Renewable Energy – Future or Fiction?
There is a lot of skepticism and criticism of renewable energy technologies. It seems the primary concern is whether there is enough energy to meet the need of human society for the next month or quarter. This reasoning makes sense if we view the energy problem using the status quo methods of how we currently use our energy resources. The problem may seem that we do not have enough energy available. In reality, the problem is how we use the energy that is currently produced.
Skeptics believe that renewable energy is not a reliable power source and that fossil fuels are enough for the future. Renewable energy is clean, efficient, and cost-effective, and as investments in these technologies increase, reliability can exceed fossil fuels. We must realize the need to adopt sustainable practices on all fronts, including heating and cooling, food production, waste recycling, and transportation, among other things.
Some people believe that renewable energy isn’t a realistic replacement for fossil fuels. Some believe that there is enough natural gas and other fossil fuels. Those resources won’t last forever at the rate we consume them, and there is an incredible amount of waste the way they are currently used. Renewable energy is the future and will help us meet our energy needs in the long term. Since the 1970s, the use of renewable energy has steadily increased over the past decades due to government subsidies, technological advancements, and changes in behavior.
When the Renewable Energy Skeptics talk about the reliability of hydrocarbon power sources, they are desperately clinging to outdated ideology. While that is true for now it is unsustainable. Skeptics often do not discuss the obsolete technology’s actual cost, which is causing significant problems. Renewable energy is becoming more comparable and can become less expensive when those hidden costs are considered and will also be more reliable long term.
We must continue to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels and develop renewable energy sources. Renewable energy is the future, and we should all think about ways to be more accountable for how our decisions’ impact our environment and reduce greenhouse gasses.
Fossil fuel power stations provide the most significant amount of electrical energy used worldwide and are a powerful emitter of greenhouse gases. In 2019 Coal and Natural Gas were used to generate more than 60% of the electricity produced. Wind contributed 5% and Solar 3%.
The Journal of Physics: Conference Series article “Methods of Improving the Efficiency of Thermal Power Plants” by Tongjun Zhang (2020 J. Phys.: Conf. Ser. 1449 012001) states:
“Currently, sub-critical thermal power plants can attain an efficiency of around 38%, compared with 41% by supercritical thermal power plants, while ultra-supercritical thermal power plants can reach up to around 44%.“
– Tongjun Zhang
While the efficiencies for fossil fuel energy production are higher as a percentage, they are not very efficient when considering the other problems associated with using fossil fuels. And arguably more expensive when you include the greenhouse gasses produced. The loss in efficiency is a combination of issues. Two significant reasons are heat loss and cold storage loss.
Inefficiencies, as noted above, are only part of the problem. When you calculate the adverse effects of thermal energy production, such as greenhouse gasses, thermal power plant energy production becomes less attractive. The actual costs are nearly impossible to calculate as weather patterns change and pollution worsens.
Current solar panel efficiency is about 20%, and wind energy is from about 30-45% and becomes up to 50% efficient during peak wind times. While the efficiency of solar and wind power is lacking compared to thermal power plants, they have the added benefit of a lower carbon footprint. Most people would agree that this is an excellent reason to give more support to these types of technologies.
The efficiency in producing and transporting energy is not stellar. Here are some factors that contribute to the inefficiency.
Transmission & Distribution
The article “Lost In Transmission: How Much Electricity Disappears Between A Power Plant And Your Plug?” by Jordan Wirfs-Brock at Inside Energy states:
“Energy lost in transmission and distribution: About 6% – 2% in transmission and 4% in distribution – or 69 trillion Btus in the U.S. in 2013”
The article notes that the amount of energy lost in the wiring in our walls is unknown. And the amount in other countries, such as India, can be as high as thirty percent.
Worldwide, the amount of energy waste produced by fossil fuels like coal is enormous. If a coal-fired power plant is 41% efficient and loses an average of 8% in transmission and distribution, only about one-third of the energy produced reaches the home or business. Then consider the inefficiency of the electric motors and other devices that energy powers, and the actual efficiency is even lower.
Theoretically producing the electricity locally cuts down on the losses through transmission and distribution. The use of renewable energy systems and microgrids allows for the production and distribution to be localized and therefore more efficient as a practice. It also eliminates the controversy of greenhouse gases and pollution.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, in the article “Determining Electric Motor Load and Efficiency,” states:
“Most likely your operation’s motors account for a large part of your monthly electric bill. Far too often motors are mismatched—or oversized—for the load, they are intended to serve… Most electric motors are designed to run at 50% to 100% of the rated load. Maximum efficiency is usually near 75% of rated load.”
There are many variables to consider when calculating the efficiency of an electric motor. The point is that there is a lot of energy waste using the currently produced motors. Electric motors do not continuously operate at peak efficiency. That makes it difficult to calculate the exact power utilization in a given application accurately, so these numbers are estimates.
AC (Alternating Current) motors waste between 25% and 50% of the power consumed. DC (Direct Current) motors are more efficient than AC motors. Up to 30% more efficient, according to some estimates. Electronically Commutated Motors are DC motors controlled electronically or use a variable-frequency drive. They achieve better efficiency because they are brushless, do not spark, and cause drag due to less friction. There has been some notable progress in the development of EC motors. In terms of efficiency, electric motors waste a lot of energy.
In reality, about 70% to 80% of the energy is wasted from the energy produced from a power plant, by the time it is transported, distributed, and done performing the work by turning the motor. This provides huge opportunities to increase efficiency by improving motors and appliances and producing power locally.
Microgrids are becoming increasingly popular to provide power to a localized areas. A microgrid is a small, self-contained power grid that can operate independently of the traditional electric grid. Microgrids can provide power to individual buildings or neighborhoods and are an excellent option for areas not connected to the power grid or for situations where the grid is unavailable.
Because there is so much waste in power generation by conventional power plants, transportation and distribution, microgrids may be a reasonable solution and investment for individuals or communities that want to manage their electricity generation. There is less energy wasted if used locally.
A small town or neighborhood could provide energy using a solar panel array, a wind turbine, a fuel cell, or geothermal energy. The community could continue to stay grid-tied in the event of an outage, or maintenance, provide power for peak times and sell back any residual energy produced.
Renewable energy systems are a sustainable and clean way to produce energy. People will support cutting greenhouse gas emissions by eliminating carbon dioxide and using renewable energy technologies to combat climate change. Imagine if hundreds of microgrids became available and how soon that could change the reliance on burning fossil fuels and energy imports.
The problem of storage. So far, power storage has been the most elusive element of a new energy solution. Until now, we have relied on energy stored in fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas, and coal. For millions of years, the earth has stored energy for us. For over 150 years, humankind has benefited from the earth’s storage reserves, and not enough thought has gone into the risks of exploiting those reserves.
The national grid has not changed much over the past 50 years. Because of privatization, profits have gone to shareholders instead of developing better ways to address the energy needs of future generations.
As a result, the world is experiencing more pollution than at any time in history. Health concerns are being put aside in favor of profits. Decisions made without considering the environment leave a trail of environmental destruction behind. The solution is a difficult one. But not impossible.
Other types of energy storage have been explored, such as mechanical, chemical, hydroelectric, hydrogen, nuclear, and air. Each has its challenges and limitations. Even though large-scale energy storage has been progressing, it remains elusive. Through continued research and development, the goal should be to find an energy storage solution that can provide clean, renewable energy around the clock.
Also, the goal should include having a mix of energy sources at a local level, not just a national level that can supplement each other. For example, wind turbines can generate power when the sun is not shining. When the wind isn’t blowing, hydroelectric dams can provide power. And when energy is abundant from any source, it can be stored for use when demand is high and renewable sources are not providing enough power.
The key is to have a mix of energy sources that are renewable, efficient, and available when needed. Then, wean ourselves off fossil fuels to cool and heat our homes and travel. Just solving those three uses of energy would contribute a great deal to a cleaner energy future. Only then will we have a chance to preserve our planet for future generations.
The energy storage problem is a difficult one to solve. But it is not an impossible task. We can find a solution that works for everyone with the right incentives and support. That is not saying we get entirely away from using fossil fuels. Think of all the products that require oil to make. Eliminating the use of oil is not likely possible and may not be necessary. Reaching sustainable and responsible use is what is needed.
Two forms of chemical storage are batteries and capacitors. Batteries store energy for various applications, including electric vehicles, grid-scale energy storage, and portable electronics. Capacitors store energy in the form of an electric field.
There are many different types of batteries. And each battery type has its benefits and drawbacks. For example, lead-acid batteries are inexpensive but inefficient and have a limited lifespan.
Batteries have been storing energy for more than a century. The nickel-cadmium (Ni-Cd) or NiCad battery was invented in 1899 by Swedish inventor Waldemar Jungner. The nickel-iron battery (NiFe battery) was one of the first batteries developed by Thomas Edison in 1903. Nickel-iron batteries were popular in the early 1900s for storing power for telegraph signals, electric railroads, and automobiles.
M. S. Whittingham first invented the Sodium-ion (Na-ion) battery in the 1970s while he worked on solid-state ionic conductors. His research group also came up with the Lithium-ion (Li-ion) battery around the same time.
Li-ion batteries are currently the most preferred and efficient storage batteries. Lithium-ion batteries are an excellent choice for devices that need much power, like electric cars & cell phones. They are more expensive than other batteries but are much more efficient and can last many years. The cost per kilowatt has decreased recently, and more chemistry variations, such as cobalt and manganese, are used in combination with lithium. The main downside to lithium-ion batteries is that these elements are scarce resources compared to elements like sodium. As demand increases, these elements are becoming more expensive.
There are instances when Lithium-ion batteries have exploded. Exploding is a risk if they are damaged or overheated. Although lithium-ion batteries have a history of exploding, the technology has become much safer in recent years. Advances in battery management technology reduce the risk of an explosion or fire. Research for solid-state battery technology is nearly perfected and may soon be in production, reducing the risk of thermal runaway.
Another downside is that lithium is toxic and needs to be appropriately recycled. Handling the disposal and recycling of harmful elements is a fundamental reason for a comprehensive plan on how to move forward with this storage technology and others like it.
The world can’t afford to ignore the waste problem and deal with it when it becomes an unmanageable expensive issue. Poor planning and putting profit ahead of the environment have cost billions of tax dollars to fund “Superfunds” for cleaning up contaminated areas from lead mining during the early 20th century. As of June 12, 2019, the United States has 1344 superfund sites on the National Priorities List. Cleaning up contaminated areas is an ongoing burden and sometimes irreversible. And the environmental damages are more significant in other countries.
Development of the sodium-ion battery took place side-by-side with that of the lithium-ion battery in the 1970s and early 1980s by M. S. Whittingham and the same research group. Sodium-ion batteries have many of the same advantages as lithium-ion batteries. Sodium-ion batteries are rechargeable batteries that use sodium ions as the charge carriers. Sodium-ion batteries have a high energy density and can deliver high power outputs. The energy density is promising, although currently not as high as lithium-ion batteries. They are also more environmentally friendly since they use sodium and water, making them safer than lithium.
While research on the sodium-ion battery has slacked since its development, new interest in this technology is being re-considered for grid power storage and other applications. With continued research and development, sodium-ion batteries will become more efficient and less expensive. All battery technology will play an essential role in the future of energy storage for grid-tied storage and other applications.
Liquid Metal Batteries
The liquid metal battery has been in development for the past decade and is an exciting new technology that has clear advantages over other battery technologies. Liquid metal batteries are ideal for grid storage or other large storage applications.
Some of the major benefits are that they are safer and more reliable in hot or cold environments. The components are made of calcium (Ca) alloy for the anode, a molten salt electrolyte, and antimony (Sb) for the cathode. These elements are commonly available worldwide so will not be subjected to regional control.
Bill Gates one of the founders of Microsoft, has been investing in Ambri. The company has recently received the UL1973 certification for their liquid battery for stationary applications. Ambri states the battery is not only safe but has no risk of combustion. The company also states that its liquid battery has high performance, is ideal for daily cycling, and has a lifespan of 20 years or longer.
The “Sand Battery” has recently been in the news. And is not a new technology and is a form of thermal energy storage and not actually a battery. Sand Batteries do not produce or store electricity. Sand batteries work by storing heat up to 500 degrees Celsius. Any power source can be used to produce the energy to heat the sand and then stored heat can be used to heat homes.
This technology is worth noting since, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), in 2015, about 43% of the energy used for residential homes was for heating. Sand Batteries can also heat water for bathing and washing clothes, which was 19% for all homes in the US. This technology has potential because it is inexpensive and has a long life expectancy.
Supercapacitors are efficient and can last for decades. Super Capacitors are also smaller and lighter than batteries. One advantage of capacitors is that they can be charged and discharged quickly. They are used to smooth power conversions from DC to AC for inverters for applications like wind and solar power plants. Another advantage of capacitors is that they have a long life and require little maintenance.
The main disadvantage of capacitors is that they are not as energy-dense as batteries. A capacitor cannot store as much energy per unit volume or weight. It holds only about one-tenth of the power by weight. Capacitors are also more expensive than batteries, although the costs have decreased.
The increased performance of capacitors has captured the attention of inventors and researchers to apply to electric cars, bikes, and other devices that need fast charging capabilities.
Pumped Hydro Storage
Pumped hydro storage is one type of energy storage that has been around for many years. Pumped hydro storage uses excess energy to pump water from a lower reservoir to an upper reservoir. When there is high demand, the water is released back down through turbines to generate power.
Pumped hydro storage is a proven technology with many benefits. It is scalable, efficient, and relatively inexpensive. But it also has some drawbacks. For example, it requires a large amount of land and water. And it can take many years to build a pumped hydro storage facility.
Despite its drawbacks, pumped hydro storage is a viable option for energy storage. And with continued research and development, it could become even more efficient and cost-effective in the future.
Compressed Air Storage
Compressed air storage is another type of energy storage that has been around for many years. Compressed air storage is similar to pumped hydro in that it uses surplus energy to compress air stored underground in caverns or tanks. When demand is high, the compressed air is released and used to power a turbine which generates electricity.
Compressed air storage has many benefits similar to those of pumped hydro storage. Compressed air storage is cheaper to build, can be located near consumers, and has less environmental impact than pumped hydro storage.
Mechanical energy can be stored using devices such as flywheels or gravity-based structures.
Flywheels store energy in the form of kinetic energy. The flywheel is attached to an electric motor that spins the flywheel when demand is high; the flywheel powers the electric motor, which generates electricity.
Gravity-based structures use the force of gravity to store energy. A weight is lifted to the top of a structure or hill. When energy demand is high, the weight is released and used to power a generator that generates electricity. These types of energy storage have limited applications, but there is a place for them.
Hydrocarbon fuels, commonly referred to as “Fossil fuels,” are very efficient. In 2009 the Gordon Research Group claimed that 85% of the world’s energy came from hydrocarbon fuels. In June 2020, Forbes magazine reported that fossil fuels supplied 84%.
The world’s energy use increased between 2009 and 2020, so it is encouraging that there was a 1% decrease in fossil fuel use, which means that renewables made up the difference and filled the increased need for energy.
Hydrocarbon fuels make up the bulk of the energy supply. Burning fossil fuels has been a cheap energy source until something happens to the supply chain. In the1970s, prices soared due to the oil embargo, and M. S. Whittingham and his research group discovered Lithium-ion batteries. As soon as oil became cheap again, the research slowed.
Today we see a similar situation due to the war in Ukraine. The war has disrupted the supply chain, and prices have skyrocketed again and had a massive economic impact on the world.
Solar power is one of the most promising forms of renewable energy. It has the potential to provide an abundant, clean, and safe source of electricity generation.
Direct solar energy works by using photovoltaic cells to convert sunlight into electricity. The electricity can then power homes, businesses, and industries. The energy produced can be stored in batteries to lower your electric bill, heat and cool your home, or charge your EV.
Solar power has many benefits. Solar is a renewable energy production method that does not emit pollution or greenhouse gases. Solar panels will produce energy for decades and are available as traditional panels or roofing materials by companies like Tesla and GAF Energy.
On August 16, 2022, US President Joe Biden signed the Inflation Reduction Act into law. The act offers many tax credit incentives for clean energy technologies like solar.
Solar began being used in the 1970s, forty years ago! The goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions was not a consideration. Where would we be if it had been?
Wind energy is clean, efficient, and sustainable. Wind turbines convert wind’s kinetic energy into electrical energy, powering homes and businesses. Wind energy is one of the most popular forms of renewable energy. And it’s not hard to see why.
Although wind energy is a renewable resource, it does require maintenance to function correctly. Technicians must maintain the turbines regularly to ensure that they are running optimally, and the blades must be kept free of debris to prevent them from being damaged by the wind. Despite these requirements, wind energy is a clean and renewable power source that can help reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
Wind energy also has some drawbacks. For example, wind turbines can be a nuisance to birds and other wildlife. They can also be a visual blight on the landscape. Some people believe that the noise produced by wind turbines is a form of pollution.
Despite these drawbacks, wind energy is a clean and renewable resource that can help reduce our reliance on fossil fuels. It is also an efficient source of power. In 2017, wind energy provided 4% of the United States’ electricity.
Despite its drawbacks, wind energy is a viable option for generating electricity. And with continued research and development, it could become even more efficient and cost-effective in the future.
Hydrogen is the most common element in the universe. That makes hydrogen one of the most abundant renewable energy resources. It is clean and efficient; the byproduct is pure water. There are no greenhouse gas emissions.
There are challenges to using hydrogen for typical applications. Hydrogen is hard to store in large quantities and can be volatile when compressing at average temperatures. Using hydrogen as a fuel for vehicles would be a clean way to power them, but the infrastructure currently does not support this. Once again, storage is the issue.
Another way to store hydrogen is by using metal hydrides. Metal hydrides can absorb large amounts of hydrogen gas. Some common metal hydrides are magnesium hydride, lithium aluminum hydride, and sodium borohydride.
According to Wikipedia – “Fraunhofer Institute for Manufacturing Technology and Advanced Materials (IFAM) is developing “Powerpaste” to store hydrogen by mixing hydrogen with magnesium powder to form magnesium hydride. When combined with water, hydrogen is released to power a fuel cell. Fraunhofer claims that Powerpaste can store hydrogen energy at ten times the energy density of a lithium battery of a similar dimension and substantially more than compressed hydrogen at 700 bar and is safe and convenient for automotive situations”.
Geothermal energy is a form of renewable energy that harnesses the heat from the earth. Geothermal energy has several benefits. It is a clean and renewable source of energy.
Geothermal power plants use steam turbines to generate electricity. Geothermal power plants can be large, requiring a significant amount of investment. However, once operational, they are very efficient and have low emissions.
One downside of geothermal power plants is that they are limited to geographical regions near a source of heat from the earth’s core near the surface. As a result, geothermal power plants are not a practical solution for all areas of the world.
A geothermal technology that doesn’t produce energy but uses heat pumps (ground-source or water-source) for heating and cooling our homes is worth mentioning. This technology uses a well, another water source, or underground pipes to exchange heat (or cool) between the ground and your home. Heat pumps are very efficient, use less energy, and renewable energy sources like solar panels or wind power can power them in combination with an energy storage system.
There are many forms of energy storage that have been around for centuries. For example, men have been building dams from as far as 270 B.C.E. The first hydroelectric power plant built in the United States was in Appleton, WI, in 1882 on the Fox River. There are still three hydroelectric facilities on the Fox River producing 681 kilowatts of hydroelectricity. Hydroelectricity is a renewable energy source. But there is much controversy as to how it affects the environment.
When done correctly, hydroelectricity can have a positive impact on the environment. Dams can do more harm than good, disrupt the rivers’ natural flow, and adversely affect fish and other wildlife. Dams also block sediment passage, which can build up over time and cause problems downstream.
Properly planned and managed hydroelectric dams can provide a clean and renewable source of energy with minimal impact on the environment. Engineers must use careful consideration to ensure dams are built and operated in an environmentally responsible manner.
In 2021 the United States had 98 nuclear reactors operating in 55 nuclear power plants. Twenty-eight states have at least one nuclear facility. Nuclear power plants generate about 20% of the electricity produced in the United States.
Nuclear power is a controversial topic. Some people believe that it is a safe and clean source of energy. Others believe that it is too dangerous, and the event of a failure could be catastrophic. Private investment in SMRs (Small to Medium Reactors) is recently increasing. There are lower initial costs to building SMRs, than large-scale reactors, but the same concerns are applicable.
Nuclear power is a reliable source of energy. But more must be done to ensure that nuclear power plants are safe. And to prevent disasters like Chornobyl and Fukushima from happening again.
Dealing with nuclear waste is a problem, and hopefully won’t be one of those short-sighted plans like we have had in the past dealing with other waste materials.
Despite its drawbacks, nuclear power is a viable option for generating electricity. And with continued research and development, it could become even safer and cleaner in the future.
Energy storage is critical to transitioning to sustainable and renewable energy. There are many different technologies available, each with its advantages and disadvantages. A combination of technologies is needed. Several variables determine the ideal option including pollution, cost, effectiveness, and sustainability. It is essential to consider all of these factors when making a decision.
Ember, an independent think tank notes – “The US has lagged on energy transition compared to other advanced economies, with 60% of electricity still from fossil fuels. Per capita, it is still among the worst coal power emitters, ahead of China”.
The global community needs to rethink how we use energy. While the good news is that renewable energy is taking off around the world, the bad news is that not everyone is on board. Renewable energy skeptics have many questions about using technology to switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Some of these concerns are valid and need constructive answers.
Energy efficiency needs to be improved by providing investment to discover and improve renewable energy solutions, and to produce better electric motors, appliances, and energy storage systems. Incentives need to be developed for businesses and homeowners to update machines, devices, appliances, and lighting to newer more efficient ones.
Global warming, pollution, and rising fuel cost are real problems we all have to deal with. Ignoring the hidden costs of toxic waste, and environmental impacts lead to a skewed understanding of the problem resulting in understated actual costs that affect our future. Renewable energy is one of our best options for a sustainable future. It is in everyone’s best interest to change how we produce and use energy and to shift from an unsustainable reliance on fossil fuels to renewable ones.