Friday, April 14, 2006

So what we going to do about electricity.

Previously I wrote that Nuclear is not the answer to Ireland’s energy needs. So what are the options Oil, Gas, renewables, hamsters in wheels. Both Oil and Gas are running out while we need to tap the Corrib Gas field as it can supply 60% of our gas supply that is still a temporary measure eventually it will run out. Also with lack of energy security in my opinion one of Ireland’s greatest dangers. So what can we do?

First things first one of the buzz words we hear about energy now is the need for conservation of energy. This is indeed what we do need to do. But we are Irish and seem to lack the ability to take responsibility for anything whether it be curbing road deaths or alcohol. What we want is the government to do what Homer Simpson promised the residents of Springfield “Can’t someone else do it”. So how can some one else conserve for us and save us money. Firstly about 10% of household electricity comes from light. Roughly 30% of Ireland’s electrical demand comes from households. That means that about 3% of electricity used in Ireland is from light bulbs. Normal (incandescent) light bulbs waste 90% of their energy in the form of heat. Fluorescent bulbs use about a third less electricity then normal light bulbs. If they replaced light bulbs this would reduce electrical demand by 2%. However there are other technologies that have the potential to be far more efficient then fluorescent lights. Light Emitting Diodes(LED) (the little lights on your TV our LED’s and some car rear lights are LEDs) can produce in theory 100% energy to light conversion. While at the moment they are still not as efficient as Fluorescents they soon will be. Reducing the 3% down to well under 1%.

So we need to move away from normal light bulbs to more efficient sources of light. But people will not do this even though they will save more money about €10 euro pre bulb in the year. So what do we do? We already came up with the answer. Like the plastic bags we tax them. We put a tax/levy on incandescent light bulbs force people to buy more efficient light bulbs. Also we invest in more innovation in LED’s. (Full Disclosure. This is kind of my field) They are the lights of the future not only will they help reduce our electricity requirements but also as they conquer the world if Ireland can become an innovator in the field we will gain a portion of the $40 billion world market for light bulbs. It is predicted that if all the traffic light bulbs in America were changed to LED’s (like some in Ireland) then the American tax payer would be saved $225 million. While we have far fewer traffic lights in Ireland it would save money and reduce electricity it is small measures like that that will help lower electrical consumption.

So how do deal the other 90% of household electrical use. Much of that electricity is not actually used. A TV on standby uses about 50% of the power of when it is on. Considering that people use the TV for maybe 3 out 24 hours. TV’s consume about 3% of the houses electrical use yet only about 1/3 of that is watched. Thus turning off could reduce TV demand by 2/3 and 0.6% of Ireland total electrical use. While not on the whole large if combined with more energy efficient models of appliances. It could put a serious dent in the amount of electricity being used in Ireland. Also new technology will reduce the electricity consumed by products.

Now while electrical conservation might well save electricity, maybe even as much as 10% it still not going to solve our problems. One way is to increase every person’s electrical production. For instance if someone installs a normal photovoltaic solar panel on their roof this could supply a third of their needs. If this was made so that investing in solar panels can be claimed against stamp duty or income tax. Then it could supply 10% of the electrical need in the state. This could be done in the form of grants for installing panels. But this requires some altering of the grid. As the solar power can be variable although not as variable as the wind. Some times people are generating more then they need. Thus when this happens then the grid has to take the extra electricity. Causing their electrical meter to go backwards. This also has the advantage that it is cheap for the state as much of the capital cost burden is being taken by private individuals. And advantageous to the consumer as they reduce their electrical bill.

Wind energy in Ireland is massive and unreliable. If we build a lot of wind energy we have to supply backup to it. However this does not mean 100% fossil fuel plants. The fifth largest electrical plants in Ireland is Turlough Hill in Wicklow. However it is not a power plant it is in essence a battery. Basically it is a pumped storage plant. During the night when the electrical demand is low. It uses the electricity on the grid is not being used. It pumps water from a lake to a reservoir set in a mountain above the lake. During the day when the demand for electricity is high. Then the water is realised from the top reservoir to the lack and goes through turbines generating electricity. For wind to work then more of these kind of facilities would be needed to be built to store energy when the wind is strong and release it when wind is low. Due to Irelands landscape there is plenty of locations where this kind of facilities could be built. Indeed there were plans at one stage to build a plant in Killaloe Co Clare on Lough Derg. But how much do you need. Due to winds unreliability there is a limit to the amount of power it can give. What a happens when a big high pressure plants itself over Ireland for a few weeks and the batteries have all been drained. Then we would have to find something to replace it with. Either other electrical sources or interconnector with the continent. However considering the amount of wind that Ireland gets and the fact that the most likely time we are going to get low winds for sustained periods is also the time when electrical consumption drops and solar power increase i.e. Summer. It might not be as big a problem as its seems. Also dispersing the wind farms through out the country would help secure supply.

But how much can wind actually give us. The Arklow bank wind farm is going to be the largest wind farm in the World when completed and will supply 10% of Ireland’s needs when completed it will cost 700 million to build. It is said that Ireland could generate 35% of its electricity needs from Wind. I am not sure if this figure is based on minimum energy production or not but if it was incorporated with a system of pumped storage facilities it would be possible. To provide a significant portion of the Irish energy needs. However wind is not very cheap initially and its intermittence limits its potential.

Much of the loss in electrical energy occurs in transmission. But because wind generation can be spread around the country this effect is lowering the loses. To make wind more economical viable would also require the placing of interconnectors to Britain so as to give a market to sell wind generated energy when the electricity produced exceeds what is used.

One of the most obvious methods for generating electricity is by burning stuff. New technologies like “Clean Coal” have potential as coal supplies are predicted to last around 300 years ( they also emit less CO2 but I am not 100% convinced by global warming) However we in Ireland do not have coal reserves and while clean coal technologies might be good in the short term in the long term they are not a solution. When you burn Bio-Fuels you release the amount of Carbon that the plant absorbed during its lifetime. Thus it is carbon Neutral. According to Trinity College botanist, Professor Mike Jones Ireland could meet 30 per cent of its entire electricity requirement by planting just 10 per cent of arable land with elephant grass. Elephant grass is a type of grass like bamboo and has been successfully grown in a trial in Limerick. With the death of the sugar beet industry and CAP being slowly eroded. Farmers are going to have to learn to farm the market not the subsidy. Providing fuel for electricity would certainly be profitable. This personally is the most sensible measure for me. While wind energy is unreliable Irish grown crops would be more reliable then most. If the above figure is true does that mean the if 30% of arable land (Arable land takes up 13% of land) was planted then we would be practically self sufficient in energy and also solve budgetary problem that is CAP? This could also provide the back up to Wind and solar power. When the output from either decreases Bio fuel out put could be increases and when Wind and solar is high Bio Fuel could be scaled back.

One of the great things about the above sources is their security. Oil and gas can be dependant on the world’s markets where if Russia can simply turn off the tap. Also Uranium is also open to market fluctuations. But Wind, Bio-mass, and solar all make us self-sufficient in energy. In a world of terrorism and instability that trait makes the fuels priceless.

All the above measures would have a large capital cost. But once built they are either pretty much free or funding Irish farmers thus cuting the Balance of Payments deficit. Also they increase our competitiveness as we can guarantee industry low price fluctuation in the price of electricty. Also it elongates the lifetime of gas and oil. Over a long enough time scale say 20 years they will have already paid for themselves. (Comparison of energy costs) No one knows what state the world will be in 20 years time. We need to secure our energy needs now. But one way to lessen the cost is to open up the market to competition. If you try to do this by the state it will struggle to do this. But if you open up the market allow anyone to enter the market be it Airtricty or a small farmer that has a spare corner of a field to throw up a wind mill the national grid should allow for. The ESB are in the process of separating the grid from the generation system. This is needed to allow competition in the market place to flourish and increase the use of renewable. While the costs are high they are new and likely to fall due the economies of scale industry will be able to make in producing such things as solar panels and wind turbines.

When speaking about Britain’s supply of Oil in their Warships before World War 1 Churchill said “Safety and certainty in oil lie in variety and variety alone”. The same for Ireland can be said only in a variety of sources can be truly safe. Only with our own sources of energy can we be truly safe. We have to prepare for the worst geo-political situations while crossing our fingers waiting for someone to make Nuclear Fusion economical.

I have a number of sources for this post but lost many of them. Anyway. here is an excellent study by UCC THE IMPACTS OF INCREASED LEVELS OF WIND PENETRATION ON THE ELECTRICITY SYSTEMS OF THE REPUBLIC OF IRELAND AND NORTHERN IRELAND

Also ESB Impact of Wind Power Generation In Ireland on the Operation of Conventional Plant and the Economic Implications


Godwhacker said...

Great article Simon! This is one of the best articles I've read on energy in a while. One thing you didn't mention that an island nation like Ireland has an abundance of is tidal power. Channel the power of the crashing surf, and Ireland could stay the beautiful green land it is and never again want for a drop of oil.

Simon said...

The problem with tidal power is that it needs to be put in place in a place with a big difference between High and low tide. I am not sure if there is many places in Ireland like that.

Also to harnessing the Surf (Wave power)requires lots of little generators.

Both technologies are expensive and both not proven so I left them out. However you never know how they might inprove in the future and the West coast certainly has a lot of waves

Godwhacker said...

I have seen schematics for a lot of different types of tidal power apparatus. Not all of them need a high differential between high tide and low tide. I know all the answers aren't easy, but I don't think they are quite as difficult as some would make them appear. We live in a sea of energy. There should be no energy shortage.