The Renewable Energy Centre

Jan 19 2016

Winds of change for renewable energy

Each year in January, it’s become a habit for publications to review the past year and give forecasts for the year ahead on various subjects. So what’s been said about renewable energy achievements over 2015 and the prospects for 2016?

Charity WWF Scotland analysed data from monitor WeatherEnergy to produce a report saying 2015 was “huge” for green energy in Scotland, and this was picked up by the Scottish Herald. The paper reported that Scottish wind and solar power experienced a bumper year, with wind output generating enough electricity for almost all of the country’s homes.

Just about everywhere in the UK experienced higher-than-average numbers of windy days during December and Scotland was particularly hard hit by storm damage. However, the extreme weather had a positive side – during December 2015, Scotland’s wind turbines produced enough power to supply more than 100 per cent of Scottish households on all but two days that month.

WWF Scotland director Lang Banks said that for 2015 as a whole, overall wind power output broke all previous records, generating enough to supply the electrical needs of 97 per cent of Scottish homes – or the equivalent of 41 per cent of Scotland’s entire electricity needs for the year. This was up by almost a fifth year-on-year, thanks largely to an increase in installed capacity.

Onshore windfarm imageSolar power also played a major role in preventing thousands of tonnes of climate-damaging carbon emissions. Karen Robinson of WeatherEnergy said: “Despite misconceptions, Scotland has massive potential for using solar power.” Figures collected show that homes fitted with solar PV panels in Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Glasgow or Inverness experienced enough sunshine during April and May to generate all the electricity needs of an average home.

Mr Banks called upon all political parties in Scotland to back policies that would enable Scotland to become the EU’s first fully renewable electricity nation by 2030.

Former Environment Agency chairman Chris Smith spoke to The Guardian a week after the close of the Paris summit that resulted in a UN climate change deal to limit global warming to below 2C. He was concerned that the UK was going into reverse on renewable energy, while favouring the development of the shale gas industry. “They need to be moving along on both fronts, not just one,” Lord Smith told the newspaper.

Recent Government moves criticised by renewable energy supporters include decisions to end new public subsidies for onshore windfarms and 64% cuts to solar subsidies for small scale panels on homes.

Subsidies for onshore windfarms will now end from April 1 2016, a year earlier than set out in the previous Conservative Lib-Dem coalition agreement. The cut in subsidies for domestic solar panels was originally put forward at 87% and was softened after an outcry, but the solar industry still estimates it will cost thousands of jobs. Leonie Greene from the Solar Trade Association said: “We thought the government had listened more to our case. We are very disappointed.”

The government accepts the solar panels industry will be badly hit by the move, but insists the time has come to remove the levy from householders’ bills. Energy Secretary Amber Rudd announced: “We have to get the balance right and I am clear that subsidies should be temporary, not part of a permanent business model. When the cost of technologies comes down, so should the consumer-funded support.”

Large-scale solar farms are cost-competitive, said Rudd, and solar had nearly reached grid parity. The sector is worried about a new government cap on the volume of solar installations and says it is being forced to stand on its own feet before it is ready.

Reducing billpayer support is also behind the intervention over onshore windfarms. The funding for the subsidies comes from the “renewable obligation”, raised by levies added to household fuel bills. There will be a grace period for projects that already have planning permission but Labour claims the move jeopardises 1,000 wind turbines that are awaiting planning permission and cannot make a profit without a government subsidy. In future, local communities – rather than national government – will be given the right to veto windfarms.

Overall, many business leaders and environmentalists are concerned that the UK government needs to make a major U-turn in energy policy if it is to avoid charges of hypocrisy following the commitments it made at last month’s Paris summit, when 196 countries signed the deal aimed at limiting global temperature rises to less than 2C.

Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, told The Guardian that ministers needed to take action at home as well as making their voice heard abroad. “The government must provide a stable environment that enables investment in cleaner, more affordable and more secure energy generation, including renewable technologies and new gas plants,” she said.

Wind and marine energy trade body RenewableUK fears announcements made in 2015 have undermined Britain’s ability to meet new CO2 targets. It predicts a busy year of construction in 2016 for both onshore and offshore wind energy projects, but believes the Government’s withdrawal of financial support will severely curtail onshore schemes beyond that.

Oct 27 2015

Shaggy dog tales about power sources

As I watch my dog’s tail wagging joyously, I have often wondered (half seriously) how much green energy could be generated if a way could be found to harness such an abundant source. While accepting that a practical, animal-friendly device is highly unlikely, it set me off on a search of other wacky ideas for renewable energy.

Wagging tailOver the years, people have come up with many seemingly off-the-wall suggestions for low-carbon ways to heat buildings or fuel vehicles. These range from burning bodies and nappies, to harnessing helpful fatty acids from illness-inducing bacteria.

As is so often the case, nature can provide scientists with a starting point. Body heat is produced freely and efficiently – so why not use it as eco-friendly power? This is already happening in projects in Stockholm and Paris, and London Mayor Boris Johnson has spoken in support of a scheme to funnel excess heat from London Underground tunnels into homes. State-owned property administration company Jernhuset is using body heat from travellers using Central Station in Stockholm to warm the building and in Paris, apartments directly above a metro station near the Pompidou Centre are being kept cosy in a similar way.

Dead people – or indeed animals – can also play a role. Cremated bodies release a gas that can be captured at the filtration stage. Some pioneering UK operators have already started to pipe this through the crematorium buildings and in the future it could be extended to neighbouring properties.

If burning bodies for fuel makes you uncomfortable, then how about dirty nappies? This is being tested by a power company in Quebec, Canada. Many types of rubbish can be turned into useful by-products, including fuel gas and fuel oil, by using a process called pyrolysis. This produces very little pollution because the material is heated in a sealed, oxygen-free environment, which breaks down the molecules inside.

A drawback with most waste collected is that it is mixed and would produce inconsistent results. But if used nappies were put into a separate recycling bin, the pyrolysis plant could be fine-tuned to the plastics and fabrics known to make up disposable nappies – and to the organic deposits within them. The raw material for such a plant would be plentiful and constantly replenished.

It’s not just babies’ poo that has powerful potential. Faeces of all sorts contains methane, a colourless, odourless gas that can be used in virtually the same ways as natural gas.

Norcal Waste is providing biodegradable poo bags to dog walkers in some US cities in a scheme that powers lights by methane. The filled bags are placed into a large container called a digester where micro-organisms process the poo, giving off methane as a by-product. In Pennsylvania, it is cow manure that is helping farmers save money on electricity and heating fuel. And Hewlett-Packard has released a study explaining how dairy farmers could make money by leasing land to Internet server companies, who could power computers with the methane.

Still on waste products, scientists at Edinburgh’s Heriot-Watt University’s School of Engineering and Physical Sciences are trying to create urine-powered fuel cells. These could prove a useful source of power for the likes of astronauts or military personnel.

Other scientists are working on ways to convert sugar into hydrogen, which can be used in a fuel cell. Researchers at Virginia Tech have found that combining plant sugars, water and 13 powerful enzymes in a reactor to convert the mixture into hydrogen delivers three times more hydrogen than traditional methods. The hydrogen is pumped through a fuel cell to produce energy. Although it may be some time before sugar can be used to fuel cars (instead of being a catastrophic prank way to ruin an engine), sugar-based hydrogen batteries for small electronics is on the cards.

Mention of E.coli would send most people rushing to their GP surgery. But E.coli bacteria are another unlikely source of fuel material.

But E.coli bacteria are another unlikely source of material for transportation fuel. To see them through times when food is scarce, E. coli bacteria store fuel in the form of polyester-like fatty acids. That same fatty acid, when dehydrated, is used in the production of biodiesel fuel. So, researchers are looking to genetically modify E. coli micro-organisms to encourage them to produce a surplus of these fatty acids, which can then be turned into biodiesel.

Another more visible, but no less surprising, source of renewable energy is paint. Engineers at Swansea University are working on what is essentially a paint-on solar panel that can be applied to the type of steel panels covering many of Britain’s commercial and industrial buildings. The solar paint harnesses the sun’s energy which reacts with the steel to create a current that can be captured and used. Even taking into account Britain’s moderate sunshine levels, it is estimated that the vast amount of square-footage available could bring huge benefits.

So who knows, as researchers continue their quest for abundant sources of green energy, perhaps one day that tail wag idea might not seem so ridiculous.




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