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THE BALD FACTS OF ENERGY CONVERSION

(John C Vetterlein)

The Sun’s ancient energy stored in a pool of oil. (JCV 1986)

Our pleasures are the planet’s sacrifice. (JCV 2001)

Change is the currency of time. (Aphorisms: JCV 2014)

 

There are some fundamentals that need to be stated at the outset. Most of these should be obvious to any thinking individual, but when we look at human practices many of these assumptions are immediately called into question.

 

First, the word “renewables” is of comparatively recent origin. Renewable (regeneration or recyclable) in a biological context has some credence, outside of this the inference is illusory.

We inhabit a relatively small planet (mean diameter 12,735 km) of finite size and resources. Moreover, the Earth has to be considered something of a freak in that it offers the conditions in which living organisms could form and flourish. In terms of the “age” of planet Earth mankind’s occupancy of it has been very brief indeed. Even more brief to the point of insignificance has been the span of what might be termed the modern era encompassing commencement of the utilization of fossil fuels up to the present time.

Thus in the space of a few generations mankind’s impact on the planet and its immediate environs has accelerated at an alarming pace such that we must call into question how much longer we can prevail. Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal, tackled this very question in his book (2003) Our Final Century—Will the Human Race Survive the Twenty-first Century? (In my review of the book for Amazon I counter with: "Will the Planet Survive another Century of Human Endeavour? "Speaking as an all-round scientist myself (more accurately, a polymath) I would doubt it”.

And this brings me on to the most salient consideration of all, namely human population levels. Looked at simply in volumetric terms it should be obvious that we all take up space and that the space available to accommodate our bodies, let alone the paraphernalia with which we encumber ourselves, has to be looked at in terms of inhabitable surface area which is again finite. Put bluntly, we cannot expect to keep on multiplying in numbers without saturating the space available to us on planet Earth. (And let us rule out immediately any notion of inhabiting extra-terrestrial bodies.)

Human populations and living standards (for a minority) have increased proportionately to the exploitation of the Earth’s raw materials used in industry, with which we include the use of energy that, since the commencement of the so-called industrial revolution, emanates from the burning of fossil fuels. Energy from hydroelectric schemes, nuclear and “renewbles” (mostly from wind) are of more recent origin and still form a lesser proportion of our energy “needs”.

We can lump energy usage into two categories, namely static (industrial—factories, power plants, commercial—offices etc. and domestic—dwellings) and portable (transport—commercial, industrial and domestic).

Alternatives to fossil fuels for the first category are more readily adaptable than for the second. Coal was quickly found useful in steam generation from which steam could be produced and used for both categories. Typically, locomotion developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from steam formed from heating water (of which there is an abundance) initially from coal burning and later, oil. Oil was found to be more versatile than coal for locomotion in the form of the internal combustion engine from ignition (petrol) and ignition via compression (diesel). But coal may be used to produce combustible gases, which although not so convenient as oil, can still be used for locomotive vehicles.

So far we have only spoken of land (and water—ships) based vehicles, but with the development of aviation a whole new enterprise with a dependency upon fossil fuels has expanded into a global industry that would have been undreamt of less than a century ago.

As a species we have been far more concerned with the exploitation of our discoveries than with their consequences for the environment and hence their impact on our lifestyles. (Fracking engineers please take note.) It has always puzzled me how we could have had academics interested in history but with little regard for the future. Indeed, it is only within the past two decades that the notion of  induced climate change from human activity has received any credibility. Why, when in the late 1950s it appeared obvious to a 16-year-old schoolboy when given a project in the fifth form at school on petroleum to realise that something must happen in the way of reaction when fuels that have taken millions of years to form can be extracted and “burned” in the space of a few generations!

So, now let’s discuss in a little more detail our use of energy in relation to its production and availability.

The electricity we receive into our homes, factories and other buildings via the grid may be used in a variety of ways. The alternating current (as distinct from direct current as available from batteries) may be used to drive motors (fridges, freezers, vacuum cleaners etc.), power and function televisions, radios and computers; or it may be converted back into heat via space heaters, storage heaters and so forth.

Alternating current, unlike direct current, cannot be stored. That is why in our modern world it is deemed cheaper (though this may be challenged) to simply run highway lighting through the night. Hydroelectric pumped storage installations simply store water at altitude where it may be used at peak times to re-generate electricity. (The principle known as potential/kinetic energy conversion.)

The electricity for alternating current is derived via turbines which drive generators (giant dynamos). The energy required to turn the generators has traditionally been derived from fuels which in the burning thereof heats water converting it into steam. (Hence the term steam turbine.)

The most common forms of fossil fuels in current use are coal, oil and gas. (It remains to be seen, in Britain at least, how the shale gas industry will evolve.) The energy stored in fossil fuels is considerable. This means a relatively small quantity or mass of fossil fuel is capable of producing a significant amount of heat.

We may describe the above processes as chemico/physical reactions. In other words, the fuel undergoes change in the process of providing heat energy. Even more energy (and hence heat) may be derived from matter via nuclear reactions. The installation (power stations) used to make these conversions, although large, by no means litter our countryside.

Electricity derived from so-called renewables works on a different process altogether. The turbines are driven by the movement of water (hydroelectric and for the future, maybe, tidal and wave) or wind in the case of “Windmills”. (One should note that there is no milling involved, it is simply a benign description for a wind turbine.)

The source of energy for electrical conversion in the two latter is derived from the movement (kinetic energy) of a mass of water or air. Hydroelectric schemes have been with us for some time. Here the fall of water from a height drives the turbines. But, and it is a big BUT, the volume or mass of water required to produce an amount of electricity is considerable. Of course it also depends on the velocity at which the water moves.

Similar principles apply in the case of wind turbines. One is using the kinetic energy of a moving mass of air (the wind) to drive the turbine. Once again, a considerable mass of wind travelling at speed (though not too great as to damage the installation) is required to produce a significant amount of electricity. Therefore, to emulate an average size conventional power station will require a great number of large turbines. Likewise in the case of tidal, except that the movement of water in the oceans and seas is predictable. This is not the case with wind nor with wave power since the energy available will depend upon the state of the weather and the climate.

It could be argued in the case of wind that a source of electricity which depends upon the vagaries of the weather is far from satisfactory. The fact is that the technologies required for wind power are well advanced. And if we wish to continue along this route in the field of renewables then we must expect to cover large swathes of the countryside with wind turbines.

The "hidden costs”.

A power station, whether it be oil fired (as in the case of the now partly decommissioned establishment in Western Road, Kirkwall), coal fired, nuclear or in the form of wind turbines, is simply the visible face of electricity generation. The sight of perspiring, giant cooling towers, the arrays of rotating blades on the sky line of many a hill top or escarpment, may be aesthetically pleasing to some, a nightmare to others.

The overall cost to the environment of electricity generation are to be found in the procedures leading up to the actual generation or conversion process and beyond. Think of the impact on land and sea of oil and gas extraction, to say nothing of its transportation by pipeline or over the oceans in tankers. Think of the huge spoil heaps from coal extraction and so on. And of course, what all the debate is supposed to be about, the impact of burning fossil fuels in the first place.

The power from wind and water is at least delivered to the turbines by mostly natural processes, though there are manufacturing implications—wind turbines do not sprout from the ground as do mushrooms and toadstools, for example. Nor must we overlook the contribution to climate change from other activities, notably transport and aviation in particular, all of which are outdoing any contribution from “renewables” to redress the balance. There is always a price to pay for our activities no matter what they may be.

The font of all energy available to us on the Earth’s surface in some way or another has its roots in the Solar System itself. Our planet is but a small speck in the scheme of things. Yet we behave as if this platform on which we live is a limitless as space and time itself. It is a sober fact that in the period of a few generations we will have used much of the Earth’s resources that have taken literally millions of years to form.

The Sun is, as we have already mentioned and as most folk understand, the source of most of the energy utilized by we mere mortals inhabiting the Earth’s surface. It should therefore appear reasonable to tap into the Sun’s outpouring of energy more directly than by relying upon the stored energy via the process of photosynthesis (fossil fuels for example) etc.

The word “solar” has indeed now become synonymous with this very concept. In the pioneering days of the 1960s the emphasis was on heat storage via solar panels or other devices for trapping the sun’s radiant heat and converting it into thermal by heating water. My own early experiments here in Orkney during the 1970s concentrated on this aspect of energy conversion from the Sun.

More recently we have devised the means of converting radiant heat into electrical energy via the system known crudely as “voltaics” more correctly described as Photovoltaics (PV) . This has come about as an inevitable consequence from the development of interrelating technologies. There are two points to note in this regard. First the availability of the materials required for the construction of voltaic cells (panels), and second the conversion efficiency—what percentage of the incident energy is realised in the conversion process? This latter opens up a whole new field that could occupy us in endless discussion, namely waste in the broadest sense of the word. Fortunately there is now far more emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation (insulation) than there was just two decades back.

Our dependency upon the Sun is all-embracing and we take for granted, I think, that this immense power house will behave in a stable fashion for as long as may be necessary for our well-being. This is by no means guaranteed, as recent variations in the 11-year solar cycle have shown.

Readers will please note that I have excluded until now any mention of the military as either consumers of energy or pollution there from. Whether one should regard physical destruction as a form of pollution is worthy of debate, but it would appear that if we fail to suffocate ourselves through overpopulation, wars feature highly on the menu for our collective demise. But whatever your point of view it surely has to be acknowledged that unbridled “growth” is a recipe for disaster. That’s all!

*John Vetterlein was closely associated with the Centre for Alternative Technology, mid-Wales, during its formative years in the early 1970s and is a past solar energy conversion consultant. He is currently researching atmospheric pollution with special emphasis on metallic micro-particles.

 

 

And this brings me on to the most salient consideration of all, namely human population levels. Looked at simply in volumetric terms it should be obvious that we all take up space and that the space available to accommodate our bodies, let alone the paraphernalia with which we encumber ourselves, has to be looked at in terms of inhabitable surface area which is again finite. Put bluntly, we cannot expect to keep on multiplying in numbers without saturating the space available to us on planet Earth. (And let us rule out immediately any notion of inhabiting extra-terrestrial bodies.)

 

Human populations and living standards (for a minority) have increased proportionately to the exploitation of the Earth’s raw materials used in industry, with which we include the use of energy that, since the commencement of the so-called industrial revolution, emanates from the burning of fossil fuels. Energy from hydroelectric schemes, nuclear and “renewbles” (mostly from wind) are of more recent origin and still form a lesser proportion of our energy “needs”.

 

We can lump energy usage into two categories, namely static (industrial—factories, power plants, commercial—offices etc. and domestic—dwellings) and portable (transport—commercial, industrial and domestic).

 

Alternatives to fossil fuels for the first category are more readily adaptable than for the second. Coal was quickly found useful in steam generation from which steam could be produced and used for both categories. Typically, locomotion developed in the 19th and 20th centuries from steam formed from heating water (of which there is an abundance) initially from coal burning and later, oil. Oil was found to be more versatile than coal for locomotion in the form of the internal combustion engine from ignition (petrol) and ignition via compression (diesel). But coal may be used to produce combustible gases, which although not so convenient as oil, can still be used for locomotive vehicles.

 

So far we have only spoken of land (and water—ships) based vehicles, but with the development of aviation a whole new enterprise with a dependency upon fossil fuels has expanded into a global industry that would have been undreamt of less than a century ago.

 

As a species we have been far more concerned with the exploitation of our discoveries than with their consequences for the environment and hence their impact on our lifestyles. (Fracking engineers please take note.) It has always puzzled me how we could have had academics interested in history but with little regard for the future. Indeed, it is only within the past two decades that the notion of  induced climate change from human activity has received any credibility. Why, when in the late 1950s it appeared obvious to a 16-year-old schoolboy when given a project in the fifth form at school on petroleum to realise that something must happen in the way of reaction when fuels that have taken millions of years to form can be extracted and “burned” in the space of a few generations!

 

So, now let’s discuss in a little more detail our use of energy in relation to its production and availability. 

 

The electricity we receive into our homes, factories and other buildings via the grid may be used in a variety of ways. The alternating current (as distinct from direct current as available from batteries) may be used to drive motors (fridges, freezers, vacuum cleaners etc.), power and function televisions, radios and computers; or it may be converted back into heat via space heaters, storage heaters and so forth.

 

Alternating current, unlike direct current, cannot be stored. That is why in our modern world it is deemed cheaper (though this may be challenged) to simply run highway lighting through the night. Hydroelectric pumped storage installations simply store water at altitude where it may be used at peak times to re-generate electricity. (The principle known as potential/kinetic energy conversion.)

 

The electricity for alternating current is derived via turbines which drive generators (giant dynamos). The energy required to turn the generators has traditionally been derived from fuels which in the burning thereof heats water converting it into steam. (Hence the term steam turbine.)

 

The most common forms of fossil fuels in current use are coal, oil and gas. (It remains to be seen, in Britain at least, how the shale gas industry will evolve.) The energy stored in fossil fuels is considerable. This means a relatively small quantity or mass of fossil fuel is capable of producing a significant amount of heat.

 

We may describe the above processes as chemico/physical reactions. In other words, the fuel undergoes change in the process of providing heat energy. Even more energy (and hence heat) may be derived from matter via nuclear reactions. The installation (power stations) used to make these conversions, although large, by no means litter our countryside.

 

Electricity derived from so-called renewables works on a different process altogether. The turbines are driven by the movement of water (hydroelectric and for the future, maybe, tidal and wave) or wind in the case of “Windmills”. (One should note that there is no milling involved, it is simply a benign description for a wind turbine.)

 

The source of energy for electrical conversion in the two latter is derived from the movement (kinetic energy) of a mass of water or air. Hydroelectric schemes have been with us for some time. Here the fall of water from a height drives the turbines. But, and it is a big BUT, the volume or mass of water required to produce an amount of electricity is considerable. Of course it also depends on the velocity at which the water moves.

 

Similar principles apply in the case of wind turbines. One is using the kinetic energy of a moving mass of air (the wind) to drive the turbine. Once again, a considerable mass of wind travelling at speed (though not too great as to damage the installation) is required to produce a significant amount of electricity. Therefore, to emulate an average size conventional power station will require a great number of large turbines. Likewise in the case of tidal, except that the movement of water in the oceans and seas is predictable. This is not the case with wind nor with wave power since the energy available will depend upon the state of the weather and the climate.

 

It could be argued in the case of wind that a source of electricity which depends upon the vagaries of the weather is far from satisfactory. The fact is that the technologies required for wind power are well advanced. And if we wish to continue along this route in the field of renewables then we must expect to cover large swathes of the countryside with wind turbines.

The hidden “costs”.

 

A power station, whether it be oil fired (as in the case of the now partly decommissioned establishment in Western Road, Kirkwall), coal fired, nuclear or in the form of wind turbines, is simply the visible face of electricity generation. The sight of perspiring, giant cooling towers, the arrays of rotating blades on the sky line of many a hill top or escarpment, may be aesthetically pleasing to some, a nightmare to others.

 

The overall cost to the environment of electricity generation are to be found in the procedures leading up to the actual generation or conversion process and beyond. Think of the impact on land and sea of oil and gas extraction, to say nothing of its transportation by pipeline or over the oceans in tankers. Think of the huge spoil heaps from coal extraction and so on. And of course, what all the debate is supposed to be about, the impact of burning fossil fuels in the first place.

 

The power from wind and water is at least delivered to the turbines by mostly natural processes, though there are manufacturing implications—wind turbines do not sprout from the ground as do mushrooms and toadstools, for example. Nor must we overlook the contribution to climate change from other activities, notably transport and aviation in particular, all of which are outdoing any contribution from “renewables” to redress the balance. There is always a price to pay for our activities no matter what they may be.

 

The font of all energy available to us on the Earth’s surface in some way or another has its roots in the Solar System itself. Our planet is but a small speck in the scheme of things. Yet we behave as if this platform on which we live is a limitless as space and time itself. It is a sober fact that in the period of a few generations we will have used much of the Earth’s resources that have taken literally millions of years to form.

 

The Sun is, as we have already mentioned and as most folk understand, the source of most of the energy utilized by we mere mortals inhabiting the Earth’s surface. It should therefore appear reasonable to tap into the Sun’s outpouring of energy more directly than by relying upon the stored energy via the process of photosynthesis (fossil fuels for example) etc.

 

The word “solar” has indeed now become synonymous with this very concept. In the pioneering days of the 1960s the emphasis was on heat storage via solar panels or other devices for trapping the sun’s radiant heat and converting it into thermal by heating water. My own early experiments here in Orkney during the 1970s concentrated on this aspect of energy conversion from the Sun. 

 

More recently we have devised the means of converting radiant heat into electrical energy via the system known crudely as “voltaics” more correctly described as Photovoltaics (PV) . This has come about as an inevitable consequence from the development of interrelating technologies. There are two points to note in this regard. First the availability of the materials required for the construction of voltaic cells (panels), and second the conversion efficiency—what percentage of the incident energy is realised in the conversion process? This latter opens up a whole new field that could occupy us in endless discussion, namely waste in the broadest sense of the word. Fortunately there is now far more emphasis on energy efficiency and conservation (insulation) than there was just two decades back.

 

Our dependency upon the Sun is all-embracing and we take for granted, I think, that this immense power house will behave in a stable fashion for as long as may be necessary for our well-being. This is by no means guaranteed, as recent variations in the 11-year solar cycle have shown.

 

Readers will please note that I have excluded until now any mention of the military as either consumers of energy or pollution there from. Whether one should regard physical destruction as a form of pollution is worthy of debate, but it would appear that if we fail to suffocate ourselves through overpopulation, wars feature highly on the menu for our collective demise. But whatever your point of view it surely has to be acknowledged that unbridled “growth” is a recipe for disaster. That’s all!

 

*John Vetterlein was closely associated with the Centre for Alternative Technology, mid-Wales, during its formative years in the early 1970s and is a past solar energy conversion consultant. He is currently researching atmospheric pollution with special emphasis on metallic micro-particles.

 

The "flattened" Sun
 
The Sun just one arc-degree (centre of disc) above the horizon at 03h 18m UT June 29th 2010, imaged from Rousay.
 
The polar flattening is due to refraction caused by the Earth’s atmosphere. When close to the horizon, an object appears at a slightly greater elevation than its true or geometrical altitude. Since the Sun, as seen from Earth, has a diameter of approximately one-half arc-degree, the lower limb appears to be at a significantly greater elevation to the horizon than top limb.
 
Note the sunspot, bottom left. (See: "Solar" section.)
 
(JCV)
 

 

We at LIX produce a number of postcards, A5 folded cards and similar material. Some examples are to be found on the PHOTOGRAPHIC page.

Wild Garden. Springfield, Rousay, late June 2008 photo: John Vetterlein

Subjects include:

Birds

Boats

Buildings

Flowers & Plants

Islands

 

People

Seascapes

Skies

 

 

 

All images: John C Vetterlein

 

 

 

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