Warnings that gas supplies could be cut again by Christmas 2022 makes the UK’s 2017 decision to close its main gas storage facility because of high repair costs seem unfortunate. But there are many alternatives we could eventually turn to in an era of great change … if we plan carefully.
As both a planning consultant and environmental consultant, I thought it might be helpful to look at some of the most obvious, less obvious, plus downright outrageous and bizarre innovations that nevertheless could one day power our world.
Try luminous jellyfish cells, harvesting human body heat, pee-power, and recycling dancefloor energy for starters! Look hard enough, and we are surrounded by latent energy sources.
Our image of energy is changing … again!
However, much more than this, our whole concept of energy will almost certainly have to undergo an upheaval as radical as the historic transition from coal and steam to oil and gas, the nuclear age, and large-scale renewables.
We will almost certainly have little choice but to fundamentally change our comfortable habits on this unavoidable modern journey … and turn reassuring old assumptions and conventions on their heads.
Harvesting energy from dancefloors may sound strange today
There are four key points about the future of energy that I would like to make before looking at current, new, and potential or emerging, energy sources.
The first is that as supply chains falter, we must turn quickly to a frontline of short-term alternatives. These will most probably be led by solar and wind energy, plus a new generation of nuclear power.
Secondly, coupled with point one we must learn to use energy more efficiently via a combination of behavioural change and technical advances.
More insulation is a vital factor here too.
Do we really need that ‘thing’?
Thirdly, we should think about what has been referred to as the ‘hidden renewable’. Beyond turning thermostats down, using LED lights, and switching off stand-by modes, how much energy is needed to create the built- and social-environment we live in?
Do we, for example, really need that table? Could it be made with lower- or zero-carbon materials? In an increasingly digitised world with virtual reality, perhaps fewer tables are needed.
The fourth point – linked to dancefloor energy mentioned later – the First Law of Thermodynamics says energy can be changed from one form to another, but not created or destroyed.
We will probably discover, with energy at a premium, many extremely local small energy sources that we can learn to recycle.
That will mean saying goodbye to power mains and grids with heavy infrastructure, and hello to energy generated in the immediate world around us costing … next to nothing!
More technology and international links
We are now on that journey with the development of smart grids that connect domestic and business energy sellers and buyers minute-by-minute.
Short-term security may also involve more long-distance links like sub-sea gas pipelines from Norway and a mooted 1,200 km, 800MW-to-1,200 MW, high-voltage direct current (HVDC) interconnector bringing Icelandic geothermally-generated electrical energy to the UK.
The Rough debacle saw Centrica close the world’s first natural gas storage facility off the Yorkshire coast after 30 years when the Government decided not to subsidise maintenance costs.
Rough provided 70% of UK gas storage capacity in 2017. Reserves today are the lowest for 10 years with gas for four to five winter days. Netherlands’ capacity is nine times higher, Germany’s 16.
The UK, in fact, has robust gas supply lines, but a low storage capacity.
But as Kwasi Kwarteng as business secretary noted, “There’s no way that any storage in the world will mitigate a quadrupling of the gas price in four months, as we’ve seen … The answer to this is getting more diverse sources of supply, more diverse sources of electricity, through non-carbon sources.”
So what comes next? In the very short-term, the Government is discussing a temporary re-opening of Rough, plus a stay of execution for the UK’s last remaining coal mines.
Beyond that, which large-scale renewable and alternative energy sources could fill the gas gap?
In the immediate future, leading candidates are solar energy, wind power, small-scale hydropower and imaginative pump storage schemes, tidal flow, wave energy, waste processing, geothermal energy from hot rocks – particularly West Country granite domes, but also warm water from old coal mines, and acceptable forms of biomass.
Sun and wind
Solar energy and offshore wind farms – plus potentially onshore windfarms – are frontrunners. The Government wants UK solar capacity to grow fivefold to 14GW by 2035, and wind to 50GW by 2030 (https://www.gov.uk/government/news/major-acceleration-of-homegrown-power-in-britains-plan-for-greater-energy-independence).
However, all infrastructure projects need to meet local planning requirements. Enzygo, as a multidisciplinary environmental consultancy providing planning practice guidance can help here (https://www.enzygo.com/planning/. Our team also includes experts on environmental permitting regulations (https://www.enzygo.com/permits/). The following case study shows.
Case history – solar power ensures fresh drinking water for London and Essex
Here, we won full planning permission for the construction, operation, maintenance, and future decommissioning of an 8 MW solar photovoltaic (PV) farm supplying renewable energy to the Hanningfield Water Treatment Works (WTW) – a high energy user on semi-rural land near Chelmsford supplying 225 million litres of clean drinking water daily to circa 500,000 homes.
A key goal was to help Essex & Suffolk Water achieve net-zero carbon emissions by 2027; a caveat was that robust green belt conditions had to be met.
Enzygo project managed the application from inception to consent, liaised with the Local Authority at the pre-application stage and throughout the application, and addressed all requests for information from consultees to ensure no negative impacts on neighbouring residents.
Our work on site included ground investigations, plus a flood risk assessment, landscape character assessment, transport assessment, ecological impact assessment and habitat survey, tree survey and tree risk assessment.
The complete project profile, with details of the environmental impact assessment (EIA) environmental risk assessment we carried out, can be seen at https://www.enzygo.com/projects/installation-of-a-solar-photovoltaic-pv-park-generating-up-to-8-mw-of-electricity/.
Transferable values … extending to waste
I must stress here our broad reputation for working closely with planning officials and communities to resolve issues before, but importantly throughout, project development.
A similar example was Velocys, the UK’s first waste-to-jet-fuel facility in northeast Lincolnshire where we gained consent with no requirement for any further applications as the technical details evolve (https://www.enzygo.com/news/enzygo-secures-planning-permission-waste-to-jet-fuel/).
Wastes in general – including organic biomass with no negative environmental impacts – are a growing energy asset that can be turned into solid, liquid and gaseous fuels.
The UK’s long-term nuclear future
The UK’s nuclear energy ambitions are now threefold – to start constructing up to eight new large-scale reactors by 2030; introduce the first factory-made small modular reactions (SMRs); and develop successful fusion technology that produces energy by joining atoms together rather than splitting them apart in traditional fission reactors (https://www.linkedin.com/feed/update/urn:li:activity:6948297337110708224).
We must also bear in mind the hydrogen revolution with the caveat that hydrogen is an energy carrier that must be ‘made’ by splitting water with either ‘green’ or ‘blue’ energy from elsewhere.
If the ‘current sources’ above involve tangible hardware, software technologies will play a key part too. Here are some of the near-term and possible long-term options.
– The Internet of Energy (IoE) – the Internet of Things (IoT) represents the cyber-universe; the IoE is a small part dedicated to energy-related things; the automation and upgrading of infrastructure – national and local grids, commercial, communal and residential energy producers, plus distribution.
– Smart grids – the IoE allows intelligent distributed control of energy transactions between users via smart grids – allowing for example local homeowners and business to trade ‘home-grown’ wind and solar power by continuously collecting and analysing local demand and supply data.
– Energy flexibility – smart meters and electric vehicle (EV) chargers can help to ‘unlock’ energy flexibility in UK homes and could cut energy use by 10% during this decade with smart pricing signals.
– Virtual power plants (VPPs) – or virtual energy networks, are cloud-based distributed systems that aggregate different types of ‘distributed energy resources’ (DER) to improve power generation, trading, and overall power supply reliability.
They can typically include micro-Combined Heat and Power, reciprocating engine generators, small-scale wind and hydro, photovoltaics, backup power plants, and energy storage systems.
– Energy as a Service (EaaS) – rather than owning their own energy sources, future users could opt to buy-in power as and when they want it from the wider IoE.
Other ‘next big things’
Already making their entry are: –
– Ground and air source heat pumps – don’t generate heat but move existing external heat energy into buildings. They deliver more heat energy than the electrical energy they consume.
– Microwave-powered boilers – could be an alternative to heat pumps as a replacement for gas boilers.
However, other medium-term options might be: –
– Hillside hydropower – which by using a fluid two and half times more dense than water could turn many ordinary hills and slopes into convenient energy storage systems.
– Artificial photosynthesis – mimics nature by using sunlight energy to split water into useful hydrogen and oxygen.
– Electricity from thin air – Massachusetts scientists hope that water vapour from the atmosphere will interact with protein nanowires to create an electrical current that can power mobile phones.
– Carbon nanotube electricity – where carbon atoms rolled up into singular sheet molecules can generate electricity for smaller electrical devices.
– Electric tyres – charge during motoring powered by friction heat between rubber and the road.
– Pee power – passing urine through Microbial Fuel Cells (MFCs) where microbes feed on the organic materials releases electrons and generating electricity. The system has been used at Glastonbury.
– Diamonds are for batteries – on a more elevated note, diamonds put close to a radioactive source produces a small electric current – in effect a battery that can hold its charge for thousands of years.
“Curiouser and curiouser, cried Alice” – Adventures in Wonderland
This is where the list gets weird or seriously inventive, depending very much on your point of view.
– Solar wind – US scientists want to harness solar wind that could generate 1 billion GW of electricity – 100 billion times more than the planet now uses. The challenge is transferring it back to earth.
– Body heat – taken from Northern line Tube tunnels at the former City Road station site in London heats water pumped to buildings via a 1.5km underground pipe network (https://www.islington.media/news/bunhill-2-launch-pr).
– Dancefloors – in Rotterdam convert the kinetic energy of dancefloors into electricity to power lights. People take some 150 million steps in a lifetime. Their energy could power ‘smart streets’.
– Jellyfish – Sweden is developing a biological fuel cell derived from fluorescent protein cells of jelly fish; biocells floating in the oceans could one day generate cheap power.
– Confiscated alcohol – in 2007, 185,000 gallons of contraband alcohol confiscated by Sweden were converted into biofuels for public transport, saving 12,000 metric tons of carbon in one city alone.
We are clearly on the cusp of a new energy revolution that may only be limited by our imagination.
However, it won’t become a commercial reality without careful design and planning. Energy is everywhere. But let’s not leave it too late!
If you would like more information on our environmental services, please contact me directly.
Matt Travis, Company Director, Enzygo Ltd
See the LinkedIn article – https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/unusual-places-our-future-energy-could-may-come-from-enzygo-limited/