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Microscopic hydroelectrics and space-based solar: the renewable energy of the future



Going beyond wind turbines and solar panels, into the realms normally left to science fiction, what might be the clean energy technologies of the next generation?

This article originally appeared in Blue & Green Tomorrow’s Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014.

The phrase renewable energy is synonymous with wind farms, solar panels, hydroelectric damns and – increasingly – bioenergy plants. But these are far from the only sources of clean power. In fact, some believe that it is not these familiar forms that will deliver the world to its low-carbon salvation, but the next generation.

This may be missing the point – the most important solutions to climate change and resource exhaustion are surely the ones we have, the ones that work now, the ones that might not turn out to be pie in the sky pursuits. Nonetheless, the appeal of some renewable energy pipedreams has endured through the decades, and it is easy to see why.

The loosely defined next generation of renewables includes things like geothermal sources, advanced energy storage technology but also more weird and wonderful ideas, ranging from mind-bogglingly small hydroelectric systems to colossal space stations. The question is, how realistic are these ideas and could they actually change the world?


Graphene. What can’t it do? The wonder material continues to fascinate scientists around the world, having only been discovered in 2004 at the University of Manchester. It is the strongest material known to exist, though it is only one atom thick. It is remarkably pliable, almost transparent and an excellent conductor of electricity and heat.   

In 2013, the EU made available a €1 billion grant to researchers investigating the potential uses of graphene, saying it could become as important as steel or plastics. Much of the excitement has focused on the possibility of making advanced, lightweight and superfast electronics, but other potential applications are many. Bill Gates’s philanthropic foundation has even paid for the development of a graphene-based condom.

Now, scientists believe the magical material can also revolutionise renewable energy. Researchers from the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics in China recently revealed that dragging small droplets of salt water along strips of graphene generates electricity.

The faster they dragged the droplet across the graphene strip, the higher the voltage they generated. Scaling up the experiment, the scientists found that placing a droplet of copper chloride on a tilted graphene surface generated a voltage of approximately 30 millivolts (mV) – a millivolt being one thousandth of a volt.

Though much more research is needed, the scientists say these nano-sized generators could power small devices. It is also believed that graphene could make batteries far more suitable for high capacity energy storage, potentially solving renewable energy’s biggest dilemma and helping sustainable power sources finally rival fossil fuel plants for stability and reliability.

Nuclear fusion

Its status as a renewable energy source may be contentious, but nuclear fusion theoretically offers carbon-free and, most significantly, risk-free clean energy.

Modern day nuclear reactors are powered by nuclear fission, where the nuclei of atoms split into smaller parts. Nuclear fusion, the same process that takes place in the hearts of the stars, occurs when two atomic nuclei fuse to form a heavier nucleus.

Controlling a nuclear fusion is the tricky part. An uncontrolled nuclear fusion is essentially a hydrogen bomb. Fusion reactors are many years from becoming anywhere near ready for commercial operation, but their promise is such that researchers around the world have dedicated their lives to the cause.

A fusion reactor would enjoy many advantages over conventional alternatives. While technically not limitless, fusion fuel – primarily the abundant deuterium – supplies would last for millions of years, and likely longer than civilisation itself. They would also be incredibly efficient, generating more energy for a given weight of fuel than any modern day technology. It has been estimated that one kilogram of fusion fuel could provide as much energy as 10 million kilograms of today’s fossil fuels.

Unlike fission reactors, with fusion reactors there would be no possibility of a devastating leak of radioactivity. Fusion only takes place in very specific circumstances, at a precise temperature and pressure and only within certain magnetic field parameters. This means that if a fusion reactor were to lose control, reactions would cease before any leak could occur.

However, some experts are concerned that the billions spent on researching nuclear fusion could be poured into more tangible renewables instead, bringing guaranteed benefits in the short-term. By the time nuclear fusion is ready to save the world, it may already be too late.

Space-based solar power

There are some weird and wonderful ideas in the world of clean technology, but none are quite so out of this world as the concept of space-based solar power.

It sounds like the domain of science fiction, and indeed, it is. Though the idea was not discussed academically for another two decades, in 1941, the iconic sci-fi writer Isaac Asimov set his short story Reason aboard a space station that beamed power to Earth in the form of microwaves. Since then, however, many governments and researchers have given the concept of space-based solar power installations serious thought. 

Theoretically, the system would be composed of three parts: a geostationary satellite colleting solar energy in space, some form of technology that could beam the energy down to Earth – a microwave or laser – and an antenna to gather the energy on the planet’s surface. All of the required technology does not yet exist, but some experts are optimistic.

Such projects would bring many advantages. In space, the sun’s energy is uninterrupted by obstacles such as the atmosphere and clouds, and would be available 24 hours a day. It’s always sunny in space. Therefore, space-based solar panels would be able to harness substantially more energy than their equivalents on Earth.

Serious progress has been thwarted by a number of difficulties, however, and many studies across the decades have concluded that while space-based solar power is technically possible, it remains economically impossible. The cost of such a mission would be huge, requiring many space launches and a terrestrial receiver many kilometres in diameter. There are also safety concerns – such a large satellite would be vulnerable to impacts from the manmade space debris that litters the heavens and would be incredibly difficult to repair.

But the fascination with space-based solar power refuses to die. Japan’s space agency recently shared a roadmap for space-based solar power, announcing its ambitions to make the fantastical concept a reality within 25 years.

The country now seems to be the leader in the space (pun not intended), motivated by a desperate need for clean energy alternatives in the wake of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011. The scale of investment required means no one nation can achieve space-based solar alone, but perhaps Japan can be the catalyst – the leader to finally realise the mad ambitions of so many scientists and the outlandish dreams of Isaac Asimov.

Photo: NASA via Wikimedia Commons

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Further reading:

Financing the future of renewable energy

Green ‘energy duck’ to bring clean, solar energy to Copenhagen

Renewable energy through the ages

Poll: UK voters think renewable energy is best way to secure energy supply

The Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014


What Should We Make of The Clean Growth Strategy?



Clean Growth Strategy for green energy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By sdecoret |

It was hardly surprising the Clean Growth Strategy (CGS) was much anticipated by industry and environmentalists. After all, its publication was pushed back a couple of times. But with the document now in the public domain, and the Government having run a consultation on its content, what ultimately should we make of what’s perhaps one of the most important publications to come out of the Department for Business, Energy and the Industrial Strategy (BEIS) in the past 12 months?

The starting point, inevitably, is to decide what the document is and isn’t. It is, certainly, a lengthy and considered direction-setter – not just for the Government, but for business and industry, and indeed for consumers. While much of the content was favourably received in terms of highlighting ways to ensure clean growth, critics – not unjustifiably – suggested it was long on pages but short on detailed and finite policy commitments, accompanied by clear timeframes for action.

A Strategy, Instead of a Plan

But should we really be surprised? The answer, in all honesty, is probably not really. BEIS ministers had made no secret of the fact they would be publishing a ‘strategy’ as opposed to a ‘plan,’ and that gave every indication the CGS would set a direction of travel and be largely aspirational. The Government had consulted on its content, and will likely respond to the consultation during the course of 2018. And that’s when we might see more defined policy commitments and timeframes from action.

The second criticism one might level at the CGS is that indicated the use of ‘flexibilities’ to achieve targets set in the carbon budgets – essentially using past results to offset more recent failings to keep pace with emissions targets. Claire Perry has since appeared in front of the BEIS Select Committee and insisted she would be personally disappointed if the UK used flexibilities to fill the shortfall in meeting the fourth and fifth carbon budgets, but this is difficult ground for the Government. The Committee on Climate Change was critical of the proposed use of efficiencies, which would somewhat undermine ministers’ good intentions and commitment to clean growth – particularly set against November’s Budget, in which the Chancellor maintained the current carbon price floor (potentially giving a reprieve to coal) and introduced tax changes favourable to North Sea oil producers.

A 12 Month Green Energy Initiative with Real Teeth

But, there is much to appreciate and commend about the CGS. It fits into a 12-month narrative for BEIS ministers, in which they have clearly shown a commitment to clean growth, improving energy efficiency and cutting carbon emissions. Those 12 months have seen the launch of the Industrial Strategy – firstly in Green Paper form, which led to the launch of the Faraday Challenge, and then a White Paper in which clean growth was considered a ‘grand challenge’ for government. Throughout these publications – and indeed again with the CGS – the Government has shown itself to be an advocate of smart systems and demand response, including the development of battery technology.

Electrical Storage Development at Center of Broader Green Energy Push

While the Faraday Challenge is primarily focused on the development of batteries to support the proliferation of electric vehicles (which will support cuts to carbon emissions), it will also drive down technology costs, supporting the deployment of small and utility-scale storage that will fully harness the capability of renewables. Solar and wind made record contributions to UK electricity generation in 2017, and the development of storage capacity will help both reduce consumer costs and support decarbonisation.

The other thing the CGS showed us it that the Government is happy to be a disrupter in the energy market. The headline from the publication was the plans for legislation to empower Ofgem to cap the costs of Standard Variable Tariffs. This had been an aspiration of ministers for months, and there’s little doubt that driving down costs for consumers will be a trend within BEIS policy throughout 2018.

But the Government also seems happy to support disruption in the renewables market, as evidenced by the commitment (in the CGS) to more than half a billion pounds of investment in Pot 2 of Contracts for Difference (CfDs) – where the focus will be on emerging rather than established technologies.

This inevitably prompted ire from some within the industry, particularly proponents of solar, which is making an increasing contribution to the UK’s energy mix. But, again, we shouldn’t really be surprised. Since the subsidy cuts of 2015, ministers have given no indication or cause to think there will be public money afforded to solar development. Including solar within the CfD auction would have been a seismic shift in policy. And while ministers’ insistence in subsidy-free solar as the way forward has been shown to be based on a single project, we should expect that as costs continue to be driven down and solar makes record contributions to electricity generation, investment will follow – and there will ultimately be more subsidy-free solar farms, albeit perhaps not in 2018.

Meanwhile, by promoting emerging technologies like remote island wind, the Government appears to be favouring diversification and that it has a range of resources available to meet consumer demand. Perhaps more prescient than the decision to exclude established renewables from the CfD auction is the subsequent confirmation in the budget that Pot 2 of CfDs will be the last commitment of public money to renewable energy before 2025.

In short, we should view the CGS as a step in the right direction, albeit one the Government should be elaborating on in its consultation response. Its publication, coupled with the advancement this year of the Industrial Strategy indicates ministers are committed to the clean growth agenda. The question is now how the aspirations set out in the CGS – including the development of demand response capacity for the grid, and improving the energy efficiency of commercial and residential premises – will be realised.

It’s a step in the right direction. But, inevitably, there’s much more work to do.

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How Much Energy Does Bitcoin Use, Really?



how much energy bitcoin requires
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By Chinnapong |

Many headlines have capitalized on the rapid rise of Bitcoin’s value. However, there’s a darker side of things that may entirely escape people’s awareness — the vast energy usage associated with Bitcoin mining. The practice involves adding information about transactions to a publicly accessible record called the blockchain.

Bitcoin miners increase the amounts of the cryptocurrency they own by being involved in mining. That means there is a built-in incentive to start mining and keep doing it. The energy consumption associated with mining may not be as visible as it is in traditional types of mining because everything happens in the digital realm — however, it’s exceptionally high, which is a cause of concern to many individuals in the know.

The Rise in Value Brings About Higher Energy Consumption

It’s not hard to find impressive headlines and news stories about how the value of Bitcoin has soared over the last few months. Many people even suspect they’ll soon witness the inevitable burst of a “Bitcoin bubble.” Miners are taking advantage of the current boom, though, which involves depending on power-sapping computers and related equipment.

In the early days of Bitcoin, it was possible to mine on basic home computer setups. Now, the most dedicated miners invest in the best computers around. In some cases, that means the machines they use are quite energy efficient, which is a good thing. However, the purchase of equipment that uses electricity well isn’t enough to make a significant dent in the overall Bitcoin energy usage.

The Approximate Energy Usage Statistics Vary

When you start doing in-depth research about just how much energy consumption Bitcoin demands, be prepared to come across many different figures. Although people are doing diligent research, they still can’t reach an agreement. For example, according to statistics from the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, the annual energy usage is just under 32 terawatt hours.

That’s the estimate for per-year energy use of Serbia and more than 150 other countries. However, analysts find it impossible to reach a unified conclusion about the per-transaction energy consumption for Bitcoins.

Figures from Digiconomist estimate one Bitcoin transaction takes 255 kilowatt-hours of power — or enough to power an American household for more than eight days. Marc Bevand, another analyst, disagrees with that figure, though his remarks on the matter are not as specific. He discusses how many of the highly publicized statistics fail to account for the technological innovations that occur as equipment improves.

He gives the example of an S9, which is a standard piece of Bitcoin equipment, claiming 16% of the S9’s revenues went towards electricity costs. If that figure is more accurate, it would mean each Bitcoin transaction uses enough power to keep an American residence going for just under four days.

Bitcoin Miners May Be Able to Branch Out From Cryptocurrency

Some Bitcoin miners are attracted to their trade for more reasons than just the lucrative and ballooning prices of the coins. People from a wide variety of industries, from banking to insurance, are looking at uses for blockchain technology. In the insurance sector, fraud costs $40 billion per year, but the verification method that miners understand and work with dramatically reduces fraud and makes blockchain appealing to insurance professionals.

Also, banks are increasingly researching Blockchain as a supplement to their current methods. As the prominence in the market goes up, the allure of being a Bitcoin miner does, too.

Also, going back to Bitcoin specifically, as the value of each coin goes up, people become more motivated than ever to invest in better technologies that help them remain profitable for as long as possible. When all these factors combine, it’s not hard to understand why energy consumption rises.

Do Banks Use More Energy Than Bitcoins?

Some analysts argue that even if the energy demanded by Bitcoins is exceptionally high, it’s still not at the level of energy used by banks. To keep things in perspective, it’s important to realize that the banking industry keeps its total energy usage figures under wraps, leaving people to do lots of speculating.

One analyst determined there are approximately 30,000 banks in the world, and each one has ATM networks, offices and other components that require electricity. When adding all the relevant factors together, the final figure this individual came up with is that banks use about 100 terawatts of power per year, less than the earlier-cited figure related to Bitcoins.

However, people have given opinions that the amount is too conservative. It does not include the energy used by bank employees, such as when employees drive to their offices or fly to meet clients. It bears mentioning, though, that the Bitcoin figures mentioned in this piece probably don’t either.

There are countless statistics about Bitcoin energy usage, and most of them are not promising. But instead of reading a few of them and immediately feeling shocked, it’s important for people to take a broad look at the findings and reach their own intelligent conclusions based on the collective research.

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