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Category — Alternative Energy Sources

Norway fails to tap new Arctic oil and gas

Alex Kirby

Melkoya

Melkøya gas plant, 110km south of Statoil’s latest Arctic drilling site. Image: Joakim Aleksander Mathisen via Wikimedia Commons

The Norwegian company conducting some of the most northerly drilling operations in the world admits that it has failed so far to find commercially exploitable hydrocarbon reserves in the high Arctic.

Statoil, the Norwegian state-owned company, has announced that it has failed to find commercial quantities of oil and gas in the Barents Sea this year.

The Arctic remains one of the oil industry’s most promising exploration areas. The US Geological Survey says a large part of the world’s remaining hydrocarbon resources − perhaps as much as a quarter of its reserves − is thought to lie in the high northern latitudes of Russia, Norway, Greenland, the US and Canada.

Statoil hoped to find oil in the three test wells it drilled this summer in the high northern Arctic, having made finds in the area in 2011 and 2012. [Read more →]

August 13, 2014   No Comments

Hydropower illuminates a piece of history

Alex Kirby

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Cragside mansion, which pioneered the use of hydroelectricity in 1878. Image: National Trust

A British conservation charity has turned to technology thousands of years old – the Archimedes screw − to provide electricity for lighting one of the historic mansion houses it looks after. 

Hydropower is making its return to one of the UK’s grand houses, which almost 140 years ago pioneered the use of water to provide electricity.

A modern version of an ancient device, the Archimedes screw, has been installed at the Cragside mansion, in north-east England, to harness the power of a stream in the grounds and provide lighting for the house − which in 1878 became the first in the world to be lit by hydroelectricity, provided by a turbine.

The new system, a galvanised turbine 17 metres long, will produce enough energy to light the 350 bulbs in Cragside, although not enough to power its computers, freezers, fridges and heaters. It will generate about 12kw of electricity − enough, over a year, to provide the property with around 10% of its electricity.

Cragside was built by the 19th-century inventor and innovator, Lord Armstrong, who used the lakes on his land to generate hydroelectricity. It is now in the care of the National Trust, the charity responsible for conserving historic houses and countryside across England, Wales and Northern Ireland (a separate body does the work in Scotland). [Read more →]

July 31, 2014   No Comments

Boom-or-doom riddle for nuclear industry

Paul Brown

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Doubling up: solar panels at a nuclear power plant in the Czech Republic. Image: Jiří Sedláček (Frettie) via Wikimedia Commons

The nuclear industry remains remarkably optimistic about its future, despite evidence that it is a shrinking source of power as renewables increasingly compete to fill the energy gap. 

The headline figures for 2014 from the nuclear industry describe a worldwide boom in progress, with 73 reactors presently being built and another 481 new ones either planned or approved.

The World Nuclear Association (WNA) official website paints a rosy picture of an industry expected to expand dramatically by 2030. It says that over the period 1996 to 2013 the world retired 66 reactors, and 71 started operation. Between now and 2030, the industry expects another 74 reactors to close, but 272 new ones to come on line.

This represents a much larger net increase in nuclear electricity production than the basic figures suggest because most of the newer power stations have a bigger capacity than those closing down. [Read more →]

July 29, 2014   No Comments

Hot rocks are a core asset

Paul Brown

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Bright future: a geothermal power plant near Iceland’s Krafla volcano. Image: Asgeir Eggertsson via Wikimedia Commons

New engineering techniques mean that hot rocks in the Earth’s crust are second only to hydroelectric schemes as the most productive source of renewable energy, with huge potential to cut greenhouse gas emissions

Many countries with volcanoes have long used hot rocks and steam to generate electricity, but new engineering methods promise a boom in geothermal energy.

The deeper you drill into the Earth’s crust, the hotter the rocks get − and the heat that is radiating upwards from the core of the planet is constantly replaced. Japan, Iceland, Italy, New Zealand and the US, among other nations with volcanoes and hot underground water, have long exploited this for generating electricity and heating.

But now engineers have found that they do not need to look for naturally-occurring hot water. They can inject cold liquids into the hot rocks and bring it back to the surface through a second borehole to generate electricity. Unlike other renewables that can be variable, the hot rocks produce constant power 24 hours a day. [Read more →]

June 17, 2014   No Comments

Grass is greener for biofuels future

Tim Radford

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Fields of dreams: switchgrass, a coarse native plant, flourishes in America. Image: Lynn Betts/USDA NRCS via Wikimedia Commons

A genetically-engineered bacterium developed by scientists in the US can produce ethanol biofuel from coarse, wild-growing switchgrass, rather than using vital food crops such as maize

Scientists in the US claim they have developed a simple, one-step process that turns plant tissue into biofuel. A genetically-engineered bacterium can convert switchgrass into ethanol directly, without any expensive pre-treatment with enzymes to break down the cellulose fibres into something suitable for fermentation.

Biofuel is already big business in the US, with 13.3 billion gallons of ethanol delivered for vehicle fuel in 2012. It represents a carbon-neutral form of fuel, which is good, but not so good is that much of it has been converted from maize, a food crop requiring vast tracts of agricultural land that may one day be better used to produce food.

However, researchers at the University of Georgia at Athens report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that their new microbe, called Caldicellulosiruptor bescii, can not only convert biomass cellulose to sugars, but also turn the sugars to ethanol for fuel. [Read more →]

June 10, 2014   1 Comment

Oil companies take trillion-dollar gamble

 Paul Brown

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Wasteland: the unrehabilitated site of a former shale oil mine in Estonia. Image: Hannu via Wikimedia Commons

Financial experts warn investors that their money is being used by oil companies for high-risk extraction projects on the dubious assumption that oil prices will go on rising, and with little or no regard for climate change factors

Investors are being urged to warn oil companies that they are risking trillions of dollars in exploiting oil fields that will probably never be profitable − and to consider selling their shares if the companies fail to listen to them.

A report out today from the Carbon Tracker Initiative, a not-for-profit organisation of specialists who assess climate risk in today’s financial markets, says it was surprised to find that many of the investments by oil companies were financially dubious − even without taking into account climate change factors.

To justify the high capital costs of extracting oil from shale deposits, oil sands, ultra-deep sea sites and Arctic regions, the companies are making assumptions that the price of oil of will rise and stay high. [Read more →]

May 9, 2014   No Comments

Round-the-clock solar power arrives

Paul Brown

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The Gemasolar plant near Seville: Pointing the way ahead? Image: Courtesy of DESERTEC Foundation

With the help of some clever engineering, the power of the Sun can now keep electricity turbines running however cloudy it may be, both night and day.

Solar power’s greatest drawback has always been that it is intermittent and, even in the sunniest climes, peak electricity demand is frequently in the evening when the Sun is going down.

The engineering challenge has been to design a system in which enough of the Sun’s heat can be stored to produce full power continuously even on cloudy days – and better still, all night.

Many different designs have been tried, but finally a commercial plant in Spain seems to have cracked the problem, and as a result has won an award from a panel of independent judges.

The Gemasolar plant near the Spanish city of Seville, built by Torresol Energy, can store enough heat to operate for 18 hours at full capacity without any additional power from the Sun. For many months of the year it can run for 24 hours a day.

The plant is small by power station standards, producing 20 megawatts of electricity – enough for 25,000 homes, reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 30,000 tonnes a year.

It has 2,650 mirrors, known as heliostats, which cover an area of 185 hectares. These train the Sun’s rays onto a central tower, where they heat molten salt to more than double the boiling point of water. More heat is produced than is needed for maximum power, so the surplus is stored in molten salt tanks until it can be used during cloudy periods or at night. [Read more →]

May 2, 2014   No Comments

Space technology aids water power

 Paul Brown

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Windsor Castle, for centuries home to British monarchs, now enjoys hydropower from the nearby River Thames. Image: Peter Trimming via Wikimedia Commons

The vast unused potential of one renewable energy source, run-of-the-river hydropower, is being unlocked from space.

Space technology is to be used to help engineers make the most of humanity’s oldest form of renewable energy production, water power.

There is vast potential for run-of-the-river hydropower schemes that use the natural flow of water to produce power without large-scale works. There are many thousand former mill sites around the world where the water power is still there but no longer utilised.

Many schemes are in operation – for example Queen Elizabeth II supports a turbine in the River Thames that powers her home, Windsor Castle – but many viable smaller-scale schemes have not been implemented.

The problem is that on-the-ground surveys, and in some countries complex planning rules, make investigating sites so expensive that it deters small-scale investors. Now a system has been developed using satellites and aircraft to measure the volume and fall of water and to decide whether schemes are viable without having to deal with bureaucracy.

In England the University of Leicester will work with a British company, High Efficiency Heating UK Ltd, (HEH), with interests in renewable energies in order to locate the best sites to deploy micro-hydropower turbines. They have been granted £120,400 for a ten-month scheme to identify the best site in a river for power generation. [Read more →]

April 26, 2014   No Comments