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Alternative Energy

Alternative Energy

Alternative energy is often thought of as renewable energy such as solar or geothermal or recyclable energy such as nuclear energy that could replace fossil fuels and lower carbon emissions. However, did you know that alternative energy can also mean unconventional fossil fuels such as deepwater oil, tar sands, shale gas and oil shale? In the race to find alternative energy for the depleting fossil fuels, it is not only technicalities that need to be questioned but also the sustainability and social effects of creating energy.

Alternative energy definition

Alternative energy simply means deriving energy from something that is not traditionally used. Fossil fuels and other forms of non-reusable energy are traditional sources of energy. Alternative energy sources include wind, solar, geothermal, hydropower and biomass

Unconventional fossil fuels as alternative energy sources

There are predictions of ‘peak oil’ by geologists that state that there will be a global peak of fossil fuels before a sharp decline. The finite reserves of fossil fuels might be reaching an end. However, there has been a rise in the use of unconventional fuels such as tar sands in Canada and shale gas in the USA.

Alternative Fossil Fuel

Deepwater oil

Due to the accessible reserves running out, prospecting companies are looking for deeper ocean waters. Exploring deepwater oils will result in greater costs and risks in places such as the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil's offshore reserves.

Tar Sands

Tar sands are made up of a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen, a dense, viscous form of petroleum. Opencast mines extract and crush the sand and then use high-pressure steam to separate the bitumen from the sand. The extraction process is energy-intensive and requires one barrel of conventional oil to create three barrels of tar sand oil. Also, purifying tar sands is water-intensive, requiring two to five barrels of water for each barrel of oil.

Shale gas

Shale gas is usually methane in coal seams, which is natural gas trapped in the fractures and pores of sandstones and shales.

Oil shale

Oil shale is deposits of organic compounds called kerogen, found in sedimentary rocks that have not had enough pressure over time to become conventional oil.

Types of alternative energy sources

The UK government is looking toward low-carbon energy supplies to help with the looming energy generation gap. They are trying to decouple the economy from fossil fuels by increasing renewable energy, developing a new generation of nuclear power stations, reducing energy use through technology, and recycling energy. In December 2020, renewable production generated 40.2% of total electricity produced in the UK. Let's take a look at some of the different types of alternative energy sources.

Alternative Energy Sources: Biofuels

Biofuels are fuels produced from organic matter (biomass) such as plant material and animal waste. Biofuels are usually categorised as:

  • bio-ethanol: produced from sugar cane, sugar beet, maize and wheat.
  • bio-diesel: produced from vegetable oil and animal fats.
  • bio-methane: produced from sewage, domestic and animal waste, and organic waste.

There have been concerns raised about how environmentally friendly bio-fuels are, as they still produce CO2. There are also valid concerns as to whether production will interfere with food crops.

Alternative Energy Sources: Nuclear power

There have been problems with the safety of nuclear power, as experienced with Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant. In 2011, the nuclear plant was severely damaged by an earthquake and released dangerous amounts of radiation. Despite this, the development of nuclear power in the UK is still ongoing. Hinkley Point C is likely to cost between £22-23 billion and will provide energy for 60 years and 25,000 jobs.1

Alternative Energy Sources: Solar power

The UK’s largest solar panel farm, Chapel Lane Solar Farm, serves 60000 households and covers the equivalent of 175 football pitches. There have been claims that solar power is expensive and isn't viable without a high strike price. Also, solar panels consume productive farmland that could be used to produce food.2

Alternative Energy Sources: Wind power

The Hornsea Project 1 was completed in 2020 and aims to provide wind power to a million homes. Its construction is also likely to create more than 2000 jobs. However, they are much taller (190m) than onshore turbines and are being contested in Aylesbury for ruining the landscape and the potential harm to birds. People also question if the supply will be unpredictable as it is dependent on the wind.3

Alternative Energy Wind turbines across the sea StudySmarterOffshore wind farms can often be seen from a great distance, the joy of all things/ Wikimedia Commons, CC-BY-SA-4.0

Investment in renewable energy and recyclable energy

As energy companies prefer income to risk in the privatised energy market, new investments are only made when the government can guarantee a minimum price per megawatt-hour (MWh). This is known as the strike price. The strike price is a critical element of the UK energy policy as it creates incentives for businesses to invest in low-carbon power. We can see this in renewable and recyclable energy. Renewable energy refers to the energy that can be naturally replenished over a human time scale. Whereas recyclable energy refers to the energy that can be reprocessed and reused.

Renewable energy

  • Biomass - Biomass is the energy created from wood, plants, animal and general waste. The strike price is £80/MWh.
  • Solar power - Solar power is the energy from the sun through photovoltaic cells that generate electricity. The strike price is £50-80/MWh.
  • Wind energy - Wind power is generated from moving air turning a propeller-driven generator. The strike price is £115-120/MwH.1
  • Hydroelectric power - Hydroelectric power uses the vertical release of water to turn a turbine that generates electricity. The strike price is £100/MWh.

Recyclable energy

  • Nuclear energy - Nuclear power is created through heat from an atomic reaction, and the steam turns into a turbine to generate electricity. The strike price for Hinkley Point C is £92.50/MWh (Hinkley Point C is a nuclear power station in Somerset).5
  • Heat recovery systems - Heat recovery systems use the heat from the air inside a building to warm air drawn from outside. They cost £2000-7000 per house to install.5

Radical technologies for sustainability of alternative energy

These are alternative approaches on how to produce more sustainable futures in terms of fuel and carbon emissions.

Sustainability of Alternative Energy: Hydrogen fuel cells

Hydrogen fuel cells can be used as an alternative to oil and are more energy-efficient for vehicles. When hydrogen is separated from other elements by electricity, it produces hydrogen which then can be burnt as fuel. Hydrogen fuel cells work by using a catalyst at the anode to separate hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. The electrons flow through an external circuit, creating electricity. This powers the vehicle.

Sustainability of Alternative Energy: Carbon capture and storage

Carbon capture and storage is when carbon dioxide is captured from the emissions of coal and gas-fired power plants. Carbon capture is when mineral carbonation consists of making a fluid with CO2 and adding it to hot basalt so basalt minerals chemically react and turn into carbonate minerals. Geological storage consists of sending high-pressure CO2 deep underground in highly porous rocks so they will fill these pores. It is said that this process could reduce carbon emissions to 19%, but it is expensive.

Advantages of using alternative energy sources

There are many advantages to using alternative energy sources. As many alternative energy sources are renewable, they are far less harmful to the environment than traditional energy sources have been. The burning of fossil fuels is considered to be one of the main drivers of global warming, after all. Long-term, renewable alternative energy sources are likely to be cheaper as they require less maintenance.

Importance of using alternative energy sources

The importance of using alternative energy sources lies in the growing global energy demand. It is reported that by 2050 the global energy demand would have grown by 47% with oil remaining the top source of energy.6 The dependence on fossil fuels is not only unsustainable from the depleting resources but also causes environmental damage. This growing demand is influenced by the economic growth of large emerging economies such as Brazil, Russia, India and China where energy is needed for manufacturing which is the main growth. Social and technological factors also affect the growth of demand for energy. Energy is required for entertainment purposes and also to make time for leisure, devices such as washing machines, vacuum cleaners and heating systems. As these demands grow, the importance of the shift toward alternative energy sources grows, to stop the environmental damage and to find sustainable energy sources that can support the global energy demand.

Alternative Energy - Key takeaways

  • Geologists predict finite reserves of fossil fuels leading to explorations into unconventional fossil fuels such as deepwater oil, tar sands, shale gas and oil shale.
  • The UK is trying to decouple the economy from fossil fuels by increasing renewable energy, developing a new generation of nuclear power stations, and reducing energy use through technology and recycling energy.
  • Alternative approaches on how to produce more sustainable futures in terms of fuel and carbon emissions are being developed.

References

  1. https://www.edfenergy.com/energy/nuclear-new-build-projects/hinkley-point-c
  2. https://www.bournemouthecho.co.uk/news/13925475.chapel-lane-farm-at-parley-is-the-uks-biggest-solar-farm-powering-60000-households/
  3. https://hornseaprojectone.co.uk
  4. https://www.world-nuclear-news.org/Articles/Viewpoint-The-nuclear-option-in-the-UKs-clean-ener
  5. https://www.renewableenergyhub.co.uk/main/heat-recovery-systems-information/heat-recovery-system-prices/
  6. https://www.spglobal.com/commodityinsights/en/market-insights/latest-news/oil/100621-global-energy-demand-to-grow-47-by-2050-with-oil-still-top-source-us-eia

Frequently Asked Questions about Alternative Energy

Alternative energy is seen as energy that doesn't increase the carbon footprint and non traditional forms of energy.

Alternative energy works through using existing forces of nature to generate power, such as solar energy, wind energy, hydro energy, tidal energy and geo thermal energy.

The advantages of alternative energy sources are that they are mostly clean, do not produce pollution and are cheap as the energy is generated without cost. However the disadvantage is that they are expensive to set up. 

Wind energy comes out as the best when it comes to most efficient in production, use of fuel and least environmental damage.

We should use alternative energy sources because they don't produce greenhouse gas emissions from fossil fuels and reduces some types of air pollution.

Final Alternative Energy Quiz

Question

What is peak oil?

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Answer

Predictions of peak oil by geologists imply that there will be a global peak of fossil fuels before a sharp decline.

Show question

Question

What is deep water oil?


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Answer

Deep water oil is when accessible reserves run out, prospecting companies look for oil in deeper ocean waters.

Show question

Question

Where are they looking for deep water oil?


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Answer

In places such as the Gulf of Mexico and Brazil's offshore reserves.

Show question

Question

What is tar sand made up of?


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Answer

Tar sand is made up of a mixture of sand, clay, water and bitumen, a dense viscous form of petroleum.

Show question

Question

How is tar sand mined and what are the problems involved?


Show answer

Answer

Open cast mines extract the sand, crush it and then use high-pressure steam to separate the bitumen from the sand. The extraction process is energy intensive and requires one barrel of conventional oil in order to create three barrels of tar sand oil. It is also also water intensive, needing 2-5 barrels of water for each barrel of oil.

Show question

Question

What is shale gas?


Show answer

Answer

Shale gas is usually methane in coal seams, natural gas trapped in the fractures and pores of sandstones and shales.

Show question

Question

What is oil shale?


Show answer

Answer

Oil shale is deposits of organic compounds called kerogen in sedimentary rocks that have not had enough pressure over time to become conventional oil.

Show question

Question

How are the UK government trying to help with the looming energy generation gap?


Show answer

Answer

The UK government is looking towards low-carbon energy supplies to help with the looming energy generation gap. They are trying to decouple the economy from fossil fuels by increasing renewable energy, developing a new generation of nuclear power stations, reducing energy use through technology and recycling energy.

Show question

Question

What are the three kinds of biofuel?


Show answer

Answer

Bio-ethanol, bio-methane and bio-diesel.

Show question

Question

Using case studies, what are the potential and problems with nuclear power?


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Answer

There have been problems with the safety of nuclear power, as experienced with Japan's Fukushima nuclear plant. In 2011, the nuclear plant was severely damaged by an earthquake and released dangerous amounts of radiation. However, in the UK, Hinkley Point C is an 18 billion project that will provide energy for 60 years and 25000 jobs.

Show question

Question

What are the problems with solar energy?


Show answer

Answer

There have been claims that solar power is expensive and isn't viable without a high strike price. Also, solar panels consume productive farmland that could be used to produce food.

Show question

Question

What are the problems with wind energy?


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Answer

Wind turbines are 25 meters taller than onshore turbines. People think they ruin the landscape and are harmful to birds. It is questioned if the supply would be predictable because it depends on the wind.

Show question

Question

What is a strike price?


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Answer

As energy companies prefer income to risk in the privatised energy market, new investments are only made when the government can guarantee a minimum price per megawatt hour (MWh) known as the strike price.

Show question

Question

Which out of the following have the lowest strike price: biomass, solar power, wind energy, hydroelectric power?


Show answer

Answer

Solar power at £50-80/MWh.

Show question

Question

What are hydrogen fuel cells, and how can they be used as an alternative?


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Answer

A hydrogen fuel cell is an electrochemical power generator that combines hydrogen and oxygen to produce electricity, with water and heat as by-products. In a hydrogen fuel cell, a catalyst at the anode separates hydrogen molecules into protons and electrons. The electrons go through an external circuit, creating a flow of electricity. This is then used to power the vehicle.

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