Engineering: Powering the Future ; Engineers Are at the Forefront of Finding Ways to Harness Renewable Energy Sources. by Steve McCormack

By McCormack, Steve | The Independent (London, England), May 19, 2005 | Go to article overview
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Engineering: Powering the Future ; Engineers Are at the Forefront of Finding Ways to Harness Renewable Energy Sources. by Steve McCormack


McCormack, Steve, The Independent (London, England)


It hardly got a mention during this general election, but by the time the next election comes round, the issues surrounding power generation are likely to be unavoidable. One fact alone will concentrate minds. The UK has committed itself to providing 10 per cent of its electricity from renewable power sources, such as wind, wave and sun, by the year 2010. Currently less than three per cent comes from such sources.

The driving force behind this commitment is the growing concern over the environmentally damaging effects of burning fossil fuels. And, regardless of the outcome of the debate on increasing Britain's nuclear power contribution " sure to provoke controversy in its own right " the pressure to provide new and renewable sources of cleaner and more efficient energy is bound to increase.

The encouraging news is that numerous projects are underway with the potential to meet this commitment. But there remain sensitive questions of viability and public opinion. In both areas, engineers will be at the forefront of the efforts to make the technologies work cost-effectively, and to help win over any doubters. But what all businesses need to assist them in all these areas is the confidence of being backed by public policy- makers.

'The main thing needed by the renewable energy industry,' explains Matthew Leach, senior lecturer at Imperial College's Centre for Energy Policy and Technology, 'is long-term security of policy, to give them confidence to invest in developing new energy sources.'

The Government has already gone some way to meeting that need, by adopting what's called the Renewables Obligation, which provides substantial market incentives for eligible methods of power generation. And, given time, says Leach, renewable energy will be able to stand its ground and survive under open market conditions.

'There is a lot of research showing that all technologies go through a scaling-up effect and learning effect that, in time, leads to substantial cost reduction.'

An example of a technology in the early stages of this process is the photovoltaic (PV) version of solar energy, where the sun's rays shining on flat panels containing semiconductors are converted into electricity. One of the leading companies in this sector, Solarcentury, is growing fast. They've already installed several hundred PV-lit bus shelters and roadside ticket machines. And their PV panels are beginning to appear on the roofs and sides of public and commercial buildings, including the CIS tower in Manchester, the largest solar power project in the UK.

Generous grants covering installation costs are currently available for PV, but there's some way to go before the technology is both efficient and cheap enough to be able to have a potential large-scale application.

Water-related power is far more established. In fact the first hydroelectric power stations, which tap the energy accumulated when a large head of water is artificially contained in a man- made reservoir, have been around for over half a century. And the energy from fast flowing rivers has also been harnessed successfully, creating power on a smaller scale.

But if water is really going to make a substantial contribution, wave and tidal power will have to provide large amounts of energy.

In fact the Government-funded Carbon Trust, which helps business and public bodies reduce their carbon emissions, has frequently identified these two areas as key to the future of the UK's future power needs.

The movement of waves at sea has long been identified as a potential source of renewable energy, but so far, no projects have got anywhere near reaching commercial viability. That might change, though, if one project, off the Scottish coast, develops as expected.

The Pelamis Wave Energy Converter, produced by Ocean Power Delivery, is an articulated, semi-submerged, sausage-like structure, about 120m in length and 3.

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