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The main technologies
Methods of obtaining energy
Methods of storing energy
Related pages

Environmental implications of renewable energy options, some thoughts

It is obvious to all but the most stupid, intentionally blind or corrupt that the world must change from fossil fuels to renewable energy as quickly as possible.

But what are the relatively efficiencies and environmental implications of the various options?

This page was started 2019/07/07 – ©
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©
 
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Energy, power

Energy in physics is defined as the capacity for doing work. In the context of this page it is often measured in megawatt-hours. Energy can not be created or destroyed, but it can be converted from one form to another, for example from wind to electricity.

Power is the rate at which work is done (or energy is transferred). In the context of this page it is often measured in megawatts.

Also see Some energy units, definitions and conversion, on this site.

In what follows I will as much pose questions as provide answers; in most cases I don't have the answers!

I will discuss only clean energy; for example hydrogen can be generated using fossil fuels, but when I discuss hydrogen below it must be taken that I am writing about hydrogen generated using renewable and sustainable methods.

There are many potential technologies for obtaining useable energy sustainably, but only a very few that have been developed to the point of what might be called mature mass production.

Most methods of sustainably generating electricity are variable, so they must be combined with methods of storing energy.

Much has been written about the various sustainable energy developments and energy storage developments, but little has been written comparing their merits.

Turbine view
One of the Toora Wind Farm turbines, early morning; the big shallow Corner Inlet is in the background.
Photo 2019/04/15

What are the main technologies?
How do they fit in?

TechnologyWhere does it fit in?
Batteries A method of storing energy
Compressed air A method of storing energy
Fuel cells A method of converting a fuel into electricity (in relation to renewable energy the fuel is hydrogen).
Heat banks Substances such as molten salt can be used to store and retrieve energy in the form of heat.
Hydrogen Hydrogen can provide a way of storing and moving energy around.
Pumped hydropower A method of storing energy
Solar photovoltaic (PV) A method of generating electricity. Solar PV panels convert energy from sunlight directly into electricity.
Solar thermal A method of generating electricity. Solar thermal power stations convert solar radiation (visible and infra-red) into heat and then use the heat to generate electricity (alternatively the heat can be used in industrial processes).
Wind turbines A method of generating electricity. Wind turbines convert energy in wind directly into electricity.
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Sustainable methods of obtaining useable energy (generally, of generating electricity)
Implications, advantages, disadvantages of the technologies

TechnologyImplications, advantages, disadvantages
Solar photovoltaic (PV)
  • A mature technology, although one in which the cost is continuing to decline substantialy.
  • The materials used: glass, steel, aluminium, silicon, are common and readily recycled (although whether they are being recycled is another question).
  • Solar PV farms are covering a lot of area. The question of how the big areas of land beneath the panels is an important one and one that has not been settled. There is great scope for using partial shade provided by solar panels to advantage in growing a number of crops (see Scientific American).
  • Aesthetics is a very personal matter, but I find it hard to imagine anyone seeing a solar farm as attractive; at best they might be made to be inconspicuous by where they are built and by using trees and shrubs as screens.

Solar thermal
  • A relatively underdeveloped technology that, at the time of writing, seems to have 'lost the race' with solar PV. The massive scale of solar PV production has reduced its cost to the point at which solar thermal cannot compete.
  • The heat produced by solar thermal power stations can be stored for use in generating power later; an advantage over solar PV.
  • The sustainability of the technology in terms of life expectancy and recyclability of materials is impossible to quantify because of the undeveloped state of the technology.

Wind turbines
  • A mature technology, although one in which the cost is continuing to decline significantly.
  • Unlike solar farms, wind turbines take up very little space on the ground, farming goes on as before the building of the installations.
  • Aesthetics is 'in the eye of the beholder'. Some see wind farms as ugly, others, especially those who accept the urgent need to change from fossil fuels to renewable energy, see wind turbines as graceful and a wind farm as an enhancement to a rural scene.
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Methods of storing energy
Implications, advantages, disadvantages of the technologies

TechnologyImplications, advantages, disadvantages
Batteries Recylability of batteries is a critical question in regard to their environmental sustainability. Lead-acid batteries are readily and routinely recycled, lithium-ion batteries are a very different matter.
  • Batteries are an efficient way of storing electricity in the short term (minutes, hours)
  • They have proven valuable for providing what are called 'grid ancillary services', this is, maintaining stability in an electricity supply system.
  • It is too early to be sure but battery life is likely to be of the order of a decade.
  • Lithium-ion batteries are, at the time of writing, the dominant technology. They can, to some extent, be recycled, but as of the time of writing it has generally been cheaper to make batteries out of newly mined raw materials rather than recycling. This is not an environment-friendly situation. (More on this at fleetcarma: How Electric Vehicle Batteries Are Reused or Recycled.) Perhaps other battery technology, that is more readily recycled, may be developed?
  • Mining of the cobalt commonly used (together with lithium, nickel, manganese and graphite) in making lithium batteries is linked with human rights abuses, including slavery.

Compressed air There are several ways in which compressed air is used to store energy. At the time of writing it is very much a developing field of technology. (For one example, see Energy Matters, Five alternatives to grid-scale lithium-ion batteries.)
Heat There are a number of technologies that store energy in the form of heat. Most forms of energy can be converted into heat with very high efficiency, however converting heat into a more useful form of energy, such as electricity, is much less efficient.
Hydrogen There are a number of inefficiencies involved in the generation and use of hydrogen, but there are also inefficiencies in the use of fossil fuels. Hydrogen technology is developing. Costs are coming down, efficiencies are improving. It is likely that it will soon become economically viable to generate hydrogen whenever renewable energy is pushing the wholesale price of electricity down.
  • Generation of hydrogen by electrolysis is inefficient, about 70% of the energy is lost in the process.
  • Burning hydrogen to generate electricity is also inefficient, about 70% of the available energy in the hydrogen is lost in the process.
  • Fuel-cell combustion of hydrogen is also of low efficiency.
  • At the time of writing Alan Finkel, Australia's Chief Scientist, said that the cost of running a car on renewable hydrogen could be three times the cost of running one on petrol or diesel.

Liquid air This is being used by UK company Highview Power. At the time of writing it is very much a developing field of technology. (For one example, see Energy Matters, Five alternatives to grid-scale lithium-ion batteries.)
Pumped hydropower This is a very mature technology.
  • The life time of a pumped hydro station should be many decades.
  • All the parts of a pumped hydro installation are readily recyclable.
  • While being able to generate at short notice, pumped hydro's response time is not as fast as that of batteries.

Raising and lowering large masses At the time of writing this is very much a developing field of technology.
  • Heavy masses can be raised and lowered in disused mine shafts.
  • Heavy masses can be raised and lowered on towers.
  • Heavy masses can be raised and lowered on slopes along railways.
(For one example, see Energy Matters, Five alternatives to grid-scale lithium-ion batteries.)
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Related pages

External sites...

Environmental Impacts of Renewable Energy Technologies; Union of Concerned Scientists.

How will future energy storage work? Five alternatives to grid-scale lithium-ion batteries; Energy Matters

1414 Degrees; a company that is developing molten salt heat storage technology in Australia. The technology is especially suitable in situations in which industrial heat, as well as electricity generation, is required.



On this site...

End of coal

Killer coal

Why not use nuclear power?

Wind power in Australia

Wind power problems, alleged problems and objections



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