Energy is a fundamental part of our lives; however, can we continue to rely on fossil fuels? By 2030 global energy demand will be 40% higher and there are also growing concerns over increased greenhouse gas emissions and the resultant warming of our planet which causes us to ask questions about whether our current energy supply is truly sustainable. The UK is running out of energy, without massive investment in new power plants there will be regular black outs in 10 years.
There are several factors to consider when evaluating different primary energy resources; these include economic, environmental, political and social implications. However, the most important factors to consider would be economic viability (which is particularly significant due to the UK’s current economic situation) and environmental sustainability. In this essay I will be looking at these factors in order to try and come up with the most sensible solution to the growing energy problem in our country and therefore what primary energy resource should be developed to solve it.
Natural gas is a major source of electricity generation through the use of gas turbines and steam turbines. It burns more cleanly than other hydrocarbon fuels, such as oil and coal, and it also produces less carbon dioxide. For an equivalent amount of heat, burning natural gas produces about 30% less carbon dioxide than burning petroleum and about 45% less than burning coal. Gas from the North Sea has provided Britain with a regular supply since the mid 1960s when the first discoveries were made. However, UK supplies from the North peaked in 1999, since when production has fallen by around half (see graph to the right). The trade secretary says that the UK is now a net importer of gas – this growing dependence on imports means increasing vulnerability to rising prices and instability in gas-producing regions. Also the CO2 emissions are still significant so you can’t consider this energy resource as completely ‘clean’. Gas fracking in the UK is a very controversial issue, especially after the recent earthquakes at test drilling sites near Blackpool.
33% of our current energy sources come from coal; it is well established, cheap and reliable. However economically viable UK coal will run out in 10-15 years and is already expensive to mine. Half the coal used in the UK is now imported. The huge environmental implications involved with coal also remain to be a concern – there are high emissions of CO2 and SO2 (which causes acid rain.) Earlier this year the government invested £1 billion in cleaner technologies, in particular carbon capture technologies which prevent CO2 from escaping into the atmosphere. “The potential rewards from carbon capture and storage are immense: a technology that can de-carbonise coal and gas-fired power stations and large industrial emitters, allowing them to play a crucial part in the UK’s low carbon future” says Ed Davey, Energy and Climate Change Secretary. However this still remains to be a controversial strategy as some say that carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology is in its infancy and does not work yet.
Nuclear power is the use of sustained nuclear fission to generate heat and electricity – it provides about 20% of the UK’s energy, utilising 16 operational nuclear reactors at nine plants. Nuclear power is the primary source of electric power in France; 76% of France’s electricity comes from nuclear power, the highest percentage in the world. France’s nuclear power industry has been called “a success story” that has put the nation “ahead of the world” in terms of providing cheap, CO2-free energy. The main positive environmental implication is that it creates minimal CO2 emissions after construction and therefore it isn’t contributing to global warming however this shouldn’t indicate that it is environmentally friendly; there are high levels of radioactive waste involved and the Chernobyl (1986) and Fukushima (2011) incidents raise concern over nuclear disasters.
After the 2011 Fukushima incident, the head of France’s nuclear safety agency said that France needs to upgrade the protection of vital functions in all its nuclear reactors to avoid a disaster in the event of a natural calamity, which will inevitably increase the cost of electricity. There are further negative economic implications as there are high costs of building and decommissioning reactors. Planning and building a power station takes at least 10 years so this will not help meet Kyoto agreements. However a positive economic implication is that Nuclear energy is not as vulnerable to fuel prices fluctuations as oil and gas. There are several pros and cons to nuclear power which makes it a controversial matter; all of the above points would have to be considered if this resource would be developed over the next 20 years.
This is the most widely used form of renewable energy, accounting for 16 percent of global electricity consumption but just over 2% of the UK’s current consumption. Natural flow hydro is reliant on rainfall and vulnerable to drought which is ideal for the UK. There are no CO2 emissions involved and no vulnerability to fuel prices or political instability and is very cheap once the dam has been built. In theory this sounds like the ideal option for the UK to develop over the next 20 years however in practice there are several negative implications involved. For instance, hydropower projects on mega dams in China have caused species extinction and serious water pollution issues. The three gorges dam in China has had many negative impacts; huge areas of land has been flooded resulting in a large scale relocation of people, villages etc. This case study indicates that a large scale hydropower system within the UK would not be completely sustainable.
The Three Gorges Dam
Oil only accounts for 1.2% of the UK’s energy consumption and although it is a reliable technology and well established it has many negative implications with it. It is a finite stock resource – many oilfields are depleting; meaning production has peaked and prices will rise (price instability). This has also led to searching for unconventional reserves of oil e.g. in the Arctic. There could be 16 billion barrels of oil in Alaska and big oil TNCs are keen to extract it from this fragile wilderness which causes many harsh environmental impacts. The oil industry has a large dependence on politically unstable regions which causes many problems; the recent Arab spring conflict in Libya meant there were no exports of oil from this major producer. As well as creating a lot of CO2 emissions which contributes to global warming a major environmental implication is oil spills; the deep water horizon oil spill disaster caused extensive damage to marine and wildlife habitats and to the Gulfs fishing and tourism industry.
Biofuels are crops or organic matter such as agricultural wastes which can be used as fuels. They are defined as renewable because they are based upon plants which have trapped the sun’s energy during photosynthesis and converted it into chemical energy. In the UK it accounts for 0.6% of energy consumption – there are only a few facilities burning Biofuels such as waste wood products and straw that are already operating. Energy crops could be grown in the UK, but some will not be cost effective unless yields improve. These energy costs are considered to be carbon neutral because carbon released when crops are burned is balanced by carbon absorbed from the atmosphere during growth. One of the main issues concerned with Biofuels is that it uses up a lot of land which could be used for other things such as growing crops – there is a link between the spread of Biofuels across the world and rising food prices.
Brazil is considered to have the world’s first sustainable Biofuels economy and is the Biofuel industry leader; the UK could learn a lot from Brazil’s 37-year-old ethanol fuel program which is based on the most efficient agricultural technology for sugarcane cultivation in the world. This program has led to there no longer being any light vehicles in Brazil running on pure gasoline which has huge environmental benefits. However, again Biofuels cannot be considered completely environmentally friendly as you need to take into account the direct and indirect effect of land use changes; Brazil and other developing countries convert land in undisturbed ecosystems, such as rainforests, savannas, or grasslands to Biofuel production. Some experts call bioethanol “deforestation diesel”.
Wind is a key renewable resource that is not vulnerable to fuel price fluctuations. Turbines are emission free and quick to build, with the costs of building them decreasing. The UK is very suited to wind farms – some say that the UK has the best wind resources in Europe. The UK is ranked as the world’s eighth largest producer of wind power; at the beginning of March 2012 the installed capacity of wind power in the United Kingdom was 6,580 megawatts with 333 operational wind farms and 3,506 wind turbines. However, even though it is a leading producer, wind power only accounts for 0.5% of our energy consumption therefore there is a large amount of room for development. There are several issues with this source of energy to be considered; it uses up a lot of land which inevitably leads to NIMBYISM issues – there is local opposition and concerns about the noise pollution and the impact on the landscape. This energy source is also intermittent as wind levels fluctuate.
Solar is also a key free and renewable energy source. It can generate electricity from photovoltaic cells, be used to heat water directly, or be maximised by good building design. Spain is one of the most advanced countries in the development of solar energy however it is one of the European countries with the most hours of sunshine. This suggests that this source of energy would not be right for the UK as the UK sunshine is unreliable and limited. Solar power is also confined to daylight hours unless photovoltaic cells are used to store power in batteries. The solar power industry within the UK is developing however the potential may not be big enough for it to be developed further in the UK in my opinion.
Wave and Tidal
This has large potential in some parts of the UK and is a key renewable resource. However there are large development costs and it is still in the research stage with technology not being completely developed yet. There are also environmental issues involved with wave and tidal power; the barrier will act as a physical barrier to fish movements to spawning grounds etc. The wave and tidal barriers will also detract from the visual beauty of the coastline.
In this essay I have evaluated the pros and cons of several forms of primary energy which have the potential to be developed within the UK over the next 20 years. I have considered the environmental, political, social and economic implications of each in order to try and come up with the most sustainable option for the UK’s future.
Forms of renewable energy seem to be the most obvious choice to be developed in the UK with the ever increasing concerns over global warming and climate change. The environmental impacts involved with using natural gas, coal, nuclear energy and oil all seem to be too big for them to be considered. The political impacts concerned with oil in particular is a strong indication of an energy resource that should be avoided by the UK; oil is already making a small and declining contribution to electricity generation in our country.
With the focus being, in my opinion, on renewable energy it leaves the controversial decision over what particular primary energy source should be developed. At first glance, maximising the potential of hydropower seems to be the most sensible option as this is already having the largest contribution to our energy consumption out of all the renewables. However, much of the UK’s hydropower potential has already been exploited with large scale future development unlikely. I also believe that solar power isn’t the right renewable energy to go for as the UK’s climate is simply not suitable enough for it to have a large impact on our growing energy consumption. Wave and tidal energy does however have large potential in the UK however I am worried that due to its early stage in development it would need massive investment for it to reach its potential; this I believe would not be economically viable in the UK considering our current economic climate.
This leaves me with wind power. I believe that this should be the energy resource that should be further developed over the next 20 years for several reasons; it is currently the fastest growing renewable in the UK and there is already heavy government backing to support it. There are little environmental impacts to be considered and with costs falling it is also economically viable. NIMBYISM objections can also be solved with the development of off-shore wind farms further out to sea, for example the world’s biggest offshore wind farm off Kent with the 100 turbines being expected to generate enough electricity to power 200,000 homes. The success of this particular development will in my opinion become a catalyst for further development of more wind farms in the UK and will hopefully help solve the growing energy problem in our country.
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