Your handy climate pub chat guide to: Renewable energy

Part of the Tehachapi Pass wind farm in California, the first large scale wind farm area developed in the USA. (Provider: Ashley Cooper
Part of the Tehachapi Pass wind farm in California, the first large scale wind farm area developed in the USA. (Provider: Ashley Cooper [email protected])

Climate change is a dense and controversial topic, but we’re going to distil some of the key parts down to something simple, readable and digestible. If the topic comes up in conversation – either at the office or down the pub – this will help you hold your own. In this article, we’ll deal with renewable energy.

Renewable energy, simply put, is naturally-occurring forms of energy that we can harness to power our lifestyle in a way that doesn’t include harmful side-effects.

In 2019, renewable energy accounted for around 11% of worldwide energy production.

In our efforts to get to net zero, that percentage will have to increase dramatically.

The good news is there are several different types of renewable energy that humans could use to keep our towns and cities powered.

These include, but aren’t limited to: solar power, wind power, geothermal power, hydro power and biomass power.

Let’s take a look at them.

Solar power is the most abundant and obvious source of renewable energy and humans have been using it for thousands of years to stay warm and grow crops.

Now, we can use the sun’s power with solar (also known as photovoltaic) cells that transform sunlight into electricity. And, in fact, the amount of solar energy reaching the Earth in one hour is enough to meet the total energy requirements for the planet for an entire year.

The difficulty comes in developing affordable technology to capture, transform and send that energy where it needs to go. Also, the sun’s rays don’t always reach us – there’s things like the day/night cycle, seasons and geographical location to consider.

Wind power is a great source of renewable energy and we’ve built giant wind turbines that are powered by the breeze. Like solar energy, the wind doesn’t always blow at full strength so wind energy can fluctuate.

However, in the UK, we’re making strides to harness wind energy with offshore wind farms.

For example, the Rampion windfarm, off the coast of Brighton, was built in 2018 and has 116 turbines with a capacity of 400 megawatts, enough to power about 350,000 homes.

That’s a small farm – most new wind farms can generate around 1,500 megawatts.

solar energy panels and wind turbines at shanghai china..
Solar energy panels and wind turbines in place in Shanghai (Getty)

Geothermal power harnesses the natural heat below the Earth’s surface.

As you might expect, this resource is more effective in some regions than others. While Iceland has a plentiful supply of geothermal energy, it’s much less freely available in the UK.

Hydroelectric power involves harnessing the power of fast-flowing water to spin a generator’s turbine blades. It’s much more reliable than solar or wind power but it requires a lot of investment to get up and running.

There’s also a drawback to using hydroelectic power in that it can have unintended consequences for the environment. Large hydroelectric dams can divert and reduce natural flows and restrict access to animal and human populations that rely on the rivers.

Smaller hydroelectric plants, with capacities below 40 megawatts, tend to have less of an impact.

Biomass power uses solid fuel created from plant materials to produce electricity. So, rather than burning coal and oil, you burn organic materials. This can include wood and agricultural crops, but also human and animal waste – making it economical if the infrastructure is in place.

Direct combustion (burning) is the most common way of converting biomass to energy and it can be used directly to heat buildings and water or for generating electricity through steam turbines.

There is more than enough renewable energy available to power the world’s needs but the difficulty comes from two areas. Firstly, the infrastructure needs to be put in place to use renewable over non-renewable and that can involve plenty of political wrangling.

Secondly, the cost of using renewable energy is still higher than burning fossil fuels because the energy industry has become so efficient in this regard.

At present, nearly every energy supplier in the UK is dependent on some non-renewable energy to meet demand, even if a proportion of the energy they purchase or generate is renewable. 

It might sound pretty obvious, but unless your supplier is continually investing in new sources of renewable energy, this isn’t going to change. When one supplier buys the energy produced by a wind farm, it simply means that another supplier can’t and that they might have to rely on an alternative non-renewable source. 

To truly make an impact, make sure your energy tariff is with a supplier who invests in new green energy and has made a commitment to phasing out fossil fuels as soon as possible. That’s the only way to ensure that one day your energy supply will be 100% renewable.

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