Offshore wind design
Renewables – and when the wind doesn’t blow
Renewables like wind and solar energy are often accused of being redundant on calm and dull days. Quite the opposite. We need to generate as much low-cost green energy as possible and store it at scale for a rainy day
( Text content written by Twenty6 for Danny Bonnett, LIC Energy )
When wind energy opponents can’t make a negative case on visual amenity they often fall back on the ‘when the wind doesn’t blow there is no energy’ argument. Fortunately, rapid strides forward in technology, with breakthroughs now almost by the month, are making that argument itself redundant.
Continuously falling offshore wind energy prices, large economies of scale, plus innovative energy storage techniques and are changing the energy, and sustainable energy, landscape. On an increasing number of days, the UK is meeting more than 50% of its energy needs directly from renewables. In fact, we are well on our way to the point where this figure rises regularly to 100% and we are forced to curtail generation. That would be a shame.
The alternative is to keep on generating when the going is good and learn how to store excess energy in a number of ways. One is to create hydrogen by splitting water via electrolysis and then storing the liquified gas as a clean fuel in itself. Breakthroughs in storing hydrogen safely within nano-materials rather than as a gas could also help us here. Another is to take full advantage of the recent rise and rise of advanced battery technology. All this needs to be linked to innovations in demand management.
I think we are fast reaching this point. But to make the most of the situation we must look at five strategic parts of the UK’s modern energy structure.
Our sustainable dilemma, or opportunity, is that we need to create an infrastructure that can keep whole communities, plus individual factories and hospitals, homes and even electric cars running normally without switching back to old-fashioned fossil-fuel power generation or standby systems.
- Modern energy mix (technology diversity) – the first strategic change currently underway is a rebalancing of Britain’s modern energy mix driven by both plummeting production costs and environmental legislation away from old, dirty, high-carbon fossil-fuels towards wind, solar, biomass, tidal, energy-from-waste, micro-hydropower on local waterways and less well-known but emerging solutions such as harnessing the latent heat found in ordinary Atlantic sea water.
- Geographic diversity – a wide geographical as well technical spread of renewables linked to local markets and consumers and free from long transmission lines is also important. We know that the North Sea is now well populated with wind farms. A push is needed to balance the UK spread with some more assets in the Irish Sea, Channel and around the northwest.
- New distribution networks – the third strategic change is the development of new distribution systems. These are being designed to connect local energy users with producers but also balance out intermittencies caused by unsuitable local weather, or cross-border security issues such as gas pipeline closures from Eastern Europe and delays in shipping LNG from Oman to Milford Haven. As I mention later, a growing number of sub-sea interconnectors, either existing or proposed, are designed to reduce energy peaks and troughs over regions and international borders.
- Smart digital management – number four is the smart digital management ‘internet-of-things’ revolution where decisions made by algorithms are able to match moment-by-moment energy demands with suppliers who increasingly include households and businesses that have invested in micro-turbines and solar panels. Intelligent demand management also makes it possible to defer the use of appliances such as washing machines to a time when demand and costs are at their lowest, such as night.
- Storage technologies – huge progress continuous to be made in battery developments of all sizes. But there are alternative systems too, such as using simple sunlight to produce hydrogen for fuel-cells that may need to be large enough to power hospitals, economical enough for domestic installation and small enough but with high-performance characteristics to drive cars and other road vehicles. A certain proportion of hydrogen can also be injected quite safely into the national natural gas grid and burned in the home or factory.
Tired old and fresh new energies
The Government is still sticking to a mixed national energy policy for reasons of supply and global political security. Even so, fossil-fuels are generally on their way out. Coal use in the UK is falling to a 2025 complete demise. Oil, petrol and diesel are moving towards their twilight – particularly with the recent May announcement that the European Commission is taking the British Government to court for its multiple failures to improve local air pollution to which diesel engines are a major contributor.
The Government announced on 22 May a consultation on its Clean Air Strategy 2018 (which closed on the 14th August) but may be pushed into early action by the EU – which if I declare a personal interest could help to speed up the transition to electric vehicles (EVs) as the standard on British roads. It’s going to happen anyway, so we should do our best to make it soon. Yes, I am a very contented electric car driver.
Gas is a more contentious issue. The Government said recently that it wants to relax laws applying to initial fracking exploration which would be classed as permitted development in the same way that people are allowed to build a small conservatory. At the same time, natural gas power stations are seen by some in government as clean mid-way stepping stone to a low-carbon economy.
There is no question that the long-term future is for zero-carbon renewables. The question is how fast can we get there.
The low-cost fuel you don’t have to pay for
While on the subject, what is often described as the ‘fifth fuel’, or ‘cheapest fuel you don’t have to buy’ is energy efficiency. Forget turning down thermostats for a moment. The ultimate aim is to design embedded energy out of society. Energy is endemic to manufacture, transport, use and disposal. We tend to forget how energy-wasteful our supply and procurement chains are!
The idea is to go back to the drawing board (if we still need one) and question whether we really need everyday energy-intensive items around us, and whether they, their materials or alternatives could be made with less energy.
My other personal commitment is of course to offshore wind energy in particular where the size and efficiency of assets is continuously getting bigger in deep waters further out in remote metocean conditions. In the last half decade or so, UK offshore wind costs have fallen by more than a third to reach the Government’s 100/MWh target four years early with the prospect of 57.50/MWh to come.
Solar has done well too; The Solar Trade Association says there are now 12.1GW of solar capacity in the UK, equal to eight new-generation nuclear reactors, with enough kilowatt-hours to power 3.8m homes. The case for more nuclear power looks shakier by the day.
The next obvious question to ask is how can we provide not only small- but also a large utility-scale energy storage through a wide range of evolving technologies? This is something I want to look at under a separate post in the near future.
The conclusion I draw is that with all the parts above in place, the golden age of renewables is just dawning. We can store green energy and overcome interruption problems in a number of joined up ways for an environmentally and commercially rewarding future.
Which means that the lights aren’t going to go out!