A brief overview of renewable energy

Stefan Murray
on : 
14th Nov 2015
Bulletin item expiry date: 
25th Dec 2015

Renewable energy, particularly wind power, can provoke controversy but it is a necessary part of the energy mix to meet our carbon targets and combat Climate Change. It also provides for community owned energy projects such as the Neilston Community Wind Farm which will deliver cheaper energy and generate an estimated £10million over the lifespan of the project that can be used to fund additional locally owned projects (Schiffer, 2014). Community owned projects provide a sense of ownership and individual participation in reducing fossil fuel dependency and reliance on the big six energy companies.

In the face of anthropogenic climate change, mankind faces an extraordinary period of transitionary change to our way of life. The effects of climate change are already being witnessed. One such example is the increasing number of times that the Riven Itchen has burst its banks (due to an increasing wetter seasonal climate) and flooding Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex. Annual flood damage in England is currently £1.1bn and there is also the cost of coastal defences, for those regions deemed worth saving (Bennett, 2014). India, one of the fastest growing economies in the world, is experiencing the loss of a critical source of fresh water from the Southern Himalayan glaciers (Larson, 2014), the effects of which could turn catastrophic as irrigation and consumption needs become harder to fulfil as the meltwater depletes. Climate change will result in huge migratory patterns of people several orders of magnitude greater than the present refugee crisis in Syria. The Stern Review (2006) warns that a 3-4°C rise in global temperature will result in the permanent displacement of 200 million people due to rising sea levels, heavier floods and drought.
Well established renewable energy sources such as wind and solar have the effect of lowering consumers energy bills due to the way in which the energy market is set up: the Merit Order Effect. Since wind and solar have very low marginal costs in comparison to conventional power sources, renewables have an advantageous effect on the energy and consumer markets (Appunn, 2015). Researchers at the Fraunhofer Institute in Germany found that this has saved German consumers €5bn per year.
No energy source is without its problems, however, those associated with renewable energy are less intractable than those of fossil fuels or nuclear. It is worth noting that nuclear power is not carbon neutral, with a Life Cycle Analysis of CO2 emissions of 66g/kWh compared to wind and hydro at 10g of CO2/kWh (Sovacool, 2008). Advances in wind turbine technology such as the use of high temperature superconducting materials, direct drive systems and advances in materials science will improve reliability and reduce operational and maintenance costs as well as driving down energy prices further.
Conventional power stations have been in development for over 100 years, nuclear for around 70 years but renewable technologies are a more recent development. Research and development costs as well as subsidies for renewable energy projects pale before the support given to nuclear, coal, oil and natural gas developments (IEA, 2015). The IMF has predicted that fossil fuel subsidies are to hit $5.3 trillion in 2015 as health and environmental issues linked to this industry increase (King, 2015). In June 2011, Graham van’t Hoof, head of Shell UK, wrote in The Scotsman, “One recent study found that cutting the $300bn spent each year of fuel subsidies would save enough energy to meet the needs of Japan and Korea with enough left over for New Zealand too”.
Some of the detractors of wind energy focus on the aesthetics of large wind turbine developments. However, the development of the rail network and the setting up of the National Grid (pylons, transmission lines, substations) is now accepted as a necessity despite initially being vigorously opposed. This acceptance will also be extended to wind turbines in due course. We must embrace renewable energy in all forms in order to reduce our reliance on the finite nature of fossil fuels and uranium, to combat climate change, obtain energy security and better adapt the current consumers’ lifestyle to the principles of sustainability. To quote Carl Sagan: “Any intelligent civilisation on any planet will eventually have to use the energy of its parent star, exclusively”.
Stefan Murray, Green Party member. 
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