During this month, August 2005, we have seen the highest oil prices, as well as early signs of accelerated global warming as gases are starting to be released from the carbon sinks of the Siberian permafrost.This summer’s UK Government statistics reveal that our use of carbon based fuels increased by 10% since 1990. There was an 8% fall in global warming gases during that period, but this was mainly due to reductions in UK manufacturing and the substitution of coal by natural gas which has a lower carbon content.A Government spokesman said this summer that proposals for restricting carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere may have to be revised, as we may already be approaching the safe limit. We need to switch investment from fossil fuels to indigenous, renewable energy sources, hydrogen and fuel cells, in order to avoid problems of energy security and possible dangerous climate change.
As the UK’s oil and gas resources run down, we can continue to be self-sufficient in energy if we introduce efficiency measures in combination with energy conversion technologies for indigenous, renewable fuels. Would it be possible to replace the massive quantities of oil, gas and nuclear energy we are currently using with energy from sun, wind, waves, energy crops and waste?
Energy in buildings
Let us start with buildings, and over the next few decades replace gas boilers with combined heat and power (CHP) units which would provide all our electricity and heat from the same quantity of fuel which at present provides only heat. We are at present wasting the vast quantity of heat produced in central power stations because it is uneconomic to transport it, although it would be sufficient to heat every building in the country.Further huge amounts of energy are lost due to poor building standards.
The electricity generated in a CHP unit would have a higher value than nuclear energy because the system is flexible enough to provide electricity at times of peak demand, or when solar and wind power are unavailable. Hydrogen fuel cells are particularly attractive for CHP because they are extremely efficient, quiet and clean.
Equally, we could provide all our electricity from solar panels.Even in the UK there is sufficient daylight to meet the entire UK electricity demand.Globally, there is more than enough wind power to provide for all the world’s electricity, heat and transport needs. Government support has concentrated upon massive grid connected wind turbines but British engineers are developing unobtrusive micro wind turbines, up to 30 ft high, which generate electricity on site.On sunny or windy days the surplus electricity can provide hydrogen to power a fuel cell CHP system. This can be supplemented by energy from waste food, energy crops, agricultural and forestry residues and ground source heat pumps,river and tidal flows.Planning consent was given in July for one of the first such ventures in the UK, to install turbines in the river Thames to provide electricity for Windsor Castle.
Fuel for transport
The waste in an average city could provide fuel for about 15% of its transport needs and farmers could supplement their income with energy crops. Electricity from offshore wind and wave could provide hydrogen for vehicles. There is tremendous potential for solar panels on garage roofs, both in the UK and for export. It is estimated that in many countries 50m2 of panels would provide sufficient hydrogen for 11,000 miles of driving per annum. Efficient transport systems could be utilised, for instance the Ultra Light Rail system developed in Bristol would require only a tenth of the fuel cells needed to power a conventional fuel cell bus of similar capacity.
What is holding back fuel cells?
People’s perception of new technology is negative and choices are limited because innovative engineers have great difficulty bringing new products to market.
There is public misunderstanding of hydrogen, which is the least damaging form of energy, causing no air pollution or global warming. The use of hydrogen will overcome the problem of intermittency of supplies from sun and wind and help to ensure long term energy security. All fuels must be treated with care, but after years of testing, the major motor manufacturers find that hydrogen is at least as safe as petrol for road vehicles. In the UK, hydrogen was formerly used extensively by the public, as it formed about 50% of town gas before natural gas became available.
Although Governments support R & D, investment continues to go largely into fossil fuels rather than conservation measures or new energy technologies. Government funds generally go to the established energy industries. Huge wind turbines support the existing electricity grid rather than local energy production. The renewables obligation only helps systems which contribute electricity to the national grid, not stand alone fuel cells. The remit of energy suppliers is to sell more, not less fuel, and this does not favour highly efficient fuel cells. Governments back global vehicle manufacturers rather than innovative British developers of cheaper hybrid systems.
Indigenous fuels, stored where necessary in hydrogen fuel cell systems, could provide for the UK’s future energy needs but only if we are prepared to change our investment from fossil fuels to new energy technologies. This summer representatives from industry explained to the Government that they need the certainty of more long term policies in order to plan for major investments.
Start generating your own electricity!
Begin with energy conservation and replace your fossil fuel boiler with a CHP unit as soon as possible, preferably using a fuel cell powered by renewable energy. Costs will soon become competitive with conventional technologies once volume production gets underway. Hydrogen could also be used to power vehicles which would benefit from zero fuel tax and vehicle duty and would not be subject to the congestion charge in London. Fuel Cell Power invites local authorities, builders, financiers, energy suppliers and private individuals to join us and start building new, efficient and secure energy infrastructures.