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Energy – a beginners guide

The generation and use energy probably has the largest environmental impact of a
ll human activities - from fuel extraction right through to the emissions from p
ower stations and cars. To get to grips with the issues and the choices it’s usefu
l to have a grasp of the basic science and engineering principles - what is ener
gy, where does it come from, how do we use it? That can equip you with the tools
to analyse some of the problems and some of the solutions.

1. Energy Sources
The obvious starting point for our exploration of energy and energy issues is to
look at energy sources - where energy comes from.
The energy sources available to mankind fall into two fundamentally differing cl
asses - the renewable sources and the non renewable sources.
Renewable sources are the naturally occurring, and naturally replenished, energy
flows such as sunlight, the winds, the waves and the tides. The inds and waves
are actually indirect forms of solar energy - the differential heating of the at
mosphere, the land and sea produces winds, and winds moving over the sea produce
d waves. The suns heat also drives the hydrological climate system, creating clo
uds, rain and rivers, whose energy can be tapped in hydroelectric schemes. So th
at too is, indirectly, a solar source. Tidal energy by contrast is the result of
the gravitational interaction of the moon with the seas. So it could be called
lunar power , although the suns pull also has an effect.
Sunlight provides energy for plant and animal life, and when this dies and gets
buried under geological strata over millennia, it gets converted into fossil mat
erials of various types, coal, oil or gas, depending on the location, duration,
temperatures and pressures. These fossil fuel reserves have taken millennia to l
ay down, as, in effect, stored solar energy, but we have used a large proportion
of them in the last hundred years or so: our rate of use far outstrips to rate
of regeneration, so in practice they are non renewable resources.
By contrast, when we use biological material like wood, at the same rate as it i
s produced then that can be thought of as a renewable resource. Like fossil fuel
s, this is stored solar energy - but it can be continually and relatively quickl
y replaced.
Finally there is nuclear energy - the energy that can be released when the atomi
c nucleus of certain materials is disrupted. Reserves of the specific materials
needed are limited and are not being renewed: they are part of the planets initi
al inheritance, so nuclear power is not a renewable resource.
On a strict interpretation of the term, the same is true of geothermal energy fr
om the heat within the planet. This is the result of heat released due to the ra
dioactive decay of materials deep underground - so you could see geothermal ener
gy as a natural form of nuclear energy. Furthermore, since the sun is a giant
fusion reactor, bathing this planet with solar energy, you might say all the ene
rgy sources we have discussed, except tidal, are nuclear sources.
Of course, only a small fraction of the suns energy actually passes through the
atmosphere: most of it bounces off into space. And an even smaller proportion ge
ts converted into renewable flows and into stored solar energy.
What matters to us of course is how much energy we might be able to obtain form
these various sources. The problem with fossil and nuclear fuels is that the res
erves are underground and it is hard to say exactly how much is there: resource
estimates vary, but in general, and depending on the rate of use, global oil res
erves could begin to get expensive to access within a few decades, gas should la
st somewhat longer, while coal and uranium reserves will probably have an availa
bility of the order of a few hundred years. Obviously these are only very rough
ballpark figures. Even so, the point should be clear: these are inevitably fin
ite reserves.
By contrast, the renewables are not resource limited, although there are practic
al limits on how much energy we can recover from these sources. However, before
we can go much further with our exploration of energy and the quantitative limit
s to its availability, we need to be bit clearer about what energy actually is -
and about how to measure it.
2. What is Energy?
We have looked briefly at various energy sources. But what do we actually mean b
y energy? It is not as simple to define as you might first think. For energy is
a concept rather than an actual thing, it s a quality or capacity that is manife
st in certain situations: we say people have energy when they can work or play h
The formal definition is that energy is the capacity to do work , but to unders
tand this definition you need to appreciate that work here means any activity
involving the physical movement of objects: pushing a broken down car up a hill
is an obvious example. You have to work hard to do that, and you have to have th
e energy to do it. The energy required actually depends on the mass of the car a
nd the vertical height you have to raise it (and also the strength of the gravit
ational pull - it would be easier on the moon!). Where does that energy come fro
m? In this case it is ultimately from food, which, together with the air you bre
ath, make your muscles work. So in this case we say that food is an energy sourc
e - a fuel for the human machine.
There are, as we have seen, many other fuels: e.g. wood and coal. Unfortunately,
in common usage, the two terms, energy and fuel, often tend to be used intercha
ngeably. However fuels are only potential sources of energy: you have to do so
mething to release the energy. Usually it can be released in the form of heat en
ergy, for example by burning the fuel. But there are also other types of energy,
most obviously electrical energy (from electric currents) and, more fundamental
ly, the kinetic energy of moving objects. However, what matters for our purposes
here is the idea that you can convert energy from one form into another.
A dramatic example of this conversion process is if you convert the potential en
ergy you have when standing on a cliff (by virtue of you being at a height above
the ground below), into kinetic energy should you jump off. When you hit the gr
ound and your initial potential energy is suddenly dissipated in structural defo
rmation, sound and maybe some heat. Should you survive and for some reason wish
to repeat the exercise, then you will have to provide the potential energy again
by using stored chemical energy in your body to power your muscles to climb bac
k up to top against the force of gravity. Unless of course there is a convenient
chair lift of some sort to do the job for you - possibly using electrical energ
Power stations are the largest and most obvious example of an energy conversion
device: they convert fuels into electricity. But car engines, domestic cookers,
light bulbs and so on are also energy conversion devices, converting one sort of
energy into another, whether its heat, light, or power for movement. In some ca
ses it’s a single stage conversion process - for example from electricity to light
(and a bit of heat) in a light bulb. In others, a complex chain of conversion p
rocesses is involve
Let’s go back to power stations as an example of this multiple staged energy conve
rsion process.. First the heat energy in the fuel, lets say it is coal, is relea
sed by burning. This heat is used to boil water to make super hot steam. The ste
am then passes through a series of turbine blades mounted on a shaft, like in a
jet engine, pushing against them and causing the complete turbine unit to rotate
. This rotary movement is used to drive an electricity generator - essentially a
giant dynamo or alternator type device, consisting of coils of wire turning in
a magnetic field. The rotation induces an electric current in the wires - and th
at is how electricity is generated.
Losses in Energy Conversion
Having established the basic idea of energy conversion, the next key thing to re
alise is that you will loose some energy in the energy conversion process. The e
fficiency with which energy in one form can be converted into energy in another
form can never be 100%. You will always get less out than you put in - there are
always losses, and, as we shall see, for many energy conversion devices they ca
n be quite high, often as much as half the input energy and sometimes more.
Part of the reason for these losses is that you cannot avoid producing other typ
es of energy as an accidental by product of the main conversion process- for exa
mple noise or heat from friction with mechanical and electrical energy conversio
n systems. As we shall see, there are also what are called thermodynamic losse
s with systems in which the energy in a fuel is used to raise steam to drive mac
hinery, or to create hot gases to drive engines or turbines. To put it simply, y
ou can’t convert all the energy from one form into another, some of it remains unc
hanged i.e. its not all converted in to the form you want. You are bound to get
unwanted incidental energy outputs and conversion losses.
Note however that we never actually loose energy. The total amount of energy pro
duced, when you add up all the energy outputs of the energy conversion process,
both desired and undesired, is always equal to the energy fed in at the start of
the process. So we have what is called the Law of Conservation of Energy. Put s
imply it says energy is always conserved . Except in nuclear processes, where t
hings are somewhat different, energy cannot be created or destroyed, only conver
ted from one form to another. So although it is common to talk of energy genera
tion and energy consumption , strictly, energy is never generated or consum
ed , it is just converted from one form to another.
The term power is used to formally describe the conversion capacity of any spe
cific device i.e. the rate at which it can convert energy from one form to anoth
er, and the unit most commonly used is the watt. So although the concept of powe
r is often used as if it meant the same as energy, in fact power refers to the a
bility of a system to convert fuels into useful energy. Put formally, power is a
measure of the rate of conversion or use of energy.
Specific energy generating or consuming devices, like power stations or elec
tric fires or light bulbs, are given a power rating (or rated capacity ) in wat
ts. For example electric kettles typically are rated at 1000 watts. Since the wa
tt is a quite small unit, it is usual to use multiples of watts e.g. a kilowatt
( kW ) is one thousand watts. Note that the abbreviation is spelt with a small l
etter ‘k’ and large ‘W’. Moving up scale, a megawatt is 1000 kilowatts (it’s written ‘MW’,
spelt with a big ‘M’ and‘W’), a gigawatt (GW) is 1000 megawatts, and a terawatt (TW) is
1000 gigawatts. To give you an idea of scale, a typical large modern coal or nu
clear power station has a rated capacity of around 1.3 gigawatts (GW) or 1,300,0
00 kW, while the UK has around a total of 65 GW of electricity generating capa
When it comes to calculating your electricity bills, while its useful to know th
e rated capacity of devices, i.e. how much power they use when running, what you
really need to know is the actual amount of energy that they have used - and th
at depends on how long they have been run.
What you pay for is the amount of energy consumed which will depend on the act
ual work done by the electricity you have bought in running you lights, TV etc
. The energy used is defined by the power of each device multiplied by the time
for which they are used.
So energy=power x time (i.e. watts x hours).
Energy is usually measured in kilowatt hours or kWh (note the use of a small l
etter h , as well as a small ‘k’, and a big letter ‘W’). This is the unit by which elec
tricity is sold in many countries, (although, obscurely, the USA still makes use
of British Thermal Units, the old measure for the heat content of fuels: 1kWh=3
413 BTU s). A typical 1kW rated one bar domestic electric fire consumes 1 kilo
watt hour (kWh) each hour, and if you did not have anything else running during
the quarter that is how it would eventually appear on your electricity bill - as
one unit of electricity or 1 kWh. of energy used
For larger quantities of energy, multiples of kWh s are used, most commonly the
terawatt hour (TWh) which is 1000,000,000 kWh. To give an idea of scale, the nat
ional figure for total UK electricity consumption was about 300 TWh per annum.
Remember however that this is the figure for the consumption of electricity, not
total energy consumption: it does not include all the direct heat supplies (gas
etc.) or transport fuels (petrol etc.). We will be coming back to look at the o
verall consumption picture latter, but very roughly, in the UK, electricity use
represents about a third of total energy use. And to give you a feel for the gen
eral pattern, most of the coal (and nuclear) energy is used to produce electrici
ty, most of the oil is used for transport, and, until recently, most of the gas
was used just for heating - with energy use in these three sectors being very ro
ughly equal.
Just to check you are making sense of all this, why not try the foll
owing calculation
A large electric kettle is rated at 1kW. It takes 6 minutes to boil.
How much energy has it used - in kilowatt hours?
Answer: 6 minutes is one tenth of an hour. So the kettle will have u
sed 0.1kWh
Note: currently, electricity in the UK costs consumers 6-7p/kWh, so
boiling that kettle full of water will have cost 0.6 - 0.7 pence.
Try the same calculation for an 8kW instantaneous shower, running sa
y for 6 minutes, compared with a bath full of water, which might need an immersi
on heater running for one hour, and you’ll realise why even powerful showers are c
heaper than baths.
3. Primary Energy
The total amount of energy used is often measured in terms of primary energy con
sumption, that is the amount of energy in the basic fuels used by energy convers
ion devices, whether they are used for electricity production, heating or transp
ort. National level energy use is often represented in terms of the primary ener
gy feeding in to the country, aggregating together the input energy used by all
the various types of conversion devices and systems - power stations, vehicles a
nd so on.
However it is important to remember that primary energy figures, for the total
energy in the fuels used by energy conversion devices, are usually much larger
than the finally delivered energy, as utilised by consumers, since, as we have s
een, there are losses in the energy conversion and power delivery processes, for
example in power plants and in transmission along the grid cable network.
This is particularly true of electricity: conventional coal or nuclear fired pow
er plants only have conversion efficiencies (measured in percentage terms as ene
rgy out, divided by energy in, times 100) of around 35%. The rest, around two th
irds of the primary energy input, is normally wasted - much of it being pushed o
ut into the environment as heat from the cooling towers at power stations.
This is due to the basic process of using fuels to raise steam so as to drive tu
rbines. This is perhaps not the place to get too far into the intricacies of the
rmodynamics (although Box 1 might help you grasp some of the key points) but the
basic explanation of these losses is fairly straightforward. In a conventional
stream raising plant, the superhot steam is used to drive a turbo generator to g
enerate electricity: the steam pushes against the turbine blades making the turb
ine rotate and giving up its energy. However, the turbine can only extract some
of the energy from the steam- although it is cooler, steam still emerges out of
the exhaust side, and this energy is then dumped, when the steam is converted ba
ck to water. That is what the large cooling towers at power station do: they are
essentially vast condensers, fed with steam and transferring the waste heat out
from of their exterior surfaces to the air around them.
Fortunately, there are ways to recycle some of this energy, as is explained in B
ox 2, by developing new types of combined heat and power’ plant, but, so far, the
y are not widely used in the UK. The result is that, in effect, in most coal fir
ed power stations in use in the UK, for every three truck loads of coal fed in t
o a power plant, two truck loads are wasted, and only one truckloads worth ends
up being converted to electricity. It does not matter what the initial heat sour
ce is. If nuclear power plants, or conventional plants burning gas or oil are us
ed to raise the steam to drive turbines in the conventional way, the result is n
o better - they still produce as much waste heat.
Moreover, after it has been produced by a power plant, up to 10% of the electric
ity may be lost (by heating up the wires) when it is transmitted along power lin
es to consumers, depending on the distances involved. And then, when they finall
y get it, consumers will use this delivered energy to power a variety of energ
y conversion devices with varying degrees of efficiency, with much of it often b
eing wasted, for example in poorly insulated buildings. Primary energy figures t
herefore only tell part of the story. As we shall see in subsequent sections the
re is also a need, when comparing technologies and energy systems, to consider t
he overall efficiency of energy conversion and transmission, and the use to whic
h the energy is put.
Also, do remember that there is a big difference between primary energy (i..e. a
ll energy used) and electricity. For example the UK’s nuclear plants produce aroun
d 25% of our electricity, but only about 8% of our total primary energy.

Box 1 Energy Conversion Efficiency and Thermodynamics

The efficiency with which energy can be converted from one form to another can b
e an
alysed in theoretical terms. For energy conversion devices like power stations,
the efficiency is equal to the difference between the input temperature of the s
team going in to the turbine (T in) and its output temperature at the exhaust (T
out) divided by the input temperature (T in).
Or in algebraic form:
Efficiency=T in – T out
T in
This may look pretty simple, but it is the basis of much of the science of therm
odynamics - which governs the design and performance of many energy conversion d
evices, and tells us that no device using thermodynamic conversion (i.e. using t
he heat of gases to drive machinery) can have 100% efficiency.
Let’s take the most extreme case to show why. About the hottest you can run any ma
chine without it melting is 600 degree centigrade- steel melts not far above tha
t temperature. About the lowest temperature you can imagine using for the exhaus
t side is ground or air temperature - around 15 degrees C. To do the sum we have
to convert to a different temperature scale, the Kelvin, on which the freezing
point of water is 273 (on the Kelvin Scale the absolute zero temperature of spac
e is zero, or minus 273 centigrade).
So our converted temperatures come out as 273 + 15=288 and 273+ 600=873.
The theoretical maximum conversion efficiency is then:
873-288 or around 2/3 - about 67%
In reality few actual devices can attain anything like this. As already noted, i
n practice most power stations operate at around 35% efficiency. Perhaps now you
can see part of the reason why: you cant get T in – T out large enough in practic
e. Which means there are inevitably going to be wastage s in the energy conversi
on process.
Not all energy conversion devices are thermodynamically limited in this way: for
example the various so called ‘direct conversion’ devices, some of which work at mu
ch higher efficiencies. Many of them are electrical, electronic or chemical, lik
e batteries or electric motors, and have conversion efficiencies of around 80%.
So does the electrolysis of water to produce hydrogen gas. By contrast, modern p
hotovoltaic solar cells are only around 20% efficient. And although as mechanica
l systems, wind turbines are not limited by thermodynamic losses, there are aero
dynamic losses, so that the maximum theoretical efficiency is 59.3%. So, even wi
th non-thermodynamically limited conversion, there are still some losses: 100% e
fficiency is not easy to obtain in the real world.
The fact that there are inevitable losses and energy wastage when one form of en
ergy is converted in to another, has some interesting implications. It means tha
t although you may create something more useful, like electricity, overall you w
ill have also have produced some degraded form of energy - unwanted by-products
of little value. If you kept repeating this conversion process, feeding the high
grade energy back to be converted into some other form of energy, you would end
up with less and less useful energy and more and more low grade by product/wast
Physicists describe this process as one of creating increasing disorder i.e. d
egrading the original energy, and they use the term entropy to describe the de
gree of disorder. They add that entropy always increases: try as you may to reor
der things, in the end, the result will be that the world will move to a more ch
aotic, lower grade, state.
It may seem hard to see how a lump of coal is higher grade than electricity, but
you have to remember the conversion losses and what we do with electricity - wh
ich is to eventually turn it into low grade heat in various ways. Each time we c
onvert some primary form of energy into power for us to use, we end up, sometime
s at the end of a long chain of subsidiary processes, indirectly warming the pla
net slightly. This is not the same thing as ‘global warming’ due to greenhouse gas e
missions - it’s a longer term and more fundamental process. The whole universe is
going the same way on a cosmic timescale, so perhaps you do not have to feel too
responsible for your own contribution. Except that, if we use energy conversion
devices to continue to rapidly increase our local entropy, we could eventually
bring human activities on this planet to an untimely end - the so called ultimat
e ‘heat death’.
Box 2: Combined Heat and Power
We have seen that, whatever the fuel used to provide the heat, there are signifi
cant losses associated with energy conversion in conventional power plants. Sure
ly there must be some way in which these might be reduced? The obvious answer is
to use the exhaust steam for heating rather than wasting it. That is actually d
one on a wide scale, for example in some European countries, with the waste heat
being fed to district heating pipe networks to provide heating for domestic a
nd commercial buildings.
There are still, inevitably, losses in the process of energy conversion (you can
t beat the laws of thermodynamics) but, in principle, you can utilise perhaps h
alf of the energy that would normally be wasted by recycling the waste heat in t
his way - in effect doubling the overall conversion efficiency of the power plan
t. So if instead of operating at say 35% efficiency just converting the input fu
el to electricity, we make use of the waste heat as well as the electricity, the
plants overall energy conversion efficiency can be increased to say 70% - and i
t some cases it can be more.
A simple sum might help to make this point clearer. The efficiency of conversion
in a conventional plant is defined as the energy output divided by the energy i
nput. Let’s say that we feed three units of fuel in to a power plant and only obta
in one units worth of electricity out: the other two emerge as waste heat. The o
verall conversion efficiency can be defined in percentage terms as the output di
vided by the input, times 100. In this case it is:
(1/3) x 100%=33.3%.
If we then rescue half of this waste heat, the overall output is doubled, sinc
e we now get two useful units worth of energy out - one as electricity, and the
other as heat. The overall efficiency is also doubled, since is now (2/3) x 100
or 66.6% .
Power plants operated in this way are called Combined Heat and Power (CHP) plant
s - in the USA the term co-generation is also used.
However it is not quite as staightforward as it might first seem. The steam from
conventional steam turbines is at too low a temperature to be very useful for d
istrict heating networks, and it is therefore necessary to modify the power plan
t to extract steam at slightly higher temperatures. This however reduces the pla
nts efficiency as an electricity producer. It is a swings and roundabouts exer
cise: you loose some electrical conversion efficiency but gain some energy conve
rsion efficiency overall.
There are some other options for increasing overall energy conversion efficiency
, notably the combined cycle gas turbine. In this, natural gas is the fuel and i
t is burnt to create hot gases which drive a gas turbine, much as in a jet engin
e. The waste heat from the gas turbine exhaust is then used to raise steam to dr
ive a conventional steam turbine, so it is a two stage device. But it is only us
ed to generate electricity- the temperature of the output steam is usually too l
ow to use for heating purposes. The end result nevertheless is that the overall
energy conversion efficiency can be up to 50% or more: not as much as with CHP,
but still worthwhile.
4. Making Sense of Units
Given that there are many ways in which energy is generated and used, it is not
surprising that there are many different, often confusing, ways in which it is m
easured and many devotees of rival systems of measurement.
One of the earliest units was of course horse power (HP) - the power of one hors
e. Cars are still often rated in HP. One horsepower is actually 746 watts or abo
ut three quarters of a kilowatt.
As for energy, we have mentioned kWh, which is the most familiar unit to most pe
ople since it is what is usually used on consumers electricity bills. However y
ou may also be familiar with the calorie - an energy unit used by chemists and m
ore recently by weight watchers. Unfortunately, to confuse things, the food Calo
rie (which is usually written with a capital C ), is 1000 larger than the chemi
sts calorie (which usually written with a small c ). The (chemical) calorie is
defined as the amount of energy needed to raise the temperature of 1 cubic centi
metre of water through one degree centigrade. See Box 3 for a discussion of ener
gy in food.
By contrast physicists, and, more recently, energy analysts, sometimes use the b
asic physical unit for energy, the joule ( J ) or multiples of joules. One watt
is one joule per second, so (since there are 3,600 seconds in an hour) a kWh is
3,600,000 Joules, and the joule is thus a very small unit. Hence large multiples
are common, e.g. mega joules or MJ (1,000,000 joules), giga joules (1000 MJ),
tera joules or TJ (1000GJ), peta joules or PJ (1000 Tera joules) and exa jou
les or EJ (1000 Peta joules
Box 3 Energy in Food
Nowadays most food is labelled with its energy content in terms of joule
s (or rather kJ) usually per hundred gramme serving. One (food) Calorie is equal
to 4.19kJ, and to give you an idea of scale, common granulated sugar has an ene
rgy content of about 4 Calories per gram or 19.76 kJ per gram. Fatty foods can h
ave an even higher energy content- up to 9 Calories per gram or more. That s the
equivalent of nearly 38 MJ per kg.
You might like to compare this figure with the energy content figures fo
r other fuels: see Table 1 ( which is in both joules and watt-hours). As you can
see, food is not a bad fuel in terms of energy content per gram!
For example, lets assume an ice cream label says that it contains 250 Ca
lories, or 1050 kJ per 100g. That’s 1.05MJ if you eat a 100g portion. In theory, i
t works out, from the basic physics of lifting masses up heights, that a person
weighing 60 kilograms would only need to eat 5 grams, to provide enough energy t
o walk up four flights of steps (say 10 metres) - assuming all the energy could
be converted into muscle power. That’s about one lick s worth. In principle, this
is a reversible process, but as you can see you would have to climb an awful lot
of stairs to burn off the energy from the compete 100 gram tub of ice cream: ab
out 80 flights in fact, even assuming a 100% energy conversion efficiency.
Of course, in the real world, the energy conversion process depends on h
uman metabolic rates (and your fitness) and the energy you burn off depends on h
ow easy it is to mount the steps - and how quickly you try to do that. As anyone
who has attended a modern health club will know, working against gravity, or ot
her forms of resistance, can be made into quite tough exercise.
Ice cream too much for you? Here are some other food energy contents in
MJ/kg- vegetables 0.1 – 0.2, fruit 1.5 - 4.0, potatoes 3.2 - 4.8, lean meat 5.0 -
However, to confuse things further, in the UK until recently, for statistical co
mparison purposes, primary energy use, that is the energy in the fuels used, was
often measured in terms of the equivalent amount of coal that would be required
to be burnt to provide that energy, regardless of what fuel was actually used i
n power stations i.e. in tonnes of coal equivalent (or, more, usually million
tonnes of coal equivalent or mtce ). This no doubt reflected the historical p
redominance of coal in the UK s economy, although, to confuse matters even more,
the gas unit, the therm , was also sometimes used ( 1 Therm=100,000 British Th
ermal Units)
In 1994, to make the situation perhaps a little clearer, the UK governments sta
tisticians decided to adopt the European standard unit, with the energy content
of all fuels being rendered, for statistical comparison purposes, in terms of th
e equivalent amount of oil that would have the same amount of energy content. Th
e energy content of all fuels is therefore now presented in terms of tonnes of o
il equivalent, or more usually, million tonnes of oil equivalent or mtoe s.
Mtoe’s are now widely used by energy analysts, but most engineers still use the mo
re familiar kWh, TWh etc. figures. For reference 1 mtoe=11.63 TWh, and 1 TWh=0.0
86 mtoe. Some more conversions factors are given in Box 4 below. And, to round t
hings off, we include a comparison of the energy contents of various common fuel
Not everyone will find the details of the units used in energy measurement excit
ing, but obviously it is necessary to have a common measure, and establishing th
is may not be easy - or uncontentious. The latter point can be illustrated by ex
ploring some of the details of the new approach mentioned above. In addition to
switching to the use of millions tonnes of oil equivalent, the changes introduce
d in 1994 to the way energy statistics are rendered in the UK also involved a su
btle shift in the way the energy content is calculated. It is now based on the e
nergy content of the output power produced by power plants, rather than on the e
nergy content of the input fuel needed to generate the power.
This has some interesting results. Previously, on the so-called fuel substituti
on basis, the primary energy contribution from non-fossil fuel powered devices
like the wind turbines was calculated in terms of the energy content of the foss
il fuel that would have to be fed to a conventional power station to provide the
same amount of power output. On the new energy supply basis, the figures for
contributions from devices like wind turbines drop dramatically, since the outpu
t is no longer adjusted (by 65% or so) to reflect the scale of the losses associ
ated with energy conversion in conventional power plants. Or to put it another w
ay, these loses are ignored and only the final outputs are compared. The end res
ult of this change, and some other, less dramatic, changes in the way the sums a
re done, is that the quoted renewable energy contribution is reduced by more tha
n 70%.
Not surprisingly, the new approach is not particularly popular with renewable en
ergy supporters, especially since, at least in some formulations of this new app
roach, the figures for nuclear power plants are unchanged. Thus in some reports
you can have nuclear power and hydro power quoted as both contributing around 2%
to total world energy, while in other reports the nuclear contribution is put a
t 6 or 7%, but that from hydro is still only 2%. It yet other cases, both are pu
t at 6 or 7%.
To re-iterate, the 2% figure are the actual outputs, calculated according to the
new ‘energy supply’ scheme, in terms of the actual amount of energy obtained, where
as the 6-7% figures are the primary energy inputs, that is, the amount of fossil
fuel that would be needed for a fossil fuel plant to generate the energy specif
ied- taking into account the 65% or so losses/35% efficiency associated with con
ventional fossil fuelled. Hence the factor of roughly 3 difference.
Both methods of rendering the figures can be useful - and the UK statisticians h
ave decided to also make the figures available on the original substitution basi
s, since it was accepted that, while it was useful to be able to compare the act
ual amount of power being supplied to the grid, it was also useful to be able to
assess the degree to which renewable sources were substituting for fossil fuel.
But switching back and forward between these schemes and comparing them inconsi
stently can be confusing.
Note that there is also another possible factor of 3 around that might confuse y
ou even further. If we also shift to presenting the data for, say, hydro and nuc
lear in terms of the percentage of the world total electricity supplied from the
se sources, the 6-7% figures increase to around 18-20% in both cases - since, ve
ry roughly, electricity make up about one third of total energy use.
Let’s hope you are not now totally disenchanted with the rigour of energy statisti
cs! Hopefully, the above will simply ensure that you take care to check what uni
ts are being used and how the figures have been calculated.
Box 4. Summary of unit conversion factors
1 watt=1 joule per second
1kilowatt hour=1 watt for 1 hour=3,600,000 joules ( or 3.6 mega joules)
1 calorie=4.18 joules
1 British Thermal Unit=1055 joules
1 million tonnes of coal equivalent=28 PJ or 7.5 TWh*
1 million tonnes of oil equivalent=42 PJ or 12 TWh*
(* approximately, assuming 100% conversion efficiency)
Table 1 Energy contents of various Fuels
Quantities of Heat Joules Watt-hours
1 cubic foot of natural gas 1.1 MJ 0.31 kWh
1 cubic metre of natural gas 39.0 MJ 10.8 kWh
1 litre of petrol 39.6 MJ 11.0 kWh
1 litre of heating oil 41.1 MJ 11.4 kWh
1 kilogram of coal 30.0 MJ 8.3 kWh
1 therm of gas (=105 BTU) 105.5 MJ 29.3 kWh
1 British Thermal Unit (BTU) 1054.8 J 0.293 Wh
1 kilogram of dry wood 15 MJ 4.2 kWh
5. National and Global Energy Use- and its impacts
Having now established some of the basic sources and types of energy and how the
y are converted and measured, we can move on to look briefly at how we actually
use it at present - and its impacts. Primary energy use figures can be derived a
t various levels - for countries, or for the world as a whole. Within the nation
al context, primary energy use is often broken down in terms of its final destin
ation i.e. in terms of its eventual end use in each sector of the economy.
In terms of where the basic primary fuels are used, as we’ve noted before, in the
UK, very roughly speaking, most of the oil is used for transport, most of the co
al is used for electricity production and most of the gas was until recently use
d for heating - although gas is now being used for electricity production instea
d of coal.
Inevitably the exact figures change with time, but to give an impression of the
balance of energy use amongst the various main end use sectors, in the UK in 199
4, transport accounted for 33% of primary energy use, industry 25%, the domestic
sector 29%, leaving 13% for other uses. So very roughly speaking, the three mai
n sectors, transport, industry and the domestic sector, each use about the same,
although transport is the largest, and in fact has begun to get even larger sin
ce 1994.
In terms of the actual form of energy consumed, in the UK in 1994, electricity a
ccounted for 16% of the total, gas 32%, petroleum 44% and solid fuels 8%. Howeve
r, following the privatisation of the UK energy system in 1990, the way in which
electricity supplies were generated has changed, with, as we noted above, gas i
ncreasingly taking over from coal as the main fuel for electricity generation. F
or example, before privatisation up to 80% of the UK’s electricity had come from c
oal, but by 1995 it fell to 47%, primarily due to the use of natural gas fuelled
combined cycle turbines for electricity production. By 1999 coal and gas were a
lmost level - at around 33% each. And by the year 2020, if trends continue, gas
is predicted to have a 65-70% share, with coal falling to 10-15%.
The patterns in other countries obviously varies, with electricity use being muc
h higher in the developed countries. For example, Norway and Brazil obtain more
than half their electricity from hydro, and France obtains more than 70% of its
electricity from nuclear power, whereas in some developing countries there is ve
little use of electricity from any source.
In terms of total energy use, the overall trend in the UK, and globally, is upwa
rds - global energy use has in general been rising by between 1-2% each year. Se
e BP’s annual digest of global energy statistics for the latest figures at : http:
// Also see the International Energy Agency data at: http://ww
Looking further into the future, given the growing world population and rising m
aterial expectations, energy use globally is likely to continue to increase. Ene
rgy scenarios have been devised to attempt to map out possible patterns of longe
r term development in energy supply and demand. Some assume that energy demand i
s likely to increase up to perhaps three times current levels by the year 2060.
Does that matter? The answer must be yes, if we are concerned about the environm
ent. In recent years we have become aware that burning fossil fuels in power sta
tions and cars not only produces air pollution which can damage health, but it a
lso seems to be changing the Climate.
The main culprit in terms of Climate Change is carbon dioxide gas, which, along
with other so called greenhouse gases, such as methane, travel to the upper atmo
sphere where they act something like the glass in a green house, trapping in the
sun heat. This seems to be leading not only to global warming but also to other
changes in the Climate system, such as violent storms, floods, and droughts, le
ading in turn to floods, fires, disease, and possibly death and destruction on a
significant scale, as temperatures rises, the ice caps melt and sea level rise.
All this just from burning a few fossil fuels? Although some ‘contrarians’ dissent*
, the balance of the evidence seems to suggest so - for example see http://www.u
Note that the greenhouse gas ‘climate change’ effect is unrelated to ozone depletion
and the creation of so called ozone holes in the stratosphere, notably in the
polar regions. Although ozone plays a role in the greenhouse effect, the ozone
holes are a separate phenomena - the result of a chemical interaction between CF
C (Chloro Fluoro Carbon) molecules and other halogens, which destroy ozone. CFC
s are man made chemicals which were developed as a supposedly inert gas for use
in refrigerators and foam packaging, amongst other things. The results of strato
spheric ozone depletion due to the release of CFC s is that dangerous wavelength
s of solar radiation can reach the earth s surface where they can cause skin can
cers and damage plant growth. That’s serious enough, but the results of the wider
process on Climate Change could be even more serious.
* See for example Climate of Fear; why we shouldn t worry about global warm
ing Thomas Gale More (Cato Institute, Washington DC) or Fred Singers spirited c
ontrarian analysis at For a riposte see Ross Gelbspan ‘The Hea
t is On’ Longman 1997
6. Reducing Environmental Impacts
Surely some of these pollution problems can be avoided? The answer is yes, some
can, but others are much harder. A bit of simple chemistry will hopefully put th
e situation in context.
Lets deal with the easy one first. One of the main air pollution issues is acid
rain - the consequence of acidic emissions from power stations, caused primarily
by the sulphur content of coal and oil. When burnt, the small sulphur element i
n these fossil fuels is converted into sulphur dioxide gas. Here is the equation
: S + O2=S O2
This gas can dissolve in water vapour in the atmosphere to produce weak sulphuri
c acid. This acid, although very weak, falls in the rain and can damage trees, a
nd, collected up in lakes, can injure wildlife and fish. Acid rain also damages
buildings and crops. Oxides of nitrogen (NO, NO2, NO3 etc, usually collectively
labelled NOx) can also be produced by the combustion of fossil fuels in power st
ations, and also from the combustion of petrol in cars, and they can play a simi
lar role.
In principle, the acid emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels can be filt
ered out relatively easily - although at a cost. By contrast there is no easy re
medial technology for the emission of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide. C
arbon dioxide is the fundamental product of combustion: put simply burning means
using oxygen from the air to convert the carbon in fossil fuels into carbon dio
xide gas plus heat. The chemical equation is: C + O2=CO2 + heat.
Fossil fuels are hydrocarbons: they contain varying amounts of hydrogen and carb
on. All fossil fuels create carbon dioxide when burnt, but some produce more tha
n others depending on their chemical make up. Coal has a high pure carbon conten
t, and when burnt it therefore produces mostly just carbon dioxide and heat. By
contrast methane (natural gas) is made up of one atom of carbon plus four of hyd
rogen and when burnt the hydrogen is converted into water, so that the ratio of
carbon dioxide to heat produced differs. Here is the chemical equation CH4 + 2O2
=CO2 + 2H 2O+ heat
The result is that the combustion of natural gas produces roughly 40% less carbo
n dioxide per kWh of heat produced than the combustion of coal. By contrast the
combustion of the more complex hydrocarbons like oil, produces intermediate leve
ls of carbon dioxide. See Table 2.
Table 2 Carbon Dioxide productio
Fuel kg of CO2 per GJ of heat
Coal 120
biomass 77
oil 75
natural gas 50
Clearly then, one way to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from power station is t
o burn gas rather than coal - and as we have seen that is being done in the UK.
However, there is only so much methane gas available, it’s a finite resource - eve
ntually we have to tackle the problem at source and stop burning fossil fuels.
That may sound a rather drastic remedy. Aren’t there other solutions. Couldn’t we si
mply collect and store the carbon dioxide? The problem is that carbon dioxide is
a tasteless, colourless and chemically inactive gas which dissolves only very s
lightly in water- it’s what’s in fizzy drinks. That makes it hard to remove from pow
er station or car emissions. In theory you could freeze it out from power statio
n emissions, producing solid carbon dioxide or dry ice - at vast expense.
Alternatively you could separate it out chemically or by osmotic filters, and th
en store it as a gas, although, once again, that would be expensive. One estimat
e suggested that chemically separating out carbon dioxide from power station emi
ssions and then storing it as a gas would add 50-75% to the cost of electricity.
There may be situations where this sequestration process might make sense: fo
r example it has been proposed that the CO2 gas could be stored in the undergrou
nd strata which have been emptied by oil and gas extraction. However, you would
have to be sure that it would stay where it was put, and the volumes involved ar
e vast.
Another approach would be to plant more trees to absorb carbon dioxide. Certainl
y the problem of climate change has been made worse by the fact that large areas
of forest around the world have been felled, thus removing an important sink
for carbon dioxide, since trees absorb it as they grow. Re-afforestation is obvi
ously vital, if only in terms of maintaining biodiversity. However, it would tak
e many decades just to replace what has been lost, and unless carried out on a v
ast scale, re-afforestation could only play a small role in absorbing the vast a
mount of carbon dioxide released every year by power plants and cars. It’s worth d
oing, but one key problem is that trees absorb most carbon dioxide when they are
growing: once mature, the absorption rate reduces, and although the established
network of living biomass in mature forests can continue to play a role in carb
on dioxide absorption, when trees die and decay, or catch fire, some or all of i
t can be released back in to the atmosphere.
Basically, trying to put the genie back in the bottle once it’s escaped is not the
answer - we really ought to deal with the problem at source and not produce car
bon dioxide gas in the first place. Which means basically two things - reducing
our use of energy and using non - fossil sources to meet or remaining energy nee
7. Sustainable Energy Options
The first and most obvious solution is energy conservation - using less primary
energy. There are many ways in which energy conversion and energy use can be mad
e more efficient. We have already looked at one option for improving overall eff
iciency of energy conversion - Combined Heat and Power. We’ve also mentioned fuel
switching - that is using gas instead of coal in power plants as a way to reduce
the amount of carbon dioxide produced per kWh generated.
Moving over to the energy use side, there are many options in terms of cutting d
emand in all sectors. The UK Industrial sector has already made big changes in t
his direction- energy use/ GDP output has fallen by 40% since the 1970’s due to th
e introduction of more efficient systems. The impetus has mainly been financial
- as energy has begun to cost more, interest has grown in using it more effectiv
However, for most people, a more familiar energy saving option involves improvin
g the insulation of houses and installing energy efficient devices in them. Ener
gy use in the domestic sector accounts for nearly 40% of the carbon dioxide emis
sions in the UK and there are many opportunities for reducing this by designing
houses, their heating and other power using systems, to use energy more efficien
That means loft insulation, cavity wall filling, the use of low energy compact f
lourescent light bulbs, low energy fridges, washing machines, cookers and other
consumer electrical and electronic equipment. See Box 5.
However, there may be a problem with just focussing on energy conservation. What
happens to the cash savings that people make when they save energy? They are li
kely to spend them on energy intensive activities - a dishwasher, or a foreign h
oliday by air. Not all expenditure is going to be so energy intensive, but even
so there is what economists call ‘rebound’. The cash released by energy conservation
can lead to more energy being consumed overall.
Box 5 Energy Efficiency – the key areas
Given that energy has been relatively cheap in recent years (it’s
now cheaper in real terms than it was before the oil crisis in the mid 1970s) in
terest in energy efficiency has been low. But with the environmental costs of ge
nerating and using energy rising, and feeding through to economic costs, things
are changing.
However, the UK, sadly, is far behind many other countries, espe
cially in the domestic sector. We have some of the worst housing stock in the de
veloped world in terms of energy losses. For example the English House Condition
Survey, published in 1996, showed that 50% of owner occupiers, 62% of local aut
hority tenants and 95% of private rented sector tenants failed to achieve adequa
te levels of warmth - 18°c in the living room and 16°c elsewhere - when the outside
temperature is 4°c.
There is no need for this. Well insulated houses have been built
which need almost no external sources of energy for heating - the lighting and
other incidental sources provide sufficient heat. That should not be too surpris
ing. After all, we can quite happily walk around in the open even in the depth o
f winter just with personal insulation in the form of well designed clothes. Why
, when we come indoors, do we suddenly need huge heating systems?
At the very least, we should be able to design houses with a wel
l insulated building envelopes, low emissivity glass and so on, which need to us
e 50% less energy - and obtain much of that from renewable sources directly. Sol
ar heat collectors on the roof can meet about half the average annual requiremen
t for hot water. PV solar cells on the roof can meet most of the non-heating ele
ctrical load, and, if needed, sustainably sourced wood can provide back up heat.
Even better, if your own domestic renewables systems produce excess power at so
me point in the year, you can now sell it at reasonable ‘net metered’ rates, via the
grid - you become a power station!
However, complete domestic energy autonomy is not likely to be v
iable or needed in most locations in the UK. While, as we have seen, some renewa
ble sources like solar energy, are well suited to domestic use, others are bette
r deployed on a larger scale. For example, small windturbines generate much less
power per £ invested than large commercial machines on remote windfarms. And it’s n
ot just the extra cost that is important- the cost reflects the extra materials
used per kWh generated, which in turn has implications in terms of the energy us
ed to manufacture them. One study of the total energy costs of renewable energy
devices, including the energy embedded in the materials used, found that the wor
st case was small independent windturbines feeding into batteries. Of course the
re are transmission losses associated with sending power from remote power stati
ons to users, so that local generation can make more sense in some locations. Ho
wever, the existence of the national grid can help balance out variations in loc
al power availability from intermittent renewable sources like. So, in most plac
es, totally off-grid self generation is not the best option.
Certainly, for the moment, most people will want to continue to
use gas for heating, which can be efficient if burnt in a condensing boiler - an
d eventually the natural gas may be augmented or replaced by hydrogen gas, produ
ced from renewable sources (hydrogen gas was one constituent of the old town gas
, derived from coke, and used before the advent of North Sea gas). In terms of e
lectricity, you can already contract to have green power from remote renewable s
ources via the national grid - there are currently a dozen or so schemes on offe
r in the UK. They allow you to go green simply by switching suppliers. For detai
ls of prices see
The other big area for improvement is transport. Energy use in t
his sector is growing in most countries, and it is hard to see how this can be l
imited except via tough constraints on the use of private vehicles coupled with
heavy investment in mass transport. But technology can help to some extent. Ther
e are already high efficiency conventional car engines and in the longer term el
ectric and hydrogen cars will be common, with the energy coming from renewable s
ources. You may even charge them up while they are parked overnight at home, or
at work or at the supermarket. However, although using these vehicles will not p
roduce any emissions, if we end up just with more and more vehicles - queues of
electric or hydrogen cars - things will not be much better. The provision of roa
ds to service more and more vehicles has its own environmental and social impact
s. Somehow we need a life style change to reduce the need for so much private tr
avel. Electronic communications can help to some extent. But basically we will h
ave to get used to the fact that the era of cheap personal car transport may be
The same may also soon apply to cheap Air transport. Emissions f
rom this sector are rising rapidly, which is perhaps not surprising since aviati
on fuels are one of the few fuels that are not taxed! That honeymoon can’t last mu
ch longer….
The same problem exists for the case where people are suffering from ‘fuel poverty’-
i.e. people who are unable to afford to keep their houses warm. Any gains obtai
ned from energy conservation are likely to be taken back in keeping homes warmer
- thus using more energy and producing more carbon dioxide.
Is there a way out of this ‘rebound’ problem? Yes, if consumers can move away from u
sing power derived from fossil fuels. However, the bad news is that, even if we
can avoid the rebound problem, the savings made form energy conservation may sti
ll be wiped out if overall consumer demand for energy increases i.e. even with s
ignificant energy conservation, the continuing rise in overall energy use is unl
ikely to be halted.
Obviously, many ‘green’ minded people feel that it would be good to try to reduce ou
r reliance on consumerism as a way of life. However, many people in the world st
ill do not have access to even the basic requirements for a reasonable life. Cle
arly the industrialised nations have had more than their share of resources - an
d still produce more emissions than the rest of the world. However the rest of t
he world is catching up. Given the large populations and low level of economic p
rosperity, the per capita level of emissions from the developing world may still
be very much less than those from the industialised countries, but the total pe
r annum emissions from the former may soon overtake the latter. This is not the
place to debate the politics of global economic redistribution, much less popula
tion control issues. While social and cultural changes, and changes in political
and economic arrangements, could do much to rebalance the massive inequalities
that exist between and within countries, technology and new more sustainable app
roaches to the use of technology can also help. Energy conservation techniques a
re part of that, but we will also need new sources of energy, just to replace wh
at we are using now, quite apart from meeting any new needs. The message therefo
re is that, if we want to avoid increasing environmental problems and if the dev
eloping economies of the world are to continue to develop, we need to adopt a su
stainable energy strategy which combines energy conservation with a switch over
to non-fossil fuels.
The only two non-fossil options currently on offer are nuclear power and renewab
le energy. Although uranium is a finite resource, there are sufficient reserves
to fuel the existing type of nuclear plants for maybe a hundred years or more, d
epending on the rate of use ( i.e. the number of plants in use) and nuclear powe
r plants do not produce carbon dioxide directly. However, they do produce very d
angerous radioactive wastes, and the prospects for nuclear expansion, as a respo
nse to Climate Change, look slight these days. No new plants have been ordered i
n the USA since the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in 1979 and, following th
e Chernobyl nuclear accident in the Ukraine in 1986, most of Europe is in the pr
ocess of phasing out nuclear power.
The ex-Soviet countries still have nuclear plants and Japan and China still have
nuclear programmes - and some other Asian countries would like to. But overall,
nuclear power seems to be on the decline. Its current contribution, of around 8
% of total world energy, is unlikely to increase and is more likely to decrease.
By contrast renewables are on the ascent. The use of natural renewable energy
flows, like the sun, winds, waves and tides, produces no carbon dioxide, and is
therefore well suited to the needs of developing countries around the world. Cu
rrent projections suggest that by 2050 around half the world energy could come f
rom renewable sources.
The use of nuclear fusion (the process which occurs on a vast scale in the sun a
nd, also, dramatically, in H-bombs) remains a long term possibility, but, even i
f the technology can be perfected, it too has its own safety problems, and unkno
wn costs. Perhaps more importantly, fusion is unlikely to be available as a prac
tical technology, if it ever is, in time to help us deal with the urgent problem
of Climate Change. Rather than try to create little artificial suns on the eart
h, in the form of fusion reactors, many environmentalists therefore believe it i
s more immediately credible to make use of the natural fusion energy than the su
n already produces and which reaches us as solar heat and light.
8. The Renewable Future
As we noted earlier, the term renewable energy is used to indicate that these na
tural energy sources (for example solar energy, the winds, waves, and tides) can
not be used up - unlike fossil or nuclear fuels they are not based on finite res
erves, but are naturally replenished. The use of biological resources such as bi
omass, can, as was indicated, also be considered renewable if the rate of planti
ng equals the rate of use, and certainly the potential is vast. However, there c
an be problems with trying to use what are generally more diffuse, geographicall
y disperse and sometimes intermittent renewable energy sources.
Perhaps the most immediate issue is environmental impact. No technology can be e
ntirely benign. Although renewables do not have any global environmental impacts
, there may still be some local social or environmental impacts, for example vis
ual intrusion by windfarms. This has become an issue in the UK, although this pr
oblem can be overstated. So far, the public opinion surveys have found that, typ
ically, 80% of people asked are in favour of windfarms, and support for them act
ually increases when people have actual experience of wind projects. There may b
e a small minority who are implacably imposed, but the level of opposition to wi
ndfarms should perhaps be compared with the equivalent figures for nuclear power
. Opinion polls have indicated that typically 70-80% of those asked are against
further nuclear expansion or want nuclear power phased out. In the end it comes
down to a matter of choice, all technologies have some impacts, but the impact p
er kWh from renewables are usually much less, and much more localised, that the
impacts per kWh from the conventional energy technologies. Box 6 may help you ge
t a measure of the problem in relation to wind.
What about the diffuse nature of renewable energy flows? Doesn’t that make the ene
rgy conversion process inefficient? To some extent, since we would be using natu
ral, freely available, energy, the efficiency of conversion doesn’t matter too muc
h - the conversion process does not generate dangerous emissions. But efficiency
does matter in that inefficient converters will have to be larger to collect th
e same amount of energy - for example larger wind turbines or larger numbers of
wind turbines. That will have implications for local visual and environmental in
trusion, and also for costs, since more materials would be used per kWh generate
d. The energy debt associated with providing these materials also has to be take
n into account. So the development of well designed, efficient, devices is impor
tant, as is their careful location.
A linked problem facing renewables is that not only are the sources usually diff
use, some of them are also intermittent. Fortunately, in most countries in the N
orthern hemisphere wind and wave power tend to peak during the winter when more
power in needed, but, even so, local seasonal and climatic variations do mean th
at some renewable energy sources cannot supply power continuously. As it happens
this intermittancy does not matter unduly, in terms of providing continuous pow
er to consumers, if the power from the locally variable sources can be fed in to
the national power grid, which can, in effect, average it out. If the contribut
ion from variable sources like the winds stays below about 20% the national grid
can even out local variations in availability - it is usually windy somewhere a
round the country.
Of course, if intermittent renewables are to contribute more than that, then we
will need some form of energy storage, and that can be expensive. In the longer
term it could be that we will convert some of the electricity produced from vari
able solar wind, wave and tidal sources into hydrogen gas, by means of electroly
sis - that is separating out the hydrogen and oxygen in water. Given proper atte
ntion to safety, hydrogen, which unlike electricity can be easily stored, could
well become a major new fuel. It can be transmitted along gas mains and it can b
e used for heating, like natural gas, and for local electricity production in el
ectrochemical devices called fuel cells, which work like electrolysis in reverse
. Hydrogen can also be used to power vehicles - directly as a combustible fuel,
or via an on board fuel cell .
Box 6 The Physics of Wind Power
The energy collected from a wind turbine is proportional to the area in the circ
le swept by the blade i.e. (pi ) r2 where r is the blade length. The result of t
his square law is that, for example, doubling the size of the wind turbine qua
druples the power output i.e. large turbines are much more effective. But beyond
a certain size the blades face stress (and fabrication cost) limits.
The power in the wind is proportional to V3, the cube of V, the wind speed. So e
ven a slightly higher wind speed site pays dramatic dividends. You can derive th
is relationship yourself if you appreciate that the kinetic energy of the moving
air is 1/2 mV2, where m is the mass of the air intercepted by the blade as it
turns, and V is the velocity of the air. The mass of the air intercepted is,
in turn, proportionate to V, since that defines how much air hits the turbine bl
ades. So, feeding this in V to replace the m the original equation, you end
up with an equation for the power of the wind with V2 times a V, or V3 .
Armed with this knowledge you can now begin to explore some of the implications
of windpower in terms of land use problems. Wind turbines are often grouped toge
ther in wind farms , since then the connections to the power grid can be shared
, as can control systems and road access for maintenance. How much room will the
y take up?
Typically you need a separation of between 5 and 15 blade diameters between indi
vidual wind turbines, (depending on the machines and the site) to prevent turbul
ent interactions in wind farm arrays, so wind farms can take up quite a lot of s
pace, even though the machines themselves only take up a small fraction of it. T
his has led to some objections - and to the argument that there would be insuffi
cient room in countries like to UK to generate significant amounts of power.
So to see if they are right, lets now work out the rough land area requirements
for a wind farm - and the amount of power that can be produced. Let s assume we
are using medium sized windturbines rated at 300kW- that s typical of the machin
es already widely in use in the UK and elsewhere, although 600kW machine are ent
ering service and there are also now machines rated at 1MW and larger.
Let’s also assume, to make the arithmetic easy, that we have a 10 by 10 array of o
ne hundred 300 kW machines (30 MW in all) each with say 30 metre diameter blades
, and with 10 diameter separations. That s quite a large wind farm, but there ar
e some on this scale in the UK. It would cover an area of 3 km by 3 km. However
only about 1% of this area (i.e. 90 m2) would actually be occupied by the base o
f the turbine towers, the rest could be used for agricultural purposes. One hund
red wind farms of this sort would give you 3 Gigawatts of installed capacity - e
quivalent to 3 conventional 1 GW plants.
Of course these wind turbines will not be able to operate continuously at full p
ower since the wind is intermittent. Typically, given the variability of the win
d, wind turbines in the UK can operate on full power load for about 30%-35% of t
he time: this figure being called the load factor . Obviously the precise figur
e will depend on the wind turbine design, the site and the wind regime.
To make a fair comparison with conventional plants it is important to realise th
at, although fossil or nuclear fuelled plants do not have intermittent energy in
puts and therefore have much higher load factors, even so, they typically can st
ill only achieve load factors of around 60-70%. On this basis, to generate the s
ame amount of power you would need roughly twice as much windfarm generating cap
acity as you would conventional capacity. Put the other way around, you would ex
pect wind turbines to generate about half as much continuous power as convention
al plants with the same capacity. The UK currently has 60 GW or so of convention
al installed capacity, leaving aside existing renewable sources like hydro, so i
f 10% of this were to be replaced by wind turbines we would require 400 wind far
ms of the scale outlined above. The tower area covered would be 36 km, while the
total area covered by the complete arrays would be 3600 km2 . That is just unde
r1.5% of the UK’s total land area, 250,000km2. That, as it happens, is roughly the
area that has been estimated as likely to be suitable and available for wind fa
rm projects in the UK without significant intrusion.
Obviously this is only a very rough estimate, based on some broad assumptions. T
he actual power output in practice would depend on the machines, and sites - and
the windspeeds. If larger machines were used you would need less of them, but e
qually there may be specific siting constraints which could reduce net power ava
ilability: some high wind speed sites may not be acceptable and larger machines
might be thought to be visually intrusive. Even so, our calculation does suggest
that in principle, even in a crowded country like the UK, we could obtain aroun
d 10% of the country s current electricity requirements from windturbines. But o
f course if that’s a problem,you can always go offshore, where there are far fewer
environmental constraints and higher average wind speeds- offsetting the extra
cost. And the potential North Sea resource is huge. Isn’t the UK fortunate again
That of course is all in the future. For the moment, the bottom line is economic
s. The existing energy technologies have the advantage of many decades of often
heavily subsidised development, whereas most of the renewable energy options are
new, and are trying to break in to a well established market. Not surprisingly
some therefore look expensive. Even so, rapid technological and economic progres
s has been made. For example, in the UK context, in 1991 windpower projects rece
ived a subsidised price of 11p/kWh (under the Governments Non Fossil Fuel Obliga
tion), but by 1998 wind projects were going ahead at an average price of 2.88p/k
Wh, and some Scottish projects were down to 1.89p/kWh. For comparison, in 1998,
the average price paid by Regional Electricity Companies for conventional power
(that is the so-called "pool price) was 2.67p/kWh. Similar patterns of cost re
duction seem to be underway for most of the other renewables.
Given the rapidly changing situation, and the continuing debate over the impact
of past and present subsidies for fossil and nuclear power, quoting comparative
prices for the various conventional energy sources is probably not very helpfu
l, but to give you a rough feel for the pattern, in 1998 New Scientist quoted th
e price of electricity from gas at 2.5p/kWh, coal at 4.0 p/kWh and nuclear 4.5p/
kWh. It’s also worth noting that a range of taxes is being introduced (such as the
Climate Change Levy in the UK) to reflect the environmental costs of convention
al energy technologies - so that the cost comparisons with renewables should imp
rove even further.
In this context, it’s interesting that, whereas, as we noted earlier, energy strat
egists have in the past been concerned with energy in terms of ‘kWh’ produced, or ‘mil
lion tonnes of coal equivalent’ available, nowadays the units that matter are ‘milli
on tonnes of carbon dioxide’ (mtC) i.e how many million tonnes of carbon dioxide p
roduction will be avoided by the various new systems and devices. So we have, as
it were, moved from ‘mtce’ to ‘mtC’ in a generation or so - and ‘carbon accounting’ is beg
nning to become almost as important as conventional economic accounting.

9. Conclusion
We’ve looked at a range of energy technologies and at their problems, and we’ve conc
luded that renewable energy combined with energy conservation offers the best wa
y ahead for a sustainable energy future.
Fossil fuels will of course still be with us for a long while, so there is a nee
d to improve the efficiency of energy conservation and reduce emissions as far a
s possible- and whatever happens to nuclear power, we will still have a lot of n
uclear waste to deal with for millennia. But looking to the positive future, ren
ewables have good prospects, even in relatively crowded and cold countries like
the UK. And the prospects for renewables in the sunnier parts of the world are e
ven better. It could for example be that large scale solar cell systems will be
installed in some of the desert areas of the world and will be used to generate
power for the electrolysis of water, with the resultant hydrogen being tanked or
piped back to the colder northern areas.
At the same time, some renewable energy technologies are well suited to deployme
nt on the small scale local basis, meeting local needs from local resources. Thi
s could be very important in countries without power grids. Globally, 2 billion
people live without access to electricity at present - 70% of people in rural ar
eas in the developing world have no access to grid power and little hope of gett
ing it. But smaller scale local generation can also be important in more develop
ed countries. For example, in some situations it makes more sense to generate an
d use power locally than to transmit it over long distances via the grid cables:
the losses can be too great. We could thus expect some degree of decentralised
energy production and use to spread even in countries like the UK - although the
dream of total domestic self-sufficiency cherished by some people may be somewh
at further off.
Energy Glossary
Acid Rain Mildly acidic rain produced as a result of the release
into the atmosphere of acidic gasses such as sulphur dioxide, generated by the
combustion of fossil fuel in power stations and cars.
Biomass Biologically derived material than can be used as a fuel
- e.g. naturally growing wood, plant or animal residues or specially grown ener
gy crops
CCGT- Combined A power station in which natural gas is burnt to
drive a gas Cycle Gasturbine, as in a jet engine, with the exhaust gasses being
used to Turbine boil water for a stream turbine as a second stage of electricity
generation. Can increase overall energy conversion efficiency from 35% to 50%
CHP - Combined The generation of heat as well as electric power
in a power Heat and Power station- by the use of the exhaust heat which would ot
herwise be wasted . Can double overall energy conversion efficiency e.g. from 35
% to 70% or more.
Energy A measure of the amount of work that can be done by, or
is needed to operate, an energy conversion system, sometimes measured in joule
s . It is the power of the device (in kilowatts) multiplied by the time it is in
use (hours): hence energy is more commonly measured in kilowatt hours (kWh).
Energy Conversion Converting the energy in a fuel or other energ
y source to some other form of energy e.g. coal into heat. There are inevitably
some energy losses in all conversion processes, usually in the form of wasted he
Energy Conservation Avoiding or minimising wasteful methods of f
uel use by using more efficient energy conversion devices for energy generation
or energy using devices at the point of use. (strictly should be fuel conservat
ion since energy is always conserved). In simple terms, reducing energy losse
s in houses by installing insulation.
End use energy The energy actually consumed at the point of use.
Global Warming The possible increase in average global temperatu
res as a result of an enhanced greenhouse effect due to the release of gases s
uch as carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere: global warming is one ele
ment in the resultant process of climate change .
Nuclear Fission The process of splitting the nucleus of certain
atoms (e.g. uranium) with the resultant release of heat and radiation, as in ato
mic bombs or nuclear reactors.
Nuclear Fusion The process of fusing together certain light elem
ent ( e.g. hydrogen) to yield heat and radiation, as in the H-bomb and the yet t
o be fully developed fusion reactor.
Passive solar The use of glazed areas in houses to capture solar
heat, much as with greenhouses. Unlike active solar devices, which have pumps
to circulate water through a solar collector , passive solar systems have no m
oving parts-hence the name.
Photovoltaics Photovoltaic solar cells (or PV cells) consist
of special (PV) semiconductor type materials such as silicon which absorb light
and convert it into electricity.
Power The capacity of a device to convert energy from one form t
o another, sometimes measured in kilowatts (kW) or its multiples. Devices are us
ually given a rated capacity (in kW, MW, GW etc ) reflecting the rate at which
they can convert energy from one form to another.
Pressurised Water The most common form of nuclear power plant, d
eveloped in Reactor- PWR the USA, with cooling provided by pressurised water.
Primary energy The energy in the basic fuels or energy sources u
sed e.g. the energy in the fuel fed into conventional power stations
Renewable Energy Energy sources such as the winds, waves, tides
which are naturally replenished and can not be used up.