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Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons – Stephen Peake

by Venky

(Image Credit: http://www.energiesmagazine.com)

Remember the basic photosynthesis equation that was drilled into your heads at school? I didn’t, until I laid my hands on Stephen Peake’s “Renewable Energy: Ten Short Lessons”. A Senior Lecturer at the Open University, Senior Associate of the Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership, Peake in this short, but necessary book, provides a bird’s eye view of the nature, relevance, urgency and future of renewable energy as our world grapples to come to grips with the looming spectacle of climate change.

 Abhorring jargon and techspeak, Peake juxtaposes wit with wisdom as he lays out ten fundamental chapters dealing with various forms of renewable energy, the costs involved in harnessing them and the potential benefits expected to emanate from them. The book opens with a mesmerizing Chapter containing the imaginative heading “There’s No Such Thing As Energy”. Peake leads his readers on an expedition that travels back in time to understand man’s quest to identify and understand the concept of energy. This is the Chapter that introduces the reader to the easy, pleasing on the eye, and witty narrative employed by Peake. For instance, he informs us that the Dutch philosopher Christiaan Huygens observed a form of kinetic energy that is produced when two objects collide. While Huygens called this phenomenon calculatrix, Peake helpfully informs us that the phrase has nothing to do with a character from Asterix

Handholding an intrepid, albeit apprehensive reader, Peake strives to ally trepidations by resorting to examples and illustrations that are elementary and easy to grasp. While explaining the insidious effects of fossil fuel burning, Peake writes that what we humans are doing with our indiscriminate use of fossil fuels represents a brazen and dangerous ‘interference’ with the earth’s natural carbon cycle. Adding relatively large quantities of carbon di-oxide to the atmosphere in an abnormally short period of time, causes a veritable carbon “traffic jam” in the atmosphere. For a 100-billion tonne pulse of carbon that is emitted, carbon di-oxide levels will remain roughly 25 billion tonnes higher after a thousand years. This is because after a few decades of such emission, the oceans would have absorbed up to 60 billion tonnes and the land about 15 billion tonnes.

The world fortunately seems to be waking up to the ominous prospects of global warming. There is a frenzied rush to go solar as country after country is embarking on the establishment of gigantic solar farms capitalizing on the decreasing cost of Photovoltaic Cells. For example, the Pavagada and Bhadla Solar Farms in India are spread over 53 and 57 square kilometres respectively and are capable of generating up to 2245 MW of Solar Power.

Another potential avenue to replace the travails of traditional reliance on fossil fuels is to yoke the mighty energy released by winds. Due to extraordinary improvements in turbine technology, both offshore and onshore wind farms are sprouting up across continents. The North Sea boasts the world’s largest wind farm. Hornsea One derives enough energy to run a humongous 1  million households in the UK. Situated at a distance of 120kms from the coast of Yorkshire, the wind farm is powered by 174 × 7 MW turbines. The swept area of each blade, according to Peake, ‘is larger than the London Eye’! However as Peake enlightens his readers, the primary hurdle in utilising wind energy is a low “return on energy” ratio. The process of converting one source of energy into another itself involves expending energy. In other words energy has to be invested in order to produce energy. This is commonly known as Energy Return On Energy Invested Ratio (EROEI). The EROEI ratio for wind over two decades (lifetime) has declined from approximately 20:1 in the beginning of the millennium to as low as 15:1 of late.

Peake ends his book with a very thought provoking chapter on the need for reimagining energy. He emphasizes that all of us have a significant role to play for humanity as a whole to succeed in adhering to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s pledge on maintaining the global temperature at around 2 degree Centigrade above pre-industrial levels. In this Chapter, we read of ingenious phrases such as the ‘negawatt’. Coined by former Zayed Future Energy Prize finalist Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, negawatt represents a watt of energy that you have not used through energy conservation or the use of energy-efficient products. A chore as simple as not turning on a switch when it is absolutely not necessary might be negawatt enabling. The United States for example, wastes 61% – 86% of the energy it generates. In layman terms, the country wastes more of the energy that it generates than it actually uses. And this is completely discounting the incredible amounts of energy that is wasted in households and businesses.

The négaWatt association, an NGO think tank based in France recommends innovative solutions to reduce air pollution, greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion. It is manned by roughly twenty experts in energy issues and enjoys the patronage of more than 1,200 individuals.

“Renewable Energy – Ten Short Lessons”, a timely and appropriate peek into the methods that may ultimately protect our Planet.

And yes, before I end the formula for Photosynthesis is : 6CO2 + 6H2O + light energy = C6H12O6 + 6O2 (Six carbon dioxide molecules and six water molecules react to produce one glucose molecule and six oxygen molecules).

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