Power generation options (J Sandison)

In light of the furore about the windfarm, I thought it worthwhile to consider all generation technology, to see how they compare with one another, and what options there are. This is a brief overview; to give detailed coverage would take an encyclopaedia.

The continued use of coal, oil and gas are well documented. Assertions about hydrocarbon fuel stretching into the distant future are not entirely correct. Oil has a very limited affordable lifespan of only a few decades. There is a lot of shale gas being found and exploited, and it will last longer than oil. However it also has its problems. Look at the vociferous anti-fracking lobby, with worries about health, ground water contamination, earthquakes, etc. To convert the world from running on oil to running on gas will take a huge commitment of time, material and effort. Another problem is security of supply, a (possibly literal) minefield.

An anti-windfarm argument used by some is “we would be more supportive if it would give us cheap electricity”. It may not seem like it, but we get cheap electricity now. If we were paying the true cost of generating our power by the old oil-fired Lerwick Power Station we would be paying twice what we currently pay. We are, in effect, heavily subsidised by mainland electricity customers.

Wave power
Waves, like the wind and tides, are not constant. The available power from a wave front is – per 1 metre length – from about 15KW for a 1 metre high wave to about 1.7MW with a 30 metre high wave. To handle this huge variation requires robust engineering, both to produce electricity and to survive. The amount of energy is also variable depending on the angle to the generating device, so fixed installations on shore are inefficient.

Hydro power

There is scope for more of these, but suitable locations are scarce, and they are expensive. There are the usual environmental objections.

Tidal barrage

This is a proven technology, with well established working examples. Very limited locations where it is feasible. Again there are environmental concerns. Remember the groundswell of opposition at even the hint of a Severn barrage between England and Wales.

Tidal power
Tides, as with wind and wave, are variable. They are predictable, not always available at convenient times. They only produce useful power for about 18 hours a day, due to the slack water periods. Not efficient. No proven good designs, still very much experimental.

Thorium (MSR) and (LFTR) reactor
These related technologies have been nominated as the “great green hope” for the future. Unfortunately it has never been made to work on a commercial scale, although many countries have tried, and are still working on them. There are substantial technical problems associated with this technology. Still a next generation technology is extremely costly and requires subsidy. These problems are highlighted by the fact that none of the big power generation or nuclear players have shown much interest as it should be a great bit of PR for them to declare a safe nuclear generation option. It is also not as safe as it at first appears, creating some radioactive waste with disposal still a problem. Don’t hold your breath on this technology either.

Solar power
There is potential here, alas not problem free. Not efficient for Shetland latitudes. In midwinter when we really need it, the sun just manages a few degrees above the horizon daily for a few hours. There are solar furnaces operational in various parts of the world. There are speculative plans for solar furnaces in the Sahara producing power to feed Europe and elsewhere via interconnectors. This is purely theoretical.

Considering that the world human population reached seven billion last year, and will reach nine billion by about 2050, every suitable bit of land will be required to grow food, never mind growing fuel. This is a complete nonsense, ensuring more poverty and starvation in the future. It is heavily subsidised.

Nuclear fission
A well understood technology in widespread and ever growing use. Very good for base load, but has a problem with waste disposal, and the nuclear weapon potential. Has bad PR profile due to its association with the atom bomb, and the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl and Fukushima accidents. Out of favour at the moment, nevertheless it has its place in the mix. Heavily subsidised.

Nuclear fusion
Already receiving intense scientific and engineering investigation. Safer than the fission process as it cannot go into meltdown, unlike fission reactors. There is less radioactive waste, and hydrogen is the fuel. Unproven commercially. Extremely costly, subsidy required.

Geothermal power
I believe that the UK government is instigating talks with Iceland this month (May 2012) with a view to constructing an interconnector between Iceland and UK, to make use of Iceland’s geothermal energy for power generation. There is certainly potential for this technology.

Will have its place, but again requires lots of power to obtain hydrogen from whatever medium is preferred for extraction.

Artificial photosynthesis and algae
More theoretical technologies, under investigation, both still pipedreams.

Aero generators
This is a proven technology, unlike a good proportion of the above. Suffers because the wind is not constant, and from their size. I have recently been aware of a cry to wait and see, wait until generators get smaller. Unfortunately the laws of physics will dictate how much power can be derived from a given size of machine. There will be an irreducible minimum, which every design is subject to. In other words you can’t get something for nothing.

It would be great if we could find a fairy godmother, willing to wave her magic wand to give us endless energy, with no climatic, health or environmental consequences. The reality is that such an outcome is purely that – a fairy story.

It seems to be a habitual throwaway line by anti-windfarm proponents to say “we don’t need windmills, we have plenty of wave and tidal power”.

Yes we do have plenty of wave and tidal power, but we have neither wave nor tidal power generation. Even if we do in the future, there will still be a need for converter stations and interconnectors to make use of it. If you think that the Viking windfarm investment is expensive, just wait till you try to develop wave and tidal power generation purely for Shetland, without an export interconnector.

The fact that all these ideas are being examined is an indication of what a serious and growing energy problem the world has. Unfortunately all energy sources have their own problems.

We will need a mix of all or most of the above to get best value with least associated damage. There will be similar objections to each and every proposal, whatever the technology. I hope I have covered most of the options, no doubt there are other possible technologies, both sensible and hare-brained.

None of the above address another major energy problem – transport by air, land and sea, and the associated world of commerce. Guess that’s for another day.

J Sandison


Add Your Comment
  • Sandy Valentine

    • May 7th, 2012 16:05

    J Sandison has made a brave and comprehensible summary of the options here and does a great service in stressing the gap between wave and tidal power and the lack of actual generation related to that potential. Would that more advocates could adopt his measured and objective approach and eschew the extreme stances so commonly found; then we might get somewhere.

  • Peter Dixon

    • May 7th, 2012 16:17

    It may interest readers to know that Saudi Arabia Is peaking in production now as I write this, that means no more slack in the system for global oil demand. All alternatives are inadequate in one way or another and ALL will turn out to be vastly more expensive (in monetary terms) than conventional hydrocarbon energy which has been disastrously under priced for decades! The real problem with energy provision is an economic one. Our economic engine not only requires raw energy to function but requires that energy cost to be negligible in its overheads enabling an attempt by humanity to engineer the impossible an infinite growth curve. Now we are in an impossible no win scenario we need investment in new technology requiring an increase in the money supply which cannot be fueled because of energy depletion, that investment will not yield a return because the bubble that will fuel the profits is declining. As oil becomes more expensive an overlooked phenomenon is revealed that no matter how much money it costs to get oil out the ground if in energy usage terms if it costs a barrel of oil to get a barrel of oil out the ground you are on a lose lose trip back to the stone age.
    Wake up people the only way to achieve a future is to change the way money works, stop burning energy to fulfill artificial and meaningless debt. Get back to reality, reinstate real value based currency and everything will change. No more infinite growth requirements, stable meaningful economics and eradication of the scam of Fiat currency. This simple change will slow our consumption enough to give us time to think and get real about this problem, stop trying to get into lifeboats before you know why the ship is sinking, get informed about the money supply and your outlook on everything will change. Do it fast though because time is running out!

  • John Tulloch

    • May 7th, 2012 20:43

    Thanks J. Sandison for taking the time to write this summary, I’ll add to it if I may.

    Gas and oil exploration and production methods are the subject of intense research and development and many advances should help to hold down the cost.

    Shale gas and latterly shale oil resources have changed the global picture with vast reserves located largely outside the Middle East. As a result of the huge US lead in the field US gas prices are currently half to one third of those in the UK which has its own enormous, hitherto untapped reserves.

    Demand for oil should fall since gas can replace oil as chemical feedstock for plastics, fuel for transport, power generation, etc and this is already happening in the US.

    Gas supplies from methane hydrates or clathrates (“fire ice”) are still a bit off however the US Dept of Energy has announced a breakthrough in production technology on the Alaskan North Slope which US Energy Secretary Steven Chu claims could reduce the price of US gas by 30% by 2025; according to the Alaska Division of Geological and Geophysical Surveys sufficient resources exist around the US to supply its own needs for 1000 years.
    Methane hydrates are abundant around the world and are claimed to exceed the energy potential of all other fossil fuel resources combined.

    Thorium reactors also have a bit to go before commercialisation however the following links provide a fine article on the UK’s world-leading technology (don’t be put off by it being from the Daily Mail) and a fascinating presentation on a proposal for a small scale reactor which could be used in a wide range of applications.


    And don’t forget, thorium reactors can use conventional reactor waste as fuel, processing it into a much less dangerous, shorter-lived, form of waste.

    This technology, thanks to its intrinsically safe design and abundant fuel, should be, in time, competitive with fossil alternatives and should thus cap the price of fossil fuel.

    Conventional nuclear reactors look like yesterday’s technology and the race to achieve a commercial thorium reactor is very much on.

  • Kevin Learmonth

    • May 8th, 2012 9:26

    The problem is social, not engineering.
    Mr Sandison is quite right when he says “Unfortunately all energy sources have their own problems.” I would agree there are no easy answers. I would also add that we can’t use mechanical engineering to address a fundamental social problem.
    From climate change to energy supply, the causes and solutions begin and end with the choices a society makes.
    If we only ask the question “how can we get more energy”, we will only come up with new ways of getting more energy – regardless of social, environmental or economic cost. Meanwhile this extra production is rapidly swallowed up as we find new ways to use, abuse and waste energy and other resources.

  • John Tulloch

    • May 8th, 2012 18:12

    I’m afraid the problem always was that there was never enough cheap energy, I’d guess that’s what prompted ancient civilisations to invent various ways of harnessing affordable energy – oxen, donkeys, wind, horses, machines, etc., many of which are still in use today.

    The problem with preventing people from using cheap energy is that what is proposed is that we somehow turn the clock back to “the good old days” when we were all “sustainable farmers” and had a life expectancy of about 35 years.

    And of course, it has only to apply to the “vulgus mobile,” the “great unwashed.”
    The great and the good (and the rich), by virtue of their positions would be forced to forego their dearest principles and carry on exactly as before – to make sure we don’t run out of fuel or be incinerated in “Thermageddon” – those sinners who disobey will indeed meet a fiery end, for all eternity!

    It is precisely because of our accelerating ability to find new ways of producing and using energy that we have the luxury of sitting in a nice warm room, in a comfy armchair, pontificating on the internet about how we should use less energy – by having windmills on our rooves, allotments, bicycles, etc..

    I assure you if we were all “sustainable farmers” there would be no argument, we’d all be too busy looking for new ways to access affordable energy and stay warm.

    One idea that would help us to go part way could be for all those who don’t want to use energy – fossil fuelled or otherwise – to STOP USING IT; get rid of your cars, start up your allotments and get on with it, there’s a long enough tradition in Shetland, after all – “back tae da sixareen, da kishie and da wife puwin da ploo!”

    I expect most people will say “Aye, get on yer bike!”

  • Erik J Smith

    • June 14th, 2012 23:14

    My God!

    A whole letter on energy generation, and five comments, and not a single mention of the reason why we cannot use fossil fuels.

    Climate Change. That is the whole reason we are having this discussion in the first place. Fossil fuels are destroying the environment. We have less than ten years to break our addiction to fossil fuels or it’s game over. We don’t have time to wait for tidal, wave, thorium, fusion, or any of the other pie in the sky fantasies mentioned above. We must go with what we have now. The alternative is simply suicide for civilisation.

  • Stewart Mack

    • June 15th, 2012 10:22

    Mr Smith – So if by 2022 the world has not ended (you said less than ten years until “Game Over”) what then? Melodramatic statements such as that do nothing to support the cause of climate change, but presumably you are doing “your bit” to avoid this disaster by not using a car/public transport/boat/planes or indeed any other form of fossil fuel usage (which would include items which arrived in Shetland by those methods) or are you happy to reap the benefits of fossil fuel whilst criticising others for its use?- The simply fact is we are addicted to fossil fuel, but the majority realise this cannot go on and the search for suitable alternatives will not be easy , but it is worthwhile. But if you even remotely expect the world to change either its climate or its reliance on oil in “less than ten years” then you are in for one big shock!

  • John Tulloch

    • June 15th, 2012 12:37

    Well said Stewart Mack.

    I don’t accept your proposition that we cannot continue using fossil fuels well into the future however a reasonable attitude to the argument will not only be more likely to sway intelligent people it will also bring forth a reasonable attitude from people who disagree with you.

    As for Erik J’s standard apocalyptic vision I guess it stems from irresponsible people in positions of great influence like Dr James Hansen of NASA Goddard Institute of Space studiedly who predicted in 1988 that with doubling CO2 levels, in forty years time the West Manhattan Highway in New York would be beneath the waves.

    Well, I accept we haven’t seen a doubling of CO2 however there is a very long way to go before Hansen’s egregious prediction comes true – in fact, if we’re all around in 2028 and the sea level has risen to that degree, I’ll climb the Market Cross on April Fools’ Day and EAT MY HAT!

  • John Tulloch

    • June 15th, 2012 12:39

    Goddard Institute of Space Studies – no marks to auto spell correction this time

  • Chris Ash

    • June 15th, 2012 15:34

    Further to what Stewart Mack wrote, I was at a dinner party in Cape Town in 2002 and was sagely informed by one of the other guests that it had ‘been proved’ that ‘oil would run out in 5 years’. At the time, I worked on the rigs off Angola, and pointed out that we had just drilled BP’s highest producing well ever. Furthermore, given that this wise owl ‘knew’ that oil was running out in just five years’ time, could she please explain why had the stock prices of oil companies, chemical companies and car makers etc not collapsed?
    People are always claiming that oil is ‘just about to run out’ and I have no doubt that people will still be claiming that in another 100 years’ time.

  • Erik J Smith

    • June 16th, 2012 7:03

    Ok. Stewart, I should have been clearer in what I was saying.

    Currently, CO2 emissions are still rising. Scientists have recommended that we should try to avoid an increase of more than 2 degrees C over pre-industrial temperatures if we are to avoid the risk of de-stabilising the worlds natural carbon sinks (tundra, peatland, forests and the oceans), turning them into carbon sources rather than carbon sinks, and beginning a process of runaway global warming which will be totally outwith our control.

    In order to stay within this 2 degree limit, we have to limit the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere to around 450 ppm. We are already at 392 ppm. At current levels of increase we will blow through the 450 ppm limit in the mid 2020’s.

    To avoid this we need to start reducing CO2 output this decade and continue reducing at a level of 3-6% a year (depending on how soon we start) for the foreseeable future until, around 2050 ish, when we will have de-carbonised our economy. If we wait until next decade to do this, the required reductions rise to 15-20% a year, and the de-carbonisation will need to be completed much sooner (2030-2040).

    This means that we have to use the technologies we have now (wind and solar), rather than waiting 10, 20 or even 30 years for unproven technologies like tidal, wave or thorium reactors to become available (if, indeed, they ever do).

    The thing is, right now, the climate effects we are seeing are due to CO2 which was emitted in the 1970’s. This is due to the thermal inertia of the oceans which delays the warming by 30-40 years. The full effects of CO2 released in the 1990’s and after are still to come.

    The world will not end in 2022, but the actions we take now will not be fully felt until the second half of the century. If we continue on our present course then we will doom our children and grandchildren to living in a very different world to that which we enjoy today. A world of constant climate disruption, accelerating sea-level rise and possibly run-away global warming which will continue to affect the planet for thousands of years to come.

    The only way to prevent this is to start reducing emissions today, not to wait for some magic technology which will make the problem go away in 10 or 20 years time. That is just not going to happen. It’s down to us, now, to tackle the problem.

  • Stewart Mack

    • June 18th, 2012 14:00

    Thank you for clarifying your position Eric,
    There is however still a great deal of scaremongering around this topic, I was discussing this very issue with an “eminant uk professor” – Given the fundamental laws of physics concerning energy, and the efficiencies of Wind/Wave/Solar energy sources i asked a fairly basic question “how much energy can we take out of the atmosphere before it stops doing its job?” the winds circulate pollution to the ozone layer, the waves whip up the base of the seas microbes feed, bigger fish feed and so on and so on…. How much energy can be taken before it affects the eco system to the point of failure? – The answer from the eminant mind? – “I dont know, loads!” – Do you not think we need to work out how much energy we can steal from the wind before we kill the planet trying to save it?
    And thats before we even start on the data sets some of these predictions are modelled on – Do you fancy looking outside for 0.00000035 seconds and using that to base what clothes to wear for the rest of your life?
    In my personal view- There is a problem, no doubt, but a knee jerk reaction is most defiantely not the way to solve it

  • John Tulloch

    • June 19th, 2012 14:06

    James Lovelock became arguably the foremost green guru, idolised by greens following publication of his “Gaia” theory almost 50 years ago and in due course became a staunch advocate of urgent action to “tackle climate change.”

    He’s apparently been giving his views ahead of the Rio + 20 “sustainable development” summit in today’s Mail, saying, on climate change

    “I’m not worried about sea-level rises. At worst, I think it will be 2ft a century” and

    “It just so happens that the green religion is now taking over from the Christian religion. I don’t think people have noticed that, but it’s got all the sort of terms that religions use. The greens use guilt. You can’t win people round by saying they are guilty for putting CO2 in the air.”

    And “Gas is almost a giveaway in the US at the moment. They’ve gone for fracking in a big way.” [He likes nuclear, too]

    And “Let’s be pragmatic and sensible and get Britain to switch everything to methane. We should be going mad on it.”

    I expect he changed his mind about “tackling climate change” because of the lack of EVIDENCE to support the prophecies of doom, Erik.

    The Mail continues,

    “In an interview, Mr Lovelock described existing theories of ‘sustainable development’ – a key topic for discussion at the upcoming summit – as ‘drivel’.

    Well, well!



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