The Economics of Renewable Energy - Economic Affairs Committee - Contents


New forms of renewable energy and improvements to existing technologies such as wind would help cut carbon emissions. A long term prospect sometimes discussed is the possibility of importing electricity generated from panels of solar photovoltaic cells placed in the Sahara desert. Another possible development in the Sahara is solar thermal power. Steel and glass mirrors would capture energy from the sun to boil water with the resulting steam used turning turbines to generate electricity. Algeria is reported to be building an experimental solar thermal power plant 400 miles south of Algiers which could open next year.[62] One of the key difficulties with both ideas would be transmitting the electricity over the huge distance from the Sahara to consumers in Britain. The Institution of Engineering and Technology argued such projects had long term potential for North Africa with energy being exported to continental Europe but were not suitable for the UK. Another possibility might be to use solar generated electricity to obtain hydrogen which could then be shipped to the UK (and other countries) as a transport fuel.

Researchers are also examining ways to improve wind power, a relatively well-established form of renewable generation. Norwegian oil company StatoilHydro is testing technology that would enable offshore turbines to float instead of having to plant them on the seabed. If the tests are successful turbines could then be used in much deeper water where the stronger wind is more consistent. More power could then be generated which could help bring down the cost per unit of electricity of offshore generation which is currently higher than that of the more widely used onshore turbines.

As outlined in Chapter 5 a heat technology that could be developed in the future is the injection of biomethane that can be injected into the gas grid. Biogas—a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide—is first produced by bacteria breaking down organic material such as food waste in the absence of oxygen through a process called anaerobic digestion. The carbon dioxide is then removed from the biogas to leave biomethane. Some European countries have already begun injecting biomethane into their gas grids but the Government's renewable energy consultation document says such technologies require more innovation before they can be deployed in the UK. The Government has contributed £10m towards the construction of new anaerobic digestion plants.

In transport, scientists are developing 'second generation' biofuels. First generation biofuels—which are in commercial production today—are made from the parts of plants that could otherwise be used as food such as wheat grain and sugar cane. But second generation bio-fuels—which are not yet available on a commercial scale—would be made using parts of plants not used for food or whole plants that are not suitable for food. Other possible avenues include electric cars, which are not yet widely available, and hydrogen powered vehicles, which are still in development. While both use electricity they could count as renewable technologies if they use renewable sources of power. Furthermore, as outlined in Chapter 5, such vehicles could store electricity which would help ease the problems of intermittency associated with most forms of renewable power generation.

62   The Economist, The Future of Energy, June 19, 2008  Back

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