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15 May 2003 Edition

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The answer is blowing in the wind


Not many people know that when they're filling up their car tank, they are using a substance that is roughly 70 million years old. Just imagine, petroleum started to develop when dinosaurs were roaming the earth, and humans, in typical excessive style, burn it in minutes so they can get down to the shops.

And in the last few years, we have been using this precious resource like it's going out of fashion.

Fossil fuels are a one-time energy deal. Once they're gone, they're gone for millions of years - far longer than human history. Our parasitic lifestyles have led to almost all of the world's non-renewable fuels becoming dried up. The drama of our discovery, development, and exhaustion of non-renewable resources can be seen in the ghost towns of the American West and other mining regions around the world.

For the last 50 years or so, we have been hearing warnings that coal, oil, natural gas and uranium supplies are finite, and detrimental to our health and environment. Most people just blandly accepted the fact, and put it to the back of their minds. Nowadays, people are more aware, but the average person thinks that doing their bit for the environment involves insulating the attic, or putting a lagging jacket on their boiler.

However, while we have been living in blissful ignorance, a new industry has been growing focused on renewable energy.

What is renewable energy?

Renewable energy, such as wind power, solar power, hydro-power, and geothermal power, to name but a few, will generate electricity cleanly for as long as the sun continues to shine. They not only help reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but it is predicted that over the next half century, renewables may grow to supply half the world's energy.

Successfully generating electricity by harnessing the perpetual power of the sun and wind is not only technologically feasible, it is already a reality. Similar to fossil fuel, which is millions of years' worth of highly concentrated solar energy transformed into coal, oil, and gas, virtually all renewable resources also depend in one way or another on sunlight. Unfortunately, the electricity to be derived on a daily basis from renewable energy pales in comparison to the approximately 77 million barrels a day of the energy-dense, high-powered liquid fuel (crude oil) the world consumes every day.

The story of oil

The powerful industrialised economies of the West are based on cheap, abundant fossil fuels. We know that burning them adversely affects the world's ecology and our global climate. From oil spills to contaminated ground water, using fossil fuels has caused great harm to the environment and to human health. Burning this type of fuel releases stored carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere, which then acts as a blanket, trapping heat and causing air and ocean temperatures to rise. But oil consumption has increased, and there are more cars and trucks on the road than ever before.

At the moment there is a serious lack of political will for switching over to renewable energy sources. Many governments and industries refuse to acknowledge that fossil fuels are diminishing with astonishing speed.

Petroleum is the lifeblood of our civilisation, but industry experts predict that the world's oil supply will reach its maximum production and midpoint of depletion sometime around the year 2010.

Dark days are coming. The only question is how soon.

Wind energy

In the 1960s, Bob Dylan wrote: "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows." Today, the wind represents more than weather; it means money and energy.

Wind is the oldest source of renewable energy and it will play an important role as a non-polluting energy provider in the 21st century. It is also the fastest developing source of alternative energy in Ireland.

Humans have taken advantage of wind power for thousands of years. The first known use occurred in 5000 BC, when people used sails to navigate the Nile River. By the 16th century, some 10,000 windmills were in use in the Netherlands. But it took almost 500 years to perfect the windmill's efficiency to the point that it had the major features recognised by contemporary designers as being crucial to the performance of modern wind turbine blades.

Heavy, inefficient wooden blades were replaced by lighter, faster steel blades around 1870.

The first large windmill to produce electricity was a multi-blade design built in 1888. Modern 70-100 kilowatt wind turbines blow away its 12-kilowatt capabilities. In 1999, global wind-generated electricity exceeded 10,000 megawatts.

In a world where more than 2 billion people live without electricity, decentralised wind power is projected to be one of the developing world's most important sources of electricity. Wind-generated energy also has a bright future in industrialised nations like the United States and Europe. According to the American Wind Energy Association, wind energy could provide 20% of America's electricity, with turbines installed on less than 1% of the nation's land area. Within that area, less than 5% of the land would be occupied by wind equipment-the remaining 95% could continue to be used for farming or ranching. By the year 2010, 10 million American homes may be supplied by wind power, preventing 100 million metric tons worth of CO2 emissions every year.

Wind energy does hold some drawbacks. Wind power suffers from the same lack of energy density as direct solar radiation. Wind turbines cannot be erected everywhere, because many places are not breezy enough for suitable power generation. When an appropriate place is found, building and maintaining a wind farm can be costly. It is a highly capital-intensive technology. If the interest rates charged for manufacturing equipment and constructing a plant are high, then a consumer will have to pay more for that energy. Fortunately, as more facilities are built, the cheaper wind energy will become. The cost of wind-generated electricity has dropped by 15% with each doubling of installed capacity worldwide, and capacity has doubled three times during the 1990s.

The advantages of wind power heavily outweigh the disadvantages. It provides skilled jobs for people in rural communities, replaces environmentally harmful energy sources, and is inexhaustible. And, more importantly, it will never be subject to embargos or price shocks caused by international conflicts.

Windy Wicklow Way

Every country in the world has wind, but in Ireland, because of our position in relation to the Atlantic Ocean, we have more than our fair share. At present we imports 70% of our total energy requirement, and this figure may rise to 90% in about five years, as Kinsale gas becomes exhausted.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the EU is committed to reducing greenhouse gas emissions to 8% below 1990 levels by 2008-2012. As part of a 'burden -sharing' agreement, Ireland agreed a national target to limit increases in gas emission to 13% above levels in 1990.

Ireland's renewable energy project is called AER, (Alternative Energy Requirements), and it is constantly under review. The Dublin government's Green Paper for Sustainable Energy set an ambitious target for the increased penetration of renewable energy by 2005, but Ireland has been slow to develop wind power. Small island projects were built on Inisoir and Cape Clear, but there was little real progress made until the building in 1992 of a 65-megawatt wind farm in Bellacorrick in Co Mayo.

Unfortunately in Ireland, the NIMBY - not in my back yard - syndrome, is being replaced by the BANANA - build absolutely nothing anywhere near anyone - syndrome. But since the electricity industry in the 26 Counties became deregulated in February 2000, companies have been actively pursuing licenses to build wind farms around the country.

At present, about 16 windfarms in Ireland all feed into the national grid.

The ESB plans to be a major developer of wind energy in the future. It currently purchases over 100 megawatts of wind energy from private generators, under the government initiated alternative energy scheme.

But a relatively new company, Airtricity, is making the most progress in the wind energy market.

This summer, Airtricity is planning to build huge windmills on a sandbank off the County Wicklow coastline near Arklow, in a stretch of water called the Arklow Banks.

The project is to cost in the region of § 500 million to produce, and is being heavily subsidised by the Dublin government. When complete, there will be a total of 200 wind turbines, all standing 300 feet tall and producing between them over 500 megawatts of electricity.

To put this in perspective, a single megawatt of electricity is all that is required to produce enough energy for 1,000 homes. So this power station will be able to produce enough energy for 500,000 homes, or roughly 15% of all the homes in Ireland.

It requires no outside energy source, other than the wind, which is always with us, and because it is being built at sea, there is virtually no impact on the environment and the noise levels being produced (wind turbines are noisy), will disturb no one.

The company is also planning to spend approximately §14 million expanding its activities in the Six Counties. At start of April, it unveiled plans to locals near Newtownstewart in Tyrone, to construct nine turbines, designed to produce 12 megawatts of electricity when they come on stream. This is enough to service 9,000 homes.

Ecowind, another renewable energy company, is planning to build a § 700 million wind farm close to Greystones in Wicklow, starting in 2004, which will dwarf Airtricity's project.

These are just a few of the many projects being developed in Ireland, but given the country's potential, the wind market is still extremely underdeveloped.

Unfortunately, the current Dublin government is lax in implementing its own energy plans. Non-renewable energy in Ireland is still subsidised to a far greater extent than renewable energy, and Fianna Fáil and the PDs are financially unwilling to fully capitalise on the country's vast wind power potential.

Two years ago, wind turbines only had the efficiency to produce less than one megawatt of power each. With technological improvements, this has been increased to 2.5 megawatts in just over two years. Ireland could yet be the first country to properly access wind power, but this requires a change of mindset from politicians whose worldview is still dominated by fossil fuels and their role in the wider economy.

Solar Energy

Every day, the surface of Earth is blasted with so much solar energy that, if harnessed, 60 seconds' worth could power the world's total energy requirements for one year. In just one day, the Sun provides more energy than the current human population would consume in 27 years.

Solar energy has great potential for providing clean and unlimited electricity in many regions of the world. Solar energy systems are especially unique because they require no extra construction or developed land area, and function safely and quietly. Remote or underdeveloped communities can produce their own supply of electricity by constructing as small or as large a system as needed. There are only two primary disadvantages to using solar power: a limited amount of sunlight and the cost of equipment, but solar energy is renewable and non-polluting, and the equipment will pay for itself in 2 to 5 years, depending on how much sunlight a particular location receives.

Hydrogen Power

Hydrogen is the most abundant element known to man, and the supply is virtually limitless. Hydrogen can be made from fresh or salt water by electrolysis, which uses electricity to split the water molecule into its elemental components of hydrogen and oxygen. Hydrogen energy has long been considered the ultimate universal fuel source, and scientists have been working on hydrogen energy cells for more than 150 years. The technology hasn't slipped by NASA either, where such fuel cells have supplied power in all manned space missions since Project Gemini in 1965. Fuel cells provide astronauts with heat, electricity, and drinking water.

Hydrogen fuel cells are being designed that will replace gasoline and diesel to power your vehicle and your home.

Water Energy

Water has always been civilization's most precious natural resource; it is critical for the survival of every life form on the planet. Irrigated water enables gardens to flourish in the desert, and, when harnessed for hydroelectric energy, water can power the lighting for entire cities. Thousands of years ago, the Greeks devised water wheels, which picked up water in buckets around a wheel. The water's weight caused the wheel to turn, converting kinetic energy into mechanical energy for grinding grain and pumping water. Engineers eventually realised that the force of water falling from a height would turn a turbine connected to a generator and produce electricity. Anywhere sufficient rain falls, there will be rivers. If a particular section of river has the right terrain to form a reservoir, it may be suitable for dam construction. Once the system has been installed, no fossil fuels are required to produce the electricity, and the earth's hydrologic cycle naturally replenishes the "fuel" supply. Hydropower has become the leading source of renewable energy. It provides more than 97% of all electricity generated by renewable sources worldwide.

However, although water is a naturally recurring domestic product and is not subject to the whims of foreign suppliers, it is susceptible to changing weather patterns and regional drought.

Geothermal Energy

Geothermal energy is derived from the heat contained within the planet, heat that in some places is so intense that it melts mantle rock to create molten magma. Experts believe that the ultimate source of geothermal energy is radioactive decay occurring deep within the Earth. Geothermal heat is a renewable energy source primarily produced when ground water descending from the Earth's surface meets molten magma rising toward it. Some of this geothermal water circulates back up through faults and cracks and reaches the Earth's surface as hot springs or geysers, but most of it stays deep underground, trapped in cracks and porous rock.

Geothermal energy is a reliable, decentralised power source for some regions, but environmental concerns cloud the implementation of geothermal facilities. Many of the most highly active areas are located in protected wilderness zones that environmentalists want to preserve. And although no combustion occurs, some systems produce carbon dioxide.

Tidal/ Wave/Ocean Thermal Energy

Tidal energy utilises the gravitational energy of the Sun, Earth and Moon. Wave power converts the energy released in crashing waves, driven onshore by wind. Ocean thermal systems exploit the greatest solar collector on Earth - the sea. Ocean Thermal Energy Conversion (OTEC) seems to be a promising source of renewable, non-polluting energy for the future. The oceans comprise over two-thirds of the Earth's surface, and they collect and store an enormous amount of solar energy. On an average day, 23 million square miles of tropical seas absorb an amount of solar radiation equal in heat content to about 250 billion barrels of oil.

Some experts predict that if even 0.1% of this stored energy could be tapped, the output would be 20 times the current daily energy demands of the United States, the world's biggest energy consumer.

(Information from www.altenergy.org)

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