What will energy mean to us the day after tomorrow? Jon Herbert ponders on what may lie ahead.
Hopefully, whenever we flick a switch in the future, the lights will come on. However, behind the switch-plate almost everything will have changed — through the grid to the power plant and onwards back to the original source of energy.
Even the familiar could become history. Old-fashioned bulbs and LEDs may give way to much more advanced technologies such as bioluminescence. Use quaint words like “switch” and you may well be met by smiles and raised eyebrows in a brave new world of remote digital control.
Several points are already clear. We are moving towards the end of the age of energy intensity, in much the same way that sugar and tobacco were once economic drivers before becoming pariahs. Energy consumption is bad for you, and the world we live in.
Existing international oil, gas and coal energy networks will be replaced by new bulk power sources that may keep regional and global links but can equally be delivered to specific geographic areas. Local power generation will be commonplace. New concepts in personal point-power for digital devices built into everyday items like clothing will be normal.
A major change will be leaving vast reserves of hydrocarbons in the ground to avoid the worst impacts of climate change. Above all, our attitudes to energy will move on. While the final route to this transition is not yet clear, some very interesting developments lie on the horizon.
Almost certainly, the fundamental role of energy will come under intense scrutiny. Winning, working, transporting and manufacturing with raw materials have historically been extremely energy intensive.
We may ask: “Do I really need this object?” At home, in the office, workplace or in industry, thousands of items or components could potentially be replaced by something less resource hungry. Using new materials that are less energy intense to manufacture could be another approach. Digital alternatives might be the answer. Or combinations of all the above.
The underlying aim will be to squeeze energy out of the infrastructure we live in; ultra-innovative R&D is beginning to move in that direction.
Ironies, realities and crossroads
However, moving from coal to oil, from oil to gas, and on to zero-carbon renewables is creating odd conundrums. Alaska Governor Bill Walker insisted recently that drilling is needed “urgently” in Arctic National Wilderness Refuge (ANWR) protected areas to boost output of what is now low-price oil to pay for relocating villages hit by rising sea levels.
However, Shell is pulling out of Chukchi Sea exploration. The Trans Alaskan Pipeline, designed to move 2 million barrels of oil daily, will now operate at some 25% capacity as Alaska’s oil output falls.
The consensus view is that oil prices are set to remain extremely low for the foreseeable future, altering the economics of other fuels and punishing high-cost producers such as the North Sea.
Other uncomfortable strategic energy decisions need making too. Coal is a key source of carbon emissions. However, a large global lobby says coal is too essential to the world to be outlawed soon. They argue that new investment in clean-coal technology is a practical step towards decarbonisation. Moving from oil to natural gas is also seen as vital.
Perhaps and maybe
Closer to home, the Government’s decision to end subsidies for fledgling renewable technologies could also affect important investment decisions and the UK’s final energy mix.
The solar energy sector is cited as an example. Yet, there are bumps on the road. Devon and Cornwall businesses and homeowners could, it is reported, be paid for moving their power demand into the middle of the day to help the region cope with a huge increase in intermittent solar power on over-stretched local grids.
Tidal Lagoon Power’s proposal to construct the £1 billion Swansea Bay Lagoon was a key announcement in 2015. The company has asked for higher subsidy levels under the contracts for difference (CfD) system, pointing out that the project is a world first. It hopes this will be paid so development can continue.
Supporters of a new generation of nuclear stations say nuclear energy is vital as a proven, non-carbon form of dependable power in an uncertain world. Opponents argue that the long-term risks of accidents and waste storage incidents are unacceptable.
New horizons and connections
Interconnectors are seen as an energy solution that balances different intermittent power sources such as Icelandic geothermal, Norwegian hydropower and European wind. Critics note that long-distance power transmission can be inefficient.
Viking Link is the latest example. The National Grid and Denmark’s Energinet.dk began searching in autumn 2015 for the best route for a 650-kilometre-long sub-sea cable that will come ashore in Lincolnshire. The project’s economics mean that energy users’ bills will be cut by linking wind farms across the North Sea.
A critical casualty of the current situation is the development of a meaningful carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology. Yorkshire’s giant Drax power station at Selby says it will not invest further in the flagship White Rose CCS project, but will meet its current commitments and make the site available for other partners to continue.
However, Drax still sees its lead in sustainable biomass power as an effective solution to decarbonisation. Elsewhere in West Yorkshire, the Ferrybridge Multifuel 2 power station will now go ahead after Government £300-million-grant funding was confirmed.
Depressed oil prices are also affecting the future of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) —the cause of a natural gas revolution in the USA and a controversial technology in the UK that the Government sees as essential. Fracking reserves are limited and seen as a short-term solution. Along with nuclear power, they could offer an interim fix while sustainable renewables are developed fully.
However, other technologies are in the ascendancy. One is energy from human waste — poo-power. Globally, gas from decaying human waste could potentially power 10–18 million homes and be worth $9.5 billion in non-renewable natural gas, according to the UN Institute for Water, Environment and Health. Treated waste could yield two million tonnes of “solid” fuel annually worldwide, reducing charcoal use and trees felling.
Anaerobic digestion (AD) is an advanced collection of processes in which microorganisms break down a wide range of biodegradable material in the absence of oxygen. One of the products is a methane-rich biogas. Stricter Scottish waste laws have boosted the AD waste-to-energy industry, which has grown by more than two-thirds in the past 12 months, with 11 new plants coming online. There are now 27 AD projects across Scotland turning food and farming waste into biogas.
Then there is natural warmth. The UK has several geothermal hot spots. However, Southampton is the only city currently tapping the native heat of rocks far below ground surface. However, even cold sea water holds important latent heat that can be extracted with heat pumps using non-carbon coolants like ammonia to warm homes and cities.
Drammen in Norway uses cold fjord water to provide more than 85% of the city’s hot water and save 1.5 million tonnes of carbon emissions annually. A pioneering Glasgow company, Start, calculates that the Thames holds enough heat to warm 500,000 homes.
However, a technology with the greatest potential is energy storage. Power cuts are common in many parts of the world. Energy storage provides back-up power and helps electricity grids to run at average load rather than peak load.
Puerto Rico stipulates that all new renewable projects include a 30% storage capability. Power cuts cost the USA up to $70 billion (£45 billion) a year between 2003 and 2012. Many states now have operational storage systems. California has set a target of 1.3GW to help meet its renewable objectives.
The first UK grid-level storage battery has now been built. Combining renewables and energy storage could make many communities, and even individuals, energy self-sufficient. Current costs are high but falling. The German Government offers its citizens annual subsidies of £36 million to help them buy storage batteries; more than 5500 have taken up the offer.
However, in the longer term, a strange collection of even more unfamiliar technologies could make their appearance.
The £25 million Deep Green tidal energy project in Anglesey uses underwater “kites” that reach speeds 10 times faster than the current in the same way that a kite flies faster than the wind. The result is 1000 times more power. Other tidal stream technologies are developing.
The Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) foresees floating offshore wind turbine power by the mid-2020s that is cost competitive with onshore wind, solar farms and new nuclear plants. Suitable for deep waters, the floating wind farm platforms would avoid the need for steel and concrete foundations.
A new generation of turbine technologies will also make wind power cheaper and less intrusive. One idea is the wind lens — a conical structure around the blades which creates low pressure, higher wind speeds, more power and less noise. Another system collects wind closer to the ground at low speeds.
NASA is studying the feasibility of airborne turbines flying at altitudes of up to 30,000 feet and sending power to the ground via nano-tube cable tethers. Winds are faster at high altitudes and can be 8 to 27 times more powerful than at ground level.
Up close and personal
Free energy may sound too good to be true but could be the eventual aim of renewables. At a more personal level, former science minister Lord Drayson has launched a technology called Freevolt to power the “internet of things” remotely, including low energy wearable devices and sensors. Freevolt will harvest radio frequency energy from wireless and broadcast networks such as 4G and digital television. Lord Drayson says the system needs no extra infrastructure and simply recycles the energy not being used.
Again on a small scale, jellyfish that glow in the dark could contain the raw ingredients for a new fuel cell. A team at The Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, is developing new ideas for fuel cells used in small nano implant devices, or to diagnose or treat disease.
It’s hard to imagine body heat as a resource. But in Stockholm, the Jernhuset, a state-owned property administration company, plans to capture body heat from train commuters travelling through Stockholm’s Central Station and use it to warm water piped through the building’s ventilation system.
The day after tomorrow
Further into the future things get even more techie. Not only nuclear fission (the splitting of atoms) but also fusion (the joining of atomic particles) could one day truly revolutionise human energy. However, fusion is a technology that is always said to be 30-years away!
ITER (International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor) is an international research project with the world’s largest experimental tokomak nuclear fusion reactor in the south of France that hopes to finally make the transition to full-scale electricity-producing fusion power plants.
Construction of the massive plant is due to end in 2019. Plasma experiments should start in 2020. Full deuterium-tritium fusion experiments will begin in 2027. The first commercial demonstration fusion power plant will follow on from ITER – fingers crossed!
It has also been suggested that the UK’s repository of plutonium, a by-product of nuclear fission, could itself be a fuel for thousands of years to come. However, new types of reactor would be needed.
Science or fiction
After that we really step into the unknown. Antimatter comprises antiparticles with the same mass as ordinary matter but opposite spin and charge. When the two meet, they annihilate, releasing tremendous amounts of energy as predicted by Einstein’s famous equation, E = mc2.
Although there is little antimatter in the universe, laboratories can produce it in tiny amounts. How do you store something that annihilates in contact with ordinary matter? And how could the released energy be captured? Nevertheless, NASA is looking at antimatter drives to power humanity to the stars.
The solar wind streaming constantly from the sun offers hundreds of billions times more power than mankind currently needs. Work is under way on a satellite designed to snag solar wind electrons and beam them via an infrared laser to Earth.
Elsewhere, scientists are using carbon nanotubes to collect 100 times more solar energy than ordinary photovoltaic cells. As antenna to capture and funnel sunlight onto solar arrays, they could lead to much smaller household solar panels.
The innovation list goes on.
Published by Croner-i on 25 January 2016