Sunday, July 31, 2005

An energy revolution is coming, but soon enough?

The government aims to slash emissions of carbon dioxide by 60% from 1990 levels by 2050. About this aim Tony Blair said, "this implies a massive change in the way we produce and use energy". Fortunately he went on to assure the British public that "we are committed to this change".

With growing emissions in the service, domestic and transport sectors the government has an enormous task on its hands. In fact the only real decreases seen in energy use in the UK have been due to the movement of heavy industry abroad, merely giving the responsibility for these emissions to someone else. The only significant decreases in carbon intensity of power generation so-far has been due to moving from coal to more efficient gas power stations, the so-called 'dash to gas' which was itself responsible for the UK meeting its Kyoto targets by the late 90`s.

The transport sector is probably a subject in its own right, however there are certain synergies between it and the energy, services and domestic sectors. I believe the key to the problem is the establishment of a distributed energy system. The problem with the current energy sector is primarily the huge amounts of heat being wasted but also the lack of community involvement and the waste of energy due to transmission losses.

"The UK's reliance on large-scale centralized fossil-fuel power generation means that it currently wastes nearly two thirds of primary energy inputs into the energy system. This wasted energy corresponds to one fifth of the total UK carbon dioxide emissions, and is equivalent to two thirds of the entire North Sea gas output, or to the combined thermal energy demand of every building in the country."
Greenpeace: Decentralising Power

For this reason, if the prime minister is serious about 'Deep' emission cuts and about the urgency of dealing with the threat of climate change, he will do all he can to encourage a system whereby the use of waste heat is encouraged. A distributed energy system uses diversity of supply and a mixture of generation unit sizes to provide for the energy needs of a given locality in the most efficient manner. Some of the key technologies to be used are thermal solar power, photovoltaics (PV), micro-combined heat and power (micro-CHP), micro-wind power. These technologies have the ability to complement each other and used together may:

"Overhaul the way in which energy is generated, distributed and consumed-an overhaul whose impact on the energy industry could match the internets impact on communications" The Economist Technology Qauterly.

The chief reason for moving to a distributed energy system is the physical brining together of power generation and use which means that, when electricity is generated, at a efficiency determined by thermodynamic principles the inevitable waste heat can readily be distributed to local communities and businesses in what is known as a District Energy system. District energy systems can move above maximum efficiency for the purely electrical generation, which takes place remote from communities, to a thermal and electrical efficiency of around 90%. There are also numerous advantages of local schemes, particularly engagement and education of the local population. In the best community energy scheme in the UK, that setup by Woking city council, the community managed to cut overall emissions by some 77%, this was through more efficient power generation but also through increased awareness and significant behavioral changes, these are often the most difficult efficiency gains to be achieved. The local community in Woking is now actively campaigning for futher renewable energy input, in the form of a small wind turbine development.

Although currently limited by regulations and funding issues in the UK, distributed energy systems are not a small business, in Finland, the Netherlands and Denmark, DE accounts for 35, 40 and 50% of national electricity demand. Even in the UK nearly half of all councils have taken steps to promote local renewables and 8% have already, or are currently, establishing Energy Service Companies (ESCO's) .The difference between ESCo's and most power or transmission companies is that ESCOs focus not on supplying power and generating profit per kilowatt hour but in supplying the desired level of warmth and living standards, this works through energy efficiency investment, development of community combined heat and power and encouraging households to implement small scale renewable technologies.

"liberated from the constraints of centralized rules and infrastructure, co-generation and renewables can assert their own competitive potential" Greenpeace: Decentralising Power

It is feasible to simply replace current current nuclear and coal power stations with renewable sources such as large scale wind, this is in fact required in the immediate future, the advantages of a truly distributed energy system in the medium-long term are however to large to ignore. Iinfrastructure constitutes 48% of the investment in energy currently being carried out in Europe, and most of this infrastructure wouldn't be required with a distributed energy system.

Wind power is often unfairly criticized for its intermitency as a particular turbine only produces energy for 60% of the time, however this criticism is naive. The largest backup power supply in the UK is reserved for the largest power generating unit (Nuclear power station sizewell B), this power station works for 95% of the time but because it could in theory need to be shut down at any time there always has to be backup available. In fact the smaller the project contributing to the grid, the easier it is to deal with the variation. With regards wind in the current power system a comparison of nuclear and wind in terms of intermitency can be explained as follows.

'When a big generating unit dies, its like having an elephant die in you're living room. You need a second elephant equally big, to haul the carcass away. Those standby elephants are expensive and eat a lot. But if you had, say, mules instead of an elephant in the first place, then it would be extremely unlikely that a whole elephant's worth of mules would fail at the same time" Amory Lovins CEO, Rocky Mountain Institute, USA

On the larger question of a completely distributed energy system, there would be a higherarchy of power supply units and a lot more buffering of demand at the every level to soften peaks in demand. A small renewable generating unit such as a solar cell or micro-wind turbine could produce energy which could then convert water to Hydrogen and oxygen, the oxygen then being burned to produce power when the household demand when above its "base load".

"Intermitency is not a flaw, or a shortcomming as traditional reliability concepts imply. On the Contrary, requiring a system to always deliver generation the matches a fleeting peak load, gives rise to a set of generation and network assets that are invariably drastically over specified and underimployed, a situation long overdue for a frontal attack by innovative policy" Dr Shimon Awerbuch, an economist from the Tyndall Centre

The importance of renewables in the UK energy market is not only due to there role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also key to the UK industries role of developing technologies that can be transferred to developing markets such as china and India, a key but often forgotten part of the Kyoto agreement. A third good reason for developing renewables is the societal impact these tehnologies have, in brining people into active climate change mitigation, and they certainly provide a talking point.

"microgeneration meets the barbecues test: if you've got the neighbours over, you're not going to show them your old boiler or you're loft lagging are you? But you might if you're boiler's also a power generator saving 1.5 tones of carbon dioxide a year or if you have a small turbine on you're roof. Microgeneration is a real talking point."
Dave Snowden, Director, Micropower Council

A report by the Tyndall centre found that emissions due to household energy use could be cut by over two thirds by application of DE, this is besides the numerous environmental and social spin-offs.

The key measure the government need to take to promote distributed power are:
1. The use of tax incentives to reward household that take on there social responsibility for tackling climate change by using renwables. Amazingly there is still vat on many renewable energy products although they are in no way luxury goods.

2. New building should be required to integrate some micro-generation capacity. This would rapidly bring down the price of many of these emerging technologies at at current prices of around 3000 pounds for several different types of generating system the cost would be very low once incorporated into a mortgae of the average 200`000 pound UK home. The rate of payback would be smaller than the rate of energy savings income.

3. Local sustainable energy schemes should be allowed to scale, amazingly there is currently a limit to the size of a "private wire" i.e special permission is required for a scheme over 1Mw, this is a significant obstruction to large community schemes the house of lords science and technology committee could see no reason for this limit in size pointing out that householders are already amply protected against the financial risk of such schemes. I actually heard the reply given to the science and technology committees question on this topic to the government, it stated more or less that these schemes would be popping up all over the place unless there was regulation and that these schemes are not competitive, despite the fact the energy they provide is significantly cheaper! As lord Whitty pointed out, the government set 4 targets in its white paper, all of which create tension with each other, Lord Whitty also pointed out that despite the fact he had introduced several measures on fuel poverty, and this was an important issue he saw climate change as the factor which should have clear overriding priority, it was nice to see the former energy minister talking as an individual, and a passionate believer in the importance of climate change mitigation! Shame he is the former minister for energy policy at DEFRA!

4. Local government should become a key player in climate change mitigation through its role as promoter of distributed energy systems.

It`s time govornment realised the inequities in the current power transmission system, and re-aligned the goals of the energy watchdog OFGEM to work in-line with the govornments stated goals in its white-paper as opposed to on a narrowly defined short term, lowest price goal.


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