Between 2010 and 2011 many world events have had an impact on energy in terms of political, economic or technical influences. Political unrest, natural disasters and several economic collapses have changed energy related news, and have certainly shifted the public’s perspective of future energy supply.
At the core of the future energy supply debate there are a number of topics receiving increasingly more publicity. With the limitations of fossil fuel capacity, and questions being asked about the viability of further exploration, investment in new technologies is being pushed by governmental bodies. And climate change has gone from being considered a myth, to presently resulting in a vast paradigm shift, defining future investment and policies as a result of research in CO2 emissions.
With ever increasing population growth and enhanced living standards, the demand for energy is rising exponentially. Services used on a daily basis are increasing rapidly, requiring even more energy to meet the demand. Personal use of transportation, heat and utilities (such as water and electricity) are increasing worldwide with improvements in living standards and increased population.
Recent surges in the price of oil have not been experienced since 2008 (Bloomberg) and it is expected that prices will continue to rise. This has a severe effect on the cost of living and energy production worldwide. Investment in renewable technologies will supply electricity to industry and households, however due to its high calorific value, oil is the predominantly used for transport. Therefore, despite investment in renewable technologies pressure will still remain on the cost of living.
In attempting to solve these challenges many political and economic questions are being asked about the sustainability of investment in alternative technologies. The viability and environmental impact of installing renewable capacity into the grid or investing in nuclear power is changing daily. Natural disasters and political wars are adding pressure to the current situation, while the uncertainties of new technologies still remain.
The following sections set out the related events covered by the media, which have lead to the current energy situation. The sustainability and environmental impacts related to fossil fuels, nuclear power and renewable technology have been reviewed to provide a greater picture of the current energy position we are in.
Are further explorations for oil sustainable?
Commodity prices, which fluctuate continuously, are continuously reported on in the news with prices fluctuating on a daily basis, however recent surges in the price of oil has resulted in greater press review. The price of oil (Brent Crude Oil) has increased by approximately 48% during the last year from US$ 65 to US$ 125 (Financial Times 12-03-2011). This is the highest price for oil since 2008 which was a result of the financial crisis and a fall in the value of the US Dollar. Recent trends in oil price are a direct result of political unrest in the Middle East (Bloomberg).
Large increases in the price of oil can result in a severe effect across the world. The cost of living in both the UK and Ireland has been directly affected due to this significant increase along with the economic crises in 2008. Many households are unable to pay their utility bills resulting in the government setting up payment plans, as many are unable to make ends meet (The Irish Times 15-1-2011). The rise in oil prices are not just felt at the pumps, heating bills are a more basic requirement and with record low temperatures felt over the winter period the pinch comes when the bill arrives.
The trend in oil (WTI Crude Oil) prices has been gradually increasing since 2000, but peaked in 2008, as can be seen below. This peak is considered a knock on effect of the financial crisis.
Recent trends are being compared with figures of 2008 as they are the highest peaks experienced in the last 10 years. The trend in the last year has seen oil prices increase between 30% and 50% the highest in two years and are expected to continue rising. The main cause for this is due to political unrest in Arab countries spanning across northern Africa and the Middle East.
British International Development Minister Alan Duncan has warned “the price of a barrel of crude could double if the unrest in the Arab world continues, . . . the price of a barrel of crude could top $200, well above the record high of $147 reached in July 2008. If extremists used the instability in the Arab world to bomb oil tankers, pipelines or Saudi reserves, prices could even hit $250 a barrel.” Speaking of the turmoil in the Middle East, Mr. Duncan warned, “At the moment this is secular, economic and demographic but if it goes wrong you will see Islamic fundamentalism becoming the only vehicle for people’s grievances.” (AFP 5-3-2011).
Political unrest has spread from various countries including Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Iraq and Yemen. Tunisia was the earliest in early January, where it was believed as many as 50 people may have died as a result of conflicts (The Independent 17-02-2011). The protests grew after a market seller set himself alight in December after he lost his licence to trade. The result was a Jasmine Revolution. A caretaker government has been in charge of the country since the dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country on 14 January after the protests that inspired other uprisings (The Independent 17-02-2011).
In an article in Time Magazine in February these scenes in Tunisia and Egypt are seen as the Middle East’s first post-American revolutions. In Egypt which has been ruled by Hosni Mubarak since 1981, liberals and democrats have found their voices without being branded as U.S. puppets, despite efforts of pro-Mubarak crowds warning those voices were “outside forces” trying to destabilize Egypt. This might be the consequence of both George W. Bush’s and Obama’s approaches in the region, as Bush highlighted dictators in the Middle East soon after 9/11, whereas Obama pulled back from an overbearing, aggressive American role (Time Magazine 03-02-2011).
The protests in Egypt, Tunisia, Jordan and elsewhere have resonated with the broader population of the Arab world because they came from within, having grown organically, and were concerned with the conditions of ordinary Arabs. What is happening in Egypt and Tunisia might be a return to a more normal politics, fuelled by the realities of the modern world, rooted in each country’s conditions (Time Magazine 03-02-2011).
The recent political unrest has resulted in rapid increases in the price of oil, and with the vast majority of oil reserve located in the Middle East the outcome of the unrest may have a detrimental effect on the rest of the world. Removing dictators who have ruled many Arad regions throughout the past may help bridge the gap between their way of live with the West. However, links with the US and several Royal families in power may result in further increases in the price of oil. If the protests or conflicts that can be seen in Libya, Yemen and Bahrain are to spread to Saudi Arabia there could be unfavourable knock on effects.
Despite the political unrest in regions with oil capacity, the viability and sustainability of further explorations are questionable. With the increase in the price of oil many areas could become viable for extraction, limitations of deeper water in more diverse locations may be overlooked due to the increase in return (BBC 14-6-2010). With aims by the UN to enforce reductions in carbon emissions investment in further exploitation of oil does not appear to be sustainable.
The current method of extracting oil from deeper locations has been questioned after the immense Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The BP oil platform resulted in an oil leek lasting 3 months from April 20 till On July 15 2010. The explosion initially killed 11 men working on the platform. The environment took the biggest setback, as up to 4.9 million barrels of oil was released affecting all marine life and activity along the surrounding coastlines. Beaches and tourism were later effected by the disaster and BP were forced to compensate US$ 20 billion to clean up the affected area and compensate for damages.
It is clearly not sustainable to continue to invest in the exploration of oil for the future at the current rates of demand. Alternative technologies must be used to supply energy to reduce the number of fossil fuel power plants and in turn reduce carbon emissions. It seems likely that oil will provide the majority of the energy required for transport for the next 5-10 years. Despite advancements in electric vehicles progress is slow and other than improvements in efficiency and cheaper reliable public transport, oil is the most viable transportation fuel.
Research into carbon sequestration may be an option and several oil companies are investing in this process. But there are a number of unknowns with extracting or containing the carbon from fossil fuels, along with many environmental concerns. It may delay the current problem of emissions but will simply delay it, therefore it is unknown if it is a sustainable option.
Nuclear power remains questionable due to the risks
Nuclear power has been seen as very risky by green political parties and NGO’s such as Greenpeace, who have protested for many years against the development of nuclear power plants. Using the ‘Green Movement’, a motion towards a green future, to inform and convince the general public of the ‘greenest’ forms of energy that should receive investment. The ‘Green Movement’ has argued the case for reducing carbon emissions for many years, and is now at the core of many political decisions. Despite this, many individuals previously at the front line of protesting against nuclear power, have now accepted that nuclear power is an option.
A programme on Channel 4 aired on November 4th called “what the green movement got wrong” interviewed Dr. Patrick Moore, who has been an outspoken member of the environmentalist movement for 30 years. He was a founding member of Greenpeace, taking part in their first ever protest against nuclear testing in the North Pacific. The successful shutting down of this operation was the first of many protests he took part in against nuclear power. Moore left Greenpeace in 1986, and in this programme controversially admits that the green movement was too stubborn in its fight against nuclear power, and in turn was wrong in doing so.
Protesters have used the two most widely reported nuclear disasters, Three Mile Island USA March 28, 1979 and Chernobyl Ukraine 26 April 1986, to demonstrate the possibilities of future disasters. Despite these attempts, many people realise the challenge of reducing carbon emissions in the short term, and that renewable energy technologies alone will not solve the problem. Therefore in the short term, only recently, it has been accepted that nuclear must be part of the mix to meet emission targets.
New nuclear plants have many backup features to reduce the using the experience gained from these disasters, reducing the future risk.
With spokespersons from different parts of the ‘Green Movement’ including politicians and leading members of Greenpeace agreeing that incorporating nuclear power into the energy mix is a possibility, public acceptance of nuclear power seemed to increase. It was agreed during the debate following the programme “what the green movement got wrong” that a number of uncertainties, such as waste fuel, its use, transportation and containment must be addressed. Interest in nuclear power in the Middle East has sparked great concern for possible terrorism (Financial Times 18-1-2011). With significant increases in demand for energy, nuclear seems to be the substitute for conventional fossil fuel methods, and with sufficient research and investment could be a viable option.
Despite the hard work carried out by many to change the publics perception of nuclear power much of the public have again altered their view. One of the most serious civil nuclear accidents in history has taken place in Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant. Reactor buildings have been rocked by explosions, caused after damage was sustained from a massive earthquake and tsunami on 11th March 2011. Much like the debates regarding Three Mile Island and Chernobyl, the information regarding emissions from Fukushima are not accurately known. Recently Japan’s Nuclear and Industrial Safety Agency raised the rating of the accident to 7, matching the 1986 Chernobyl disaster, after increasing radiation prompted the government to widen the evacuation zone and aftershocks rocked the country (Bloomberg 12-4-2011).
After a disaster of this magnitude it will be difficult to encourage investment in future nuclear power plants. However, Dr Melanie Windridge is a freelance science communicator and academic visitor in nuclear fusion research at Imperial College London, produced an article in the Guardian on the 4th of April, weighing up the risk of Fukushima. Dr Windridge puts the radiation risk of Fukushima in context by comparing it to natural radiation that would be experienced in Cornwall due to the bedrock. She also notes that the number of deaths due to the tsunami or the annual deaths as a result of fossil fuel power stations, are far worse than the risk of death as a result of Fukushima, currently none. This is a very harsh comparison or risk, none the less there has been no deaths as a result of the damage to the Fukushima nuclear power plant.
All of the nuclear power generated commercially to date is by fission, but an alternative method of generating nuclear power is fusion which is being explored. If fusion was possible than all concerns of nuclear waste would be omitted, fusion uses two hydrogen isotopes, deuterium and tritium which are abundant. It is believed that fusion will not be commercially operational for up to 50 years due to the many technical challenges to be overcome (Financial Times 18-1-2011). The International Thermonuclear Energy Reactor (Iter) is a partnership between the European Union, China, Japan, South Korea, the US, Russia and India, of a fusion project, which is located at Cadarache in the south of France.
This is one of the main fusion projects in the world, however there are many other smaller projects in the US, UK and Germany. There are two methods of fusion being researched using either lasers or superconducting magnets. Either method is not expected to be operational in the near future. A follow on project called Demo is expected to take Iter with a self-sustaining fusion reaction lasting at least 10 minutes and generating 500MW of energy, to a commercial stage supplying electricity into the grid. On the most optimistic timescale, Demo would come into operation in the 2030s and feed power into the grid around 2040.
Despite the bleak outlook of achieving power through nuclear fusion, CERN the European Organization of Nuclear Research have made a major step forward in capturing antimatter in the form of Hydrogen. An article in The Telegraph from 17th November 2010 reported that researchers from CERN claimed to have captured 38 atoms of anti-hydrogen trapped by scientists for one sixth of a second. This is seen as a quantum leap forward in understanding particle physics, and so it is a substantial milestone in the progression of nuclear fusion.
100 months to save the world
The United Nations Kyoto protocol expires next year, and there doesn’t seem to be a rush to renew the carbon curbing pledge (Tribune 16-4-2011). Despite this the EU still seems focused on 2020 targets, which are approximately 100 months away (BBC 9-4-2011). With the Kyoto protocol drawing to a close there should be a greater push on the next steps, as an increase in temperature by 2°C will result in severe weather conditions and a rise in sea levels (BBC 9-4-2011).
The delays in new protocols seems to be a result in the lack of agreement of both North America, India and China, this results in many other countries such as Japan and Russia continuing to reject future protocols (Carbon Positive 11-4-2011). If the worlds larger emitters continue to reject UN protocols then intermediate emitters will follow suit as any investment will have a negligible effect on the overall environmental conditions.
With many questions regarding the sustainability of investing in fossil fuels and environmental concerns regarding nuclear power, renewable energy seems to be the solution. Although renewable technology is carbon neutral, it does not mean that it is sustainable. To cut down on carbon emissions the energy mix must be approached for short term targets with long term goals in sight.
The renewable energy technologies that have been commercially developed and tested, are the key to short term targets. Wind, solar and bio-fuel have been developed and have all been linked to the grid effectively. Investing in these technologies on a much larger scale is required, however the viability and reliability of these technologies still remains questionable. Has a local investment in renewable technology, which has diminished their economic growth, resulted in a global environmental improvement? (Tribune 16-4-2011).
Despite the delays on a global scale, the EU seem focused on 2020 targets (BBC 9-4-2011), and are driving the renewable energy industry forward. The greater target of reducing emissions by 2050 must be put in context with the targets of 2020. For Europe to accomplish the target of each country producing 20% of its energy demand by a renewable source will require an increase of the renewable industry sevenfold (RES). Technologies that have been best developed include wind, solar and biofuel, these are the technologies that are receiving greatest investment. Other technologies such as wave and tidal have to many unknowns to become commercial in the short window by 2020.
In the long term new improvements in the wave and tidal technologies can have a substantial effect on future energy needs due to the increased density of energy that can be harnessed, energy per unit area (Prof. Barltrop Lecture Notes). Proposed investment in linking the electricity grid between EU countries could reduce the storage drawbacks of renewable technology (Friends of the supergrid). Also long term investment in biofuel would not be sustainable, due to the large uses of water. Despite biofuel technology being carbon neutral, it is not sustainable due to the large demand for water during its process. Long term investment in wind, solar, wave and tidal technologies do not require any fuel or water and so would be a sustainable approach to long term future energy demand.
Despite requirements for development of renewable technology to significantly increase, many developments have been achieved during the year. Improvements in the design of wind turbines has seen the design and commercial operation of a 7.5 MW turbine onshore yielding enough electricity to supply about 6,000 households (Renewable energy world 15-12-2010). Enercon launched the 7.5 MW E-126 turbine in January and expect it to yield 14 million kWh (Enercon). In addition to this Vestas have recently released a proposal for a 7MW turbine specifically designed for offshore use. The V164 is designed by Vestas and has been optomised for conditions in the North Sea. Vestas’ president for technology R&D states that this turbine will “provide the highest level of predictability, cost effectiveness and business case certainty”.
Developments in the wind energy industry similar to the ones done by Enercon and Vestas are driving the industry forward, and providing sustainable options to invest in to achieve the 2020 targets.
The exponential growth of technology is difficult to scale and it is difficult to predict how the renewable energy industry will develop in the coming years. However, just over 100 years ago the Wright sustained flight on December 17, 1903. This was the first successful, powered, piloted flight in history and it lasted 12 seconds (About.com). For seven years Mr Borschberg and Mr Piccard have worked on a project to fly a solar powered plane for 24 hours, and on the 7th of April 2010 the achieved their target (BBC 7-6-2010).
Figure 7. 24 hour solar flight
Future growth in technology cannot be predicted, none the less with development such as 24 hour solar flight and wind turbine output reaching power station capacities, are clear signs that improvements are being made. Future developments of carbon neutral power generating technology and improvements in energy efficiency will certainly assist in reaching future targets of a carbon neutral world.
2010 – 2011 Energy Summary
It appears that there is a paradigm shift occurring in the developed world towards a greener future despite the current reliance on fossil fuels. Increasing reports on the effects of carbon emissions and climate change, reports of the irregularity of numerous natural disasters occurring in a short space of time and changes in localised weather systems appear to effect public perception. Many obstacles must be overcome, mainly capital investment, to minimise climate change. However, local political and economic circumstances prevent global progression.
The cost of fossil fuels are expected to rise with increased demand and political unrest in the Middle East, yet investment in renewable technology still remains questioned. The rise in oil prices has affected the cost of living across the world and prices are expected to continue rising. With the price rising and capacity running out investment in either further exploration or new energy technology is required. However, with growing concern to reduce carbon emissions further investment in oil does not seem sustainable. Initial capital investment in renewable technology is difficult due to the economic crisis of 2008, conversely the long term benefits to the environment cannot be measured.
Views taken on nuclear power has drastically changed in recent years, with green political parties supporting minor investment in future nuclear power and the general public becoming more aware of the actual environmental impacts it presents. However, the Fukushima incident in Japan has portrayed nuclear to have very high risks. When the actual potential risk of nuclear power is put in context it seems that nuclear could be accepted as part of the future energy supply mix.
The main question with renewable energy is, viability. Given the financial crisis of 2008 it is clear that many countries are unable to invest in renewable energy despite an abundance of the resource. With increasing efficiency of device designs and when compared with the prices of alternative energy sources, it is hoped that investment in renewable technologies increases rapidly.
Political stances and public opinion on nuclear power plants and the viability of renewable energy will certainly shape the future. However a paradigm shift from a capitalist approach must alter to an environmental approach for any attempt at achieving a carbon neutral future.
By: Cian McKeown, Jakub Muraszko and Pepe Guillot
Reports, Paper articles and Web sites:
“Is there light and hope if you can’t pay your utility bills?” The Irish Times 15 January 2011
“Big freezes to become rarer in future” The Irish Times 1 Jan 2010
“Winter weather destroyed 50% of oat crop” The Irish Times, 28 January 2011
“Century-old Book of Khalid sheds light on Arab unrest” BBC, 9 April 2011
“Libya: Nato must do more, say France and UK” BBC, 12 April 2011
“Gaddafi sweats as wave of Arab unrest reaches Libya” The Independent, 17 February 2011
“ ‘Dozens killed’ in Tunisia protests” BBC, 11 January 2011
“How Democracy Can Work in the Middle East” Time Magazine, 3 February 2011
“A National Statistics Publication” DECC, March 2011
“China overtakes US as world’s biggest energy consumer” The Guardian, 3 August 2010
“Libyan unrest sends oil prices soaring to $124 a barrel” The Guardian, 8 April 2011
“Oil price hits two and a half year high” The Guardian, 4 April 2011
“World Bank to limit funding for coal-fired power stations” The Guardian, 4 April 2011
“Can ‘peak oil’ help slow climate change?” The Guardian, 1 April 2011
“What does the Arab world do when its water runs out?” The Guardian, 20 February 2011
“Oil industry ‘double checking’ deep drilling safety” BBC, 14 June 2010
“BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill: the crude facts of an oil disaster” The Telegraph, 4 May 2010
“Gulf of Mexico oil spill” BP.com
“Gulf of Mexico lawsuit fears hit BP share price” The Telegraph, 29 Mar 2011
“Now we’re getting to grips with Gulf of Mexico leak, says U.S. as clean-up cost rises to £860m” Daily Mail, 8 June 2010
“Has BP really cleaned up the Gulf oil spill?” The Guardian, 13 April 2011
“Brace yourself for the knock-on effect of higher oil prices” The Irish Times, 28 March 2011
“Can ‘peak oil’ help slow climate change?” The Guardian, 1 April 2011
“We can’t use it – so why the heck are we prospecting for new oil?” The Guardian, 27 September 2010
“Fear of nuclear power is out of all proportion to the actual risks” The Guardian, 4 April 2011
“Japan Raises Radiation Disaster Alert to Highest Level, Matching Chernobyl” Bloomberg, 12 Apr 2011
“What the Green Movement Got Wrong” Last on Channel 4, 4 November
“Antimatter captured by CERN scientists in dramatic physics breakthrough” The Telegraph, 17 November 2010
“Natural disasters?” The Guardian, 2 April 2011
“74 months and counting …” The Guardian, 1 October 2010
“Think energy efficiency isn’t working? Think again” The Guardian, 4 April 2011
“China tops global clean energy table” BBC, 29 March 2011
“Wind will power fossil fuel-free Denmark in 2050, report predicts” The Guardian, 29 September 2010
“Investment in US clean technology highest since 2008” The Guardian, 6 April 2011
“EU climate package explained” BBC, 9 April 2010
“UN climate change talks in Cancun agree a deal” BBC, 11 December 2010
“UN climate talks go backwards in Bangkok” Carbon positive.net, 11 April 2011
“The great climate debate: Bogus protocol …” Tribune (Pittsburgh), 16 April 2011
“Solar Impulse plane starts 24-hour test flight” BBC, 7 July 2010
“History of Flight – The Wright Brothers”
Agence France Presse (AFP) 5th March 2011 reported on AFP.com
“UK Renewable energy production falls for 2nd time in 2010”, The Guardian, 30 September 2010
Figure 10: http://www.planetski.eu/news/1840