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Renewable energy through the ages

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The wind, the sun, steam, waves and organic materials were the first forms of energy that humans ever knew. The power of nature has accompanied mankind through the centuries but was cast aside as an energy source when fossil fuels – oil, gas and coal – started to prosper. Yet today, renewable energy is essential for the Earth and the future survival of our species.

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

Before coal became widely available and convenient in the 19th century, the majority of energy came from cleaner sources: firewood for heating, wind to drive ships and water and wind to power mills.

It is often said that we have to ‘move on’ and make room for progress. Oil and gas-powered ships and machines might have replaced those fuelled by the wind or water, but looking at the enormous technological leaps forward – turning a simple windmill into a wind turbine, for example – it is impossible not to be grateful for what nature gives to us for free.

Do we already have the answer to our energy needs and are pretending not to see it? This potted history of renewable energy suggests we may do.

Biomass

Biological material from living organisms is probably the most ancient source of energy, dating back to 400,000 BC. Despite being clean and accessible, biomass energy has changed significantly over the years, as our energy needs changed.

Humans went from burning wood and straw in stoves to growing crops and forests and using them for fuel, which many argue is unsustainable. However, some other forms of biomass, such as getting power from organic waste from food or crops through anaerobic digestion are rapidly becoming popular among energy firms and are seen also as an effective way to send less waste to landfill. 

Hydro

Used in ancient Egypt and later by the Romans, water has historically been used to power watermills. Such activity was said to have boosted local economies, with major economic centres developed around water sources throughout history.

Humanity quickly understood that water could be used in many forms, whether this was streams, tides or waves. The world’s first hydroelectric facility appeared in Appleton, Wisconsin, in 1881 and shortly after, hydro energy became economically viable in the US and the first dams were built.

Today, hydropower, including wave and tidal energy, accounts for about 16% of global electricity consumption. 

Wind

The power of the wind is what has allowed humans to cover long distances and discover previously unexplored land on ships. Greek engineer Heron of Alexandria is said to have been the first to build a wheel powered by the wind to run a machine, back in the 1st century AD.

In the Middle Ages, windmills appeared all over Europe and Asia, proving to be more effective than watermills at times, as they could stay functioning throughout the winter, whilst watermills would stop if the water froze over.

The construction of the first windmill to generate electricity dates back to 1887, when Glasgow professor James Blyth installed a small turbine in the garden of his holiday cottage, but it wasn’t until the early 1900s that the technology started to become economically viable.

Development in Denmark and the US allowed the concept to grow and improve, and in 1941, the first megawatt-size wind turbine was built in Vermont. In the 70s, when the oil crisis hit, wind power started to become seen as central to a new energy system – one not based exclusively on fossil fuels. In 2010, wind energy accounted for 2.5% of worldwide electricity usage and this figure is expected to rise to 8% by 2018, according to the World Wind Energy Association.

Solar

The first solar or photovoltaic (PV) cell was invented by Charles Fritts in the 1880s. Two decades earlier in 1860, French inventor Augustine Mouchot had already seen the enormous energy potential of the sun, testing  a solar-powered steam generation system to power industrial machinery.

Solar technology suffered a period of cooling-off as fossil fuels, especially coal and oil, thrived in the 20th century and its use on private properties was rare.However, the oil embargo and energy crisis in the 70s gave a boost to research and new development.

PV installations have grown around 50% per year since 2000, also thanks to the falling cost of the technology. Solar farms and solar rooftops are now being supported in most places around the world, promoted for their relative competitiveness and the crucial role they play in providing energy security and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. 

Geothermal

Geothermal energy is generated from the heat that lies beneath the Earth’s surface. Its use to warm places or baths dates back to the Palaeolithic era, but it wasn’t until 1892 that the first geothermal heating district opened in Boise, Idaho.

Within a few years, the facility was able to power 200 homes and 40 local businesses. In 1904, the first geothermal power generator was tested in Larderello, Italy, and was successfully used to light four bulbs. The US later passed the Geothermal Steam Act in 1970, to encourage the production of geothermal power on a large scale and is currently in fact the world’s largest producer.

This form of energy has been proved clean, cost-effective and profitable in many countries – particularly volcanic ones such as New Zealand, Iceland and the Philippines.

Despite being limited to certain areas where extraction of geothermal power is viable, the share of electricity coming from this source has increased notably since the late-1990s, especially in developing countries, according to the International Geothermal Association.

Photo: Joseph Hart via Free Images

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Further reading:

Renewable energy accounted for 15% of UK electricity in 2013

Anaerobic digestion deserves its time in the spotlight

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

Foreign investment in UK renewable energy projects on the rise

The Guide to Sustainable Clean Energy 2014

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Responsible Energy Investments Could Solve Retirement Funding Crisis

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Energy Investments
Shutterstock / By Sergey Nivens | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/nivens

Retiring baby-boomers are facing a retirement cliff, at the same time as mother nature unleashes her fury with devastating storms tied to the impact of global warming. There could be a unique solution to the challenges associated with climate change – investments in clean energy from retirement funds.

Financial savings play a very important role in everyone’s life and one must start planning for it as soon as possible. It’s shocking how quickly seniors can burn through their nest egg – leaving many wondering, “How long will my retirement savings last?”

Let’s take a closer look at how seniors can take baby steps on the path to retiring with dignity, while helping to clean up our environment.

Tip #1: Focus & Determination

Like in other work, it is very important to focus and be determined. If retirement is around the corner, then make sure to start putting some money away for retirement. No one can ever achieve anything without dedication and focus – whether it’s saving the planet, or saving for retirement.

Tip #2: Minimize Spending

One of the most important things that you need to do is to minimize your expenditures. Reducing consumption is good for the planet too!

Tip #3: Visualize Your Goal

You can achieve more if you have a clearly defined goal in life. This about how your money can be used to better the planet – imagine cleaner air, water and a healthier environment to leave to your grandchildren.

Investing in Clean Energy

One of the hottest and most popular industries for investment today is the energy market – the trading of energy commodities. Clean energy commodities are traded alongside dirty energy supplies. You might be surprised to learn that clean energy is becoming much more competitive.

With green biz becoming more popular, it is quickly becoming a powerful tool for diversified retirement investing.

The Future of Green Biz

As far as the future is concerned, energy businesses are going to continue getting bigger and better. There are many leading energy companies in the market that already have very high stock prices, yet people are continuing to investing in them.

Green initiatives are impacting every industry. Go Green campaigns are a PR staple of every modern brand. For the energy-sector in the US, solar energy investments are considered to be the most accessible form of clean energy investment. Though investing in any energy business comes with some risks, the demand for energy isn’t going anywhere.

In conclusion, if you want to start saving for your retirement, then clean energy stocks and commodity trading are some of the best options for wallets and the planet. Investing in clean energy products, like solar power, is a more long-term investment. It’s quite stable and comes with a significant profit margin. And it’s amazing for the planet!

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Energy

What Should We Make of The Clean Growth Strategy?

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Clean Growth Strategy for green energy
Shutterstock Licensed Photo - By sdecoret | https://www.shutterstock.com/g/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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