It’s no exaggeration to say that addressing the often conflicting challenges of meeting spiralling demand, reducing emissions and enhancing security of supply represents one of the biggest technical conundrums of the modern age. And, as always, the responsibility for developing the solutions rests with engineers.
Despite the protestations of some energy industry lobbyists, there is no silver bullet. The only way we’ll meet future energy needs is through a mix of technologies on a variety of scales: from domestic wind turbines through to large-scale nuclear plants. Intriguingly though, as our story Here comes the sun illustrates, in the future, ’big power’ won’t necessarily mean coal or nuclear.
Large-scale solar farms have long been discussed, but with the likes of ABB, Siemens and RWE now taking the concept seriously, huge concentrating solar power (CSP) plants, which use mirrors to focus the sun and heat water, might form a significant chunk of generating capacity sooner rather than later. One attraction of CSP is that it produces heat, which can be stored, and therefore gets around the intermittency problems associated with other forms of renewable energy.
Those behind such schemes mount a compelling case. The consortium backing Desertec, a plan to cover 6,000km2 of the Sahara desert with CSP plants, claims that just 0.3 per cent of the surface of the Sahara could generate enough power for the whole of Europe. It’s an intriguing prospect, and, if nothing else, an illustration of how dramatically we’ve failed to make the best use of the resources available to us. In reality, while ’big solar’ may well have a role to play, the prospect of concentrating Europe’s generating capacity in an area not noted for political stability doesn’t exactly tick the ’energy security’ box.
Away from Desertec’s ambitions, it is developments at the other end of the spectrum that are likely to have the biggest impact in the UK. April sees the introduction of the government’s feed-in tariffs, which reward households installing low-carbon generation systems by enabling them to claim payments for the electricity they produce. Steven Harris, head of low-carbon technologies at the Energy Saving Trust believes the tariffs could kick-start a green revolution across Britain’s homes. Read our interview with him here.
The tariffs should also be of significance to the UK’s engineering and technology base. As consumers cotton on to the money-making opportunities, demand for domestic microgeneration technology will rocket. We have the expertise and skills in the UK to capitalise on this nascent market, but not, according to Harris, the supply chain to cope with the government’s targets. It would be a great shame if the UK failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented.
What do you think? Will the feed-in tariffs spark a green revolution throughout Britain’s homes? Are you planning on investing in microgeneration technology yourself? As always, we welcome your comments. And please take a moment to vote in our poll