The study of the evolution of energy technologies reveals that mankind is applying ever more subtile sources of energy i.e: solids (wood, coal), liquids (oil, fuel oil, biofuels, gasoline), nuclear fuel, biomass, surface water, wind and solar energy. Most of these energy technologies require large installations, large investments and large centrally controlled electrical power producing and distribution organizations.
As our society evolved economically and the world population doubled in size in the last fifty years, the raw materials (mostly fossil fuels) required for the generation of electricity and for use in the transport market, became a scarce commodity. The prices of fossil fuels increased, causing all commodities with high energy densities, such as food, to increase in price.
Furthermore, electricity is not available to everyone in equal measure for logistical, economic or affordability reasons. About 1.3 billion people have no access to electricity and 2.3 billion people have no reliable access to electricity.
These 3.6 billion people deserve access to reliable local sources of energy. This would resolve poverty, energy shortages, water shortages, food shortages, human health, financial crises, social crises, geopolitical crises and global warming.
We will review the evolution of energy technologies over the last 100 years and arrive at a conclusion concerning the next generation of energy technologies, using the forces of nature to produce energy. These new technologies will produce local energy, require no electricity grid and produce electricity (and heat or cold) at substantially lower cost.
The cost of electricity generated from this new class of energy technologies is estimated to be less than1.0 US cent per KWhr. Coal fired power plants produce the lowest cost of electricity, amounting to 4.0-5.0 US cents per KWhr.
Evolution of Technologies
1. Fossil Fuels
Ever since the Industrial Revolution took off in the 18th century, vast quantities of fossil fuels have been used to power the economy and deliver unprecedented affluence to billions of people.
Fossil fuels are organic matter made from the remains of flora and fauna subjected to immense pressure and heat deep within the Earth over millions of years. Petroleum, coal, and natural gas are major fossil fuels.
The usage of fossil fuels has been increasing in step with economic growth. Fossil fuels were the seed for the birth of a new industrial civilization that transformed our world. Fossil fuels can be classified as a first generation energy source.
As the use of fossil fuels increased over time it became obvious that the vast increase in its use led to a huge increase of Green House Gas (GHG) emissions. According to the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) it is very likely that manmade GHG emissions are responsible for global warming.
The historical CO2 content of the earths atmosphere was 280 ppm. This level of CO2 provided a natural greenhouse effect conducive for sustaining life on our planet. In 2013 the average global level of CO2 had risen to 400 ppm.
It is forecasted by the IPCC that a rise of the CO2 level ot 500 ppm would endanger life on our planet, as the warming of the atmosphere exceeds 2 degrees C and temperature runaway effects, caused by positive feedback loops, set in.
The diagram below produced by the Institute for Energy Research forecast that there are only minor changes in the use of fossil fuels in the coming 25 years.
Despite the threat of global warming, it is forecasted that the share of fossil fuels in producing the world’s total energy demand will reduce from 83% in 2011 to 78% in 2040. This is inconsistent with the goal of combatting climate change.
If we take the threat of climate change serious, there must clearly come an end to the era of applying fossil fuels as the predominant raw material for electricity production, heat generation and powering of the transport sector.
2. Nuclear Power
Nuclear power is the use of exothermic nuclear processes to generate heat and electricity. Nuclear power plants provided about 5.7% of the world’s energy and 13% of the world’s electricity in 2012. In 2013, the IEA reported that there were 437 nuclear power plants in operation in 31 countries.
Since the introduction of nuclear power there have been more then 100 accidents where significant radio-active radiation was released to the environment. Major disasters such as Three Miles Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima indicate that the risks associated with nuclear power are high, because human error can not be excluded.
The economic costs of nuclear power accidents is high, and meltdowns can take decades to clean up. The human costs of evacuations of affected populations and lost livelihoods is also significant.
Japan’s 2011 Fukushima disaster prompted a rethink of nuclear safety and nuclear energy policy in many countries. Germany decided to close all its reactors by 2022, and Italy has banned nuclear power. Following Fukushima, in 2011, the IEA halved its estimate of additional nuclear generating capacity to be built by 2035.
Apart from the many nuclear accidents that happened in the history of nuclear power there is also the problem of high-level radioactive waste management and the disposal of highly radioctive materials created during production of nuclear power.
The technical issues in accomplishing this are complex, due to the extremely long periods radio active materials remain deadly to living organisms. For some nuclear waste components it takes 10.000 years, 200.000 years or in some cases millions of years before radiation is significantly reduced.
It is obvious that the use of nuclear fission as a source of energy involves great risks for mankinds survival on our planet and for the wellbeing of future generations, while the economic advantages of nuclear power remain doubtful. The last nuclear disaster at Fukushima may prove the most damaging and costly in the history of nuclear power.
Nuclear power is clearly not a sustainable source of power, viewing the safety risks for people and the potential damage to our environment.
3. Geothermal Energy
Geothermal electricity is generated from the earth’s geothermal energy. Technologies in use include dry steam power plants, flash steam power plants and binary cycle power plants. Geothermal electricity generation is currently used in 24 countries, while geothermal heating is in use in 70 countries. Geothermal energy is considered a renewable source of energy. Geothermal energy takes care of 0.12 % of total global energy consumption.
Geothermal power is considered to be sustainable (renewable) because the heat extraction is small compared with the Earth’s heat content. The CO2 emission from existing geothermal electric plants is only 10-12% of a conventional coal-fired plant.
Enhanced geothermal systems tend to be on the high side of these ranges, with capital costs above $4 million per MW installed capacity. The cost of producing electricity from geothermal sources is estimated to be 5-6 cents/KWhr.
Geothermal power has also significant environmental drawbacks. Plant construction can adversely affect land stability. Enhanced geothermal systems can trigger earthquakes as a result of hydraulic fracturing.
The risks associated with exploiting geothermal power at large scale resembles the risks associated with large scale fracking. Drilling in the Earth to great depth and thereby destroying the earths geo-structures has proven to involve increased geo-risks, creating local earthquakes.
Some sources suggest that geothermal energy has great promise for the future. It is estimated that as much as 2000 GW could be produced from geothermal sources in the future. However the capital costs of geothermal power are relatively high and the geo-risks of earthquakes are high.
The fact that significant geo-risk is associated with geothermal power indicates that this energy technology is not in harmony with nature and is therefore not sustainable.
Energy generation from biomass is considered a renewable energy generation technology. Biomass energy originates from ethanol (derived from sugar-cane), wood or wood derived biomass ( pellets) and municipal bio-waste.
Most biomass refers to plants or plant-derived materials. As an energy source, biomass can either be used directly via combustion to produce heat, or indirectly after converting it to various forms of biofuel.
The conversion of biomass to biofuel can be achieved by different methods which are classified into: thermal, chemical, and biochemical methods. Wood remains the largest biomass energy source today. Examples include forest residues, yard clippings, wood chips and municipal waste.
Biomass accounts for about 16% of the global market of renewable energy. Renewable energy accounts for about 16% of the global energy consumption. Therefore biomass supplies 2.5% of the total global energy needs.
Forest-based biomass has recently come under fire from a number of environmental organizations, including Greenpeace and the Natural Resources Council for the harmful impacts it can have on forests and the climate. In this context Greenpeace recently released a report entitled “Fuelling a BioMess”, which outlines their concerns around forest-based biomass.
Growing Biomass requires land, the use of agrochemicals and extracts valuable nutrients from the land. It is more efficient to use the biomass as a feedstock for the production of compost. Composting keeps the carbon available to the soil, reduces the need for agrochemicals, eliminates GHG emissions and recycles the valuable nutrients into the soil. The effective cost of energy produced from biomass compares with the cost of wind energy. Biomass energy cost is in the range of 4000-10.000 US$/KW and wind energy between 5000-6500 US$/KW for onshore installations and 8000-13000 US$/KW for offshore wind installations. These costs are expressed in US$/KW effective capacity.
Biomass compares favorably with solar energy, both in terms of GHG emissions as well as effective costs. Solar energy effective cost are between 15000-18000 US$/KW.
Hydro-power is derived from the energy of falling water and running water. Since ancient times, hydro-power has been used for irrigation and the operation of various mechanical devices, such as watermills, textile mills, sawmills and so on.
Since the early 20th century, the term has been used almost exclusively in conjunction with the modern development of hydro-electric power. Hydropower is produced in 150 countries, with the Asia-Pacific region generating 32 percent of global hydropower in 2010. China is the largest hydroelectricity producer with around 17 percent of domestic electricity use.
Hydro-electricity can be produced in many ways: through conventional dams, run-of-river hydro-electric stations, pumped water storage and the use of large tidal movements of water. Most hydro-electric power is produced by conventional water dams because they have the largest capacity.
There are significant disadvantages of building large dams. Damming interrupts the flow of rivers and can harm local ecosystems, and building large dams and reservoirs often involves displacing people and wildlife. When the river flow is reduced due to lack of rain, the capacity may be reduced. Therefore hydro projects are subject to frequent capacity constraints.
Hydro-electricity accounts for approximately 16% of global electricity demand or 3% of the worlds total energy demand. Access to hydro-electric energy is limited because the local geography has to allow for it.
Hydro-electricity is a useful contributor to the production of clean renewable energy on a global scale. However hydro-electricity has no potential to replace fossil fuels in the long run.
6. Wind Power
Wind power is the conversion of wind energy into a useful form of energy, such as using wind turbines to make electrical power, windmills for mechanical power or sails to propel ships.
Large wind farms consist of hundreds of individual wind turbines which are connected to the electrical power transmission grid. For new constructions, onshore wind is an inexpensive source of electricity, competitive with or in some places cheaper than fossil fuel plants.
Offshore wind is steadier and stronger than on land, and offshore farms have less visual impact, but construction and maintenance costs are considerably higher.
Wind power, as an alternative to fossil fuels, is plentiful, renewable, widely distributed, clean, produces no GHG emissions during operation and uses little land. The effects on the environment are generally less problematic than those from other power sources.
Wind power is very consistent from year to year but has significant variation over shorter time scales. As the proportion of windpower in a region increases, a need to upgrade the grid, and a lowered ability to supplant conventional production can occur. This can destabilize the grid.
Wind power has one of the lowest GHG emissions and compares very favorably with solar and hydro-power based electricity.
According to the Wind Energy Foundation (WEF) wind energy costs are now lower than the costs of most new conventional sources and are close to cost-competitive with new natural gas generation due to continuing technological innovation. The price of wind power in the USA has declined more than 90% since 1980.
This is one reason that in 2012, wind was the number1 source of new electric generation capacity in the United States, accounting for 42% of all new generation capacity.
According to the WEF in 2011 and 2012, the price of wind under long-term power purchase contracts in the United States averaged just 4 cents per kilowatt hour, which is 50% lower than in 2009.
For wind energy various information sources indicate that the installed cost for onshore wind farms is about 1500-2000 US$ per KW. For off-shore installations this is between 2500-4000 US$ per KW installed capacity. The capacity factor ranges from 25-35% depending on local weather patterns.
The effective wind energy cost is the cost of installed capacity divided by the capacity factor. Taking into account an average capacity factor of 30% for wind energy, the cost of effective onshore wind energy is 5000-6600 US$/KW.
For offshore wind energy installations the cost of effective capacity is 8300-13300 US$/ KW. This compares favorably with the cost of solar energy. The installed costs of solar energy is about 3000-4500 US$/KW and the capacity factor is about 20-25%. Therefore the effective solar energy cost is between 15000-18000 US$/KW.
However wind will never be a base load source of electricity supply, because of its intermittent nature. To fully replace fossil fuels we need to develop other technologies which are based on forces that are everywhere and all the time.
7. Solar Power
Solar energy, radiant light and heat from the sun, is harnessed using a range of ever-evolving technologies such as solar heating, solar photovoltaics and solar thermal electricity. The total solar energy absorbed by Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and land masses is approximately 3,850,000 exajoule per year. This is roughly more energy in one hour than the world uses in one year. Solar energy can be harnessed at different levels around the world, mostly depending on distance from the equator.
Solar panels are made from silicon wafers. To produce silicon that can be applied in the wafers a lot of energy is required. Many studies have been conducted to determine the grey energy of solar panels. The grey energy is the time that it takes a solar panel to produce the energy that it took to produce the solar panel.
At this moment this grey energy is 3-5 years depending in the applied technology, location where the panel is installed and the type of application (solar heating or solar based electricity production. This is why the CO2 emission associated with the operation of solar panels is relatively high, in the range of 50-70 CO2 equivalents per KW production capacity.
As solar panels are relatively inefficient and are expensive to produce the installed cost per KW is high. The capacity factor for solar panels is between 20 and 25 % depending on the location. The costs of installed capacity is in the range of 3000-4500 US$/KW. As the capacity factor is about 20-25%, the effective installed cost of solar energy is between 15000-18000 US$/KW.
Solar Energy is currently the most expensive way of of producing renewable energy. Furthermore, the grey energy is very high in comparison to other renewable sources of energy. It takes 3-5 years for solar panels to produce enough energy to recover the energy that is produced by the solar panels. Making a massive switch to solar energy will therefore create a massive increase in GHG emissions before there will be a reduction in GHG emissions.
Solar energy is energy intensive, expensive and an intermittent source of energy. Although the technology advances, solar energy can not replace the base load production which replaces fossil fuels.
8. New Energy Technologies
From the above review we can conclude the following:
- Fossil fuels are the 80% base load of the existing global world energy supply, but climate change caused by GHG emissions is a major threat that needs to be addressed.
- Nuclear power is another base load energy technology; but it has major safety disadvantages. Expanding nuclear power is not an option.
- Biomass energy is another base load energy source. Nutrients contained in biomass need to be recycled to enable the regeneration of 2 billion hectares of degraded land. Burning more biomass is not an option; it creates a bio-mess.
- Geothermal power involves great geo-risks. Geothermal energy can not replace the base load fossil fuel use.
- Hydro power has been tapped to the extend possible. Small gains can be made through the implementation of local run-of-river projects. The potential global impact is too small.
- Wind Power is a promising source of energy, but it has an intermittent character. Therefore wind power does not offer the potential to become a base load source of energy.
- Solar Power has a large upfront carbon footprint (grey energy). Solar power can also not serve as a base load energy source, because it has an intermittent character.
It is obvious that we need a new source of energy which:
- Is available everywhere
- Is free for every one to use
- Is available all the time (24/7/365)
- Is in harmony with nature
- Is originating from nature
- Is abundantly available
- Is suitable to replace fossil fuel as the dominant source of energy
As we observe the evolution of energy technologies we can draw some interesting conclusions.
1. Fossil, fuels, nuclear fuels and geothermal energy is found below the surface of the earth.
2. Biomass and Hydro power is harvested at the surface of the earth.
3. Wind power is harvested from the atmosphere of the earth.
4. Solar power is harvested from the planetary system beyond the atmosphere of the earth
The question can be asked: is there a universal source of energy that has a cosmic origin? The answer to this question is a resounding yes.
There are universal forces such as gravity, magnetism, electro-magnetism, electro-statics, the Coriolis force, the centrifugal force, quantum field energy and the strong (nuclear) force which are available everywhere, all the time. Many scientists in the world are busy harvesting these forces through the developoment of a new class of energy technologies.
These technologies can be applied everywhere, leave no (or a negligable) carbon footprint, are available all the time, are in harmony with nature, require no electricity grid and can be applied locally. It is now time that we take the development at hand and apply adequate financial resources to manifest these new energy technologies.