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An introduction to sustainable energy
An introduction to sustainable energy

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1 Why sustainable energy matters

One of the greatest challenges facing humanity during the twenty-first century must surely be that of giving everyone on the planet access to safe, clean and sustainable energy supplies.

Throughout history, the use of energy has been central to the functioning and development of human societies. But during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, humanity learned how to harness the highly-concentrated forms of energy contained within fossil fuels. These provided the power that drove the industrial revolution, bringing unparalleled increases in affluence and productivity to millions of people throughout the world. As we enter the third millennium, however, there is a growing realisation that the world's energy systems will need to be changed radically if they are to supply our energy needs sustainably on a long-term basis.

This introductory overview aims to survey, in very general terms, the world's present energy systems and their sustainability problems, together with some of the possible solutions to those problems and how these might emerge in practice during the twenty-first century.

The world's current energy systems have been built around the many advantages of fossil fuels, and we now depend overwhelmingly upon them. Concerns that supplies will 'run out' in the short-to-medium term have probably been exaggerated, thanks to the continued discovery of new reserves and the application of increasingly-advanced exploration technologies. Nevertheless it remains the case that fossil fuel reserves are ultimately finite. In the long term they will eventually become depleted and substitutes will have to be found.

Moreover, fossil fuels have been concentrated by natural processes in relatively few countries. Two-thirds of the world's proven oil reserves, for example, are located in the Middle East and North Africa. This concentration of scarce resources has already led to major world crises and conflicts, such as the 1970s 'oil crisis' and the Gulf War in the 1990s. It has the potential to create similar, or even more severe, problems in the future.

Figure 1
Figure 1 Oil wells on fire in Kuwait during the Gulf War in 1990–91

Substantial rises in the price of oil also can cause world-wide economic disruption and lead to widespread protests, as seen in the USA and Europe in 2000.

Figure 2
Figure 2 Tanker drivers block the entrance to a UK refinery in September 2000, to protest against high fuel prices

The exploitation of fossil fuel resources entails significant health hazards. These can occur in the course of their extraction from the earth, for example in coal mining accidents or fires on oil or gas drilling rigs.

Figure 3
Figure 3 A fire on the Piper Alpha gas rig in the North Sea in 1988 killed 167 people

They can also occur during distribution, for example in oil spillages from tankers that pollute beaches and kill wildlife; or on combustion, which generates atmospheric pollutants such as sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen that are detrimental to the environment and to health.

Figure 4
Figure 4 An oil spillage from the Exxon Valdez tanker in 1989 contaminated 2100 km of beaches in Alaska and caused extensive harm to wildlife. The cost of cleanup was estimated at some $3 billion

Fossil fuel combustion also generates very large quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), the most important anthropogenic (human-induced) greenhouse gas. The majority of the world's scientists now believe that anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions are causing the earth's temperature to increase at a rate unprecedented since the ending of the last ice age. This is very likely to cause significant changes in the world's climate system, leading to disruption of agriculture and ecosystems, to sea level rises that could overwhelm some low-lying countries, and to accelerated melting of glaciers and polar ice.

Figure 5
Figure 5 Rising sea levels due to global warming could overwhelm some low-lying nations, such as Tuvalu, a group of nine coral atolls in the Pacific
Figure 6
Figure 6 Rising global temperatures have already caused significant melting of ice around the North Pole, which is now accessible to ships at certain times of the year. This does not affect global sea levels, since most Arctic ice is floating. But if ice at the South pole, much of which is based on land, were to melt, this would cause very substantial rises in sea levels

Nuclear power has grown in importance since its inception just after World War II and now supplies some 7 per cent of world primary energy. A major advantage of nuclear power plants, in contrast with fossil fuelled plants, is that they do not emit greenhouse gases. Also, supplies of uranium, the principal nuclear fuel, are sufficient for many decades – and possibly centuries – of supply at current use rates. However the use of nuclear energy, as we shall see, gives rise to problems arising from the routine emissions of radioactive substances, difficulties of radioactive waste disposal, and dangers from the proliferation of nuclear weapons material. To these must be added the possibility of major nuclear accidents which, though highly unlikely, could be catastrophic in their effects. Although some of these problems may be amenable to solution in the longer-term, such solutions have not yet been fully developed.

Extracting energy from fossil or nuclear fuels, in the course of providing energy-related services to society, generates significant environmental and social impacts. These impacts are greater than they need be because of the low efficiency of our current systems for delivering energy, converting it into forms appropriate for specific tasks, and utilizing it in our homes, machinery, appliances and vehicles. An important way of mitigating the environmental impacts of current fuel use is therefore to improve the efficiency of these systems. Over the past few decades, significant efficiency improvements have indeed been made, but further major improvements are feasible technologically – and are, in many cases, attractive economically.

Of course, not all energy sources are of fossil or nuclear origin. The renewable energy sources, principally solar energy and its derivatives in the form of bioenergy, hydroelectricity, wind and wave power, are increasingly considered likely to play an important role in the sustainable energy systems of the future. The 'renewables' are based on energy flows that are replenished by natural processes, and so do not become depleted with use as do fossil or nuclear fuels – although there may be other constraints on their use. The environmental impacts of renewable energy sources vary, but they are generally much lower than those of conventional fuels. However, the current costs of renewable energy sources are in many cases higher than those of conventional sources, and this has until recently retarded their deployment.

All these considerations suggest that in creating a sustainable energy future for humanity during the coming decades, it will be necessary:

  1. to implement greatly-improved technologies for harnessing the fossil and nuclear fuels, to ensure that their use, if continued, creates much lower environmental and social impact;

  2. to develop and deploy the renewable energy sources on a much wider scale; and

  3. to make major improvements in the efficiency of energy conversion, distribution and use.

These three general approaches will be explored further, and in greater detail in the remaining sections of this course.