Can the UK achieve energy sustainability with Wind and Photovoltaic energy?

Can the UK achieve energy sustainability with Wind and Photovoltaic energy generation technology?

Dr Richard Curry, Research Programme Manager at the SUSTAIN, doesn’t think that we can.

Cheap, readily available electrical and chemical energy has been the cornerstone of many, if not all, of the technological and social advancements of the last century. It has also made provision for cheap transport, domestic energy and plentiful cheap food. The pressure of climate change and the global treaties to reduce CO2 from industrial nations has encouraged the move towards technologies such as photovoltaics (PV) and wind-turbines, with outsourcing of oil & gas production and refining.

In Europe and the UK we are entering a serious energy crisis. Over-reliance upon global supply chains for fossil fuels, closure of petrochemical refineries and coal- and gas-fired power stations without equivalent robust replacement has left the UK exposed to soaring energy prices and potential shortages in the future.

“Are we blindly hoping that technologies that may not be ready to meet our fundamental needs will solve the problem?”

Fear of climate change accountability from the Government and general public has led to a reluctance to mine remaining domestic coal and oil resources at a time when cheap energy is essential to make the switch to renewable energy. Instead, the recent focus has been on outsourcing, which imparts a negative carbon burden globally. International reliance upon fossil fuels can be shown to provide a short term economic benefit due to the lower operational costs of other nations, but from an environmental and ecological perspective, due to the need for transport and less stringent mining conditions, the global situation can be shown to be overall negative. Furthermore, the security of supply and control of cost can be lost when one considers the stability of the supplying nations in terms of their relationship with their neighbours, Europe and the US. Recent global crises have exposed this risk and have exacerbated an already difficult situation within the UK.

Wind and photovoltaic energy generation image via Adobe Stock

In 2018, the UK Government announced its achievements on meeting and exceeding the Kyoto Target. However, this has been almost wholly achieved by the decimation of UK industry in the face of cheap imports, effectively outsourcing the carbon to less developed nations with the added fuel burden of transport, job losses and financial value to the circulating internal UK economy.

The effects of the industrial demise can be seen in Figure 1 below, in terms of UK industrial power consumption now being equivalent to services. In addition to lowering the nation’s energy requirements, this has also led to a drop in sovereign capability and severely hollowed out supply chains for the industry that remains.

Figure 1: Change in energy consumption in the UK between 1970 and 2019. (Source: UK Government report on Energy Consumption in the UK (1970-2019), 2020)

As energy prices rise we see proportional rises in commodity and transport costs. The consumer, including academic and industrial sector research, will ultimately pay the higher cost without equivalent increase in funding leading to far less progress for the pound.

The UK’s 2019 average yearly power requirement for both industry and domestic of 140m tonnes of oil equivalent (toe) (see UK Government report on Energy Consumption in the UK (1970-2020), 2021). The agreed conversion rate is 1 toe = 12mWh giving 1680tWh.

The global strategy, which includes the UK, has been to champion renewable energy from wind farms and PV as a direct replacement. Modern wind farm turbines can output 2.2MWh (120m turbine diameter) and require a minimum turbine to turbine spacing of at least 360m x 840m, side by side and proximity in the direction of the prevailing wind respectively.

Following a simple calculation using these figures, this would result in 750 million wind turbines with over 200 million km2 of area required. Given that the UK is not much larger than 220,000 km2 and the earth’s area is approximately 500 million km2, we seem to have a fundamental global issue in terms of energy density. Add to this the reduced efficiency from available wind energy, both in terms of day to day and seasonal variation, the available power will drop further requiring more turbines; recent concern over wind farm efficiency has prompted calls for turbine spacing to be increased up to 15x rotor diameter. Also, to meet the peak energy needs of the country during the winter months an efficient, yet undecided storage method is required.

Photovoltaic energy farm
Photovoltaic power generation image via Unsplash

Moving to PV, which have an energy density of up to 230 kWh/m2 we can make a direct comparison with turbines which from the previous numbers becomes 7.3 Wh/m2. Although the apparent energy density of photovoltaics is much higher, one needs to remember that this number will reduce significantly once the operational conditions are considered. In the UK and Western Europe, the strength of the received solar energy is sub optimal and further reduced by cloud and seasonal daylight variation. Even if a constant 230 kWh/m2 were possible, again an area well over 7000 km2 would be required, which is >3% of the UK’s land mass.

On a more positive note, the 2.2MWh turbine only requires 1400t (900t if fully recycled after use) of CO2 to produce energy over a 20-25yr lifespan. Compared to natural gas, the UKs leading power and heating fuel, which emits 408kgCO2/MWh. Over 25 years this would result in 89mt of emitted CO2, several orders of magnitude greater than the initial level required to manufacture an equivalent turbine.

Wind turbines also recoup the energy used to manufacture within 1-2 years, which is on par with the latest figures for PV that, according to NREL of the US Department of Energy, can range from 1 to 3 years. In a country like the UK, this equates to up to 6 years due to the lower light levels.

Some thin film and printable PV solutions are showing vast improvements in this figure but still require significant research and energy to mature. Unfortunately, many of the elements used in the manufacture of PV technologies and the by-products from refining them, are in themselves highly toxic and can be shown to have a highly negative effect upon the environment, especially when cost effective processing methods are used.

The location that the PV units are manufactured is also significant, with Chinese products having a much higher carbon debt due to the manufacturing energy coming from predominantly coal fired power stations, rather than the mixed, semi-renewable status of Europe.

It is clear that we must ensure that a transition to green energy is supported by a suitable legacy fuel source to ensure that the lights don’t go out domestically and industrially. Jumping to an infeasible or immature technology too early will significantly disrupt industry, consumers and our current standard of living. It will also retard progress in the development of truly sustainable green technologies and result in a far lengthier R&D journey accruing equivalent or higher CO2 emissions over the period than if the emissions were compressed to provide our energy requirements over the short term.

An artist’s impression of the Rolls-Royce Small Modular Reactor

A technology such as nuclear may need more serious consideration, as it is already commercially developed but not deployed effectively due to recent heightening of fear following the Fukushima disaster and the devastating environmental / ecological risk when these plants have issues. A situation where the UK cannot sustain its industrial and domestic energy needs, with energy prices contributing significantly to uncontrolled inflation, is not an option.

Are we blindly hoping that technologies that may not be ready to meet our fundamental needs will solve the problem?

We do need to begin somewhere, but eliminating established methods of energy production, such as fossil fuels and nuclear without proof that the new technologies will achieve the required goal will only result in a negative outcome: both economically and environmentally.

To find out more about his work and experience, you can read Dr Richard Curry’s profile on the SUSTAIN website, connect with Dr Richard Curry on LinkedIn, and find out more about the SUSTAIN programme by visiting their website:

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