that consume fossil fuels.
And hydrogen, stable geothermal, and biofuels which could be harnessed using near-standard systems need to be brought online today as part of the solution.
Other alternatives are being developed in the wings, such as biomass based energy that is extremely low in carbon release, wave technologies that would harness the power of the oceans on their daily cycle, and advanced solar and wind production will play a part in future energy production.
While industry will change, these new sources will fill the void left by those that fold.
Sustainability demands that economics go hand in hand with environmental concerns, and that we deliver these changes to meet all needs.
Energy will continue to come from many sources, but we need to be willing to change our sources of energy to advance sustainability worldwide, not stay our course with unsustainable, detrimental outcomes.
Email Scott at: