Energy and Engineering – the future of UK power

The brewing UK energy crisis will not have escaped your notice, and neither will it avoid your bank account. Many UK homes are beginning to feel the ‘squeeze’ as energy firms raise their prices. Compared to this time last year, gas market prices are about 9 times higher and energy bosses believe that price hikes will continue throughout 2022 which is likely to spell trouble for factories and businesses and contribute to cost inflation across the UK economy.

Why do we have an energy crisis?

In the mid-1960s, the UK was a big producer of gas. But this output has steadily fallen since 2000, but usage continues to rise. We now import more than half of our gas from Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium and also transport large quantities of LNG (Liquid Natural Gas) by ship from countries like Qatar. With an emphasis on more sustainable fuel sources, the UK has moved away from fossil fuels and there is a heavy focus on more sustainable solutions which rely on the weather; the wind needs to blow, and the sun needs to shine. All well and good for the environment, but not for a country that is still so heavily dependant on gas. 

The UK has a lack of gas storage facilities, hence why we buy large quantities on the wholesale market. A cold winter last year globally sent demand soaring and stores were depleted. Calmer weather reduced the amount of electricity generated by wind power and then there is the political stranglehold that Russia holds over Europe through restricting gas exports. Add into that an increase in demand from countries such as China who are being pushed to move away from coal and now are rivals for the same LNG supplies we rely on from Qatar, and the perfect ‘gas’ storm has occurred. 

What is the solution for the UK?

Emma Pinchbeck of trade body Energy UK says that Long term, the solution is more energy efficiency. We need to reduce methane gas in homes by switching away from gas boilers and diversifying our power sector, so we are less reliant on geopolitics and the gas market and more reliant on offshore wind and nuclear and hydrogen power sources. And that is everything that we are aiming for in our bid to be carbon neutral by 2050. But how far away from achieving this ‘ideal’ carbon-neutral state are we?

In March 2021, Carbon Brief declared that the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions were 51% below 1990 levels meaning that we are now halfway to meeting our net-zero target of 2050. Great strides have been made in a short period of time. We know that the sale of ICE vehicles will be banned from 2030, which will help us greatly, but emissions from gas boilers are still very high with little progress being made in this area to create a suitable electric replacement solution, and as we have seen above, if the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, we won’t have the energy we need to heat our homes and run our industries.

What are the solutions for the UK’s energy sources going forward?

Renewable energy sources are most certainly the solution. But the key to securing enough affordable, low-carbon energy is more storage to make the most of the renewable energy available. Here are four long-range energy storage options which could help:

Gravity storage: An engineering breakthrough could let UK hills store and release energy like larger dams and reservoirs. Hydropower has acted as a form of energy storage in the UK for decades. The principle is simple: electricity is used to pump water upwards into a reservoir when the market has ample power available. When electricity supplies become tight the water can be released at short notice to flow over a generating turbine to create electricity for the grid to use. Engineers believe they could unlock hundreds of potential sites across the UK, which would be quicker and cheaper to build than traditional hydropower dams. By using a mineral-rich fluid, which has more than two-and-a-half times the density of water, projects could generate the same amount of electricity from slopes that are less than half as high.

Concentrated solar power storage: inthe Nevada desert US engineers have already begun pioneering new technology which stores energy generated by renewables as heat. The Crescent Dunes project uses the heat of a vast solar farm, concentrated using mirrors, to heat molten salt to temperatures of up to 560C. The salt can maintain this temperature until electricity is needed. Then, the heat is used to run a conventional steam turbine which generates enough electricity to power 75,000 homes long after the sun has set. Concentrated solar power is typically stored for between five to 15 hours, according to the IEA, more than three times the capacity of traditional lithium-ion batteries.

Green hydrogen: Green hydrogen made from water and renewable energy is expected to boom as governments plan to replace the fossil fuels used in power plants, factories and heavy transport with this clean-burning, green alternative. But green hydrogen can also be used as a form of energy storage. Electrolysers used to produce green hydrogen can be powered by renewable energy sources such as the wind and sun. At the moment, if there is too much wind or sun, the UK’s electricity system operator has been forced to pay renewable energy developers to switch off their wind turbines or solar farms to avoid overloading the grid with green electricity. Using this ‘excess power’ to run electrolysers and create green hydrogen could help countries make better use of their wind and solar farms.

‘Cryogenic’ batteries:Within the coming months one of the world’s biggest liquid air, or “cryogenic”, batteries will begin operating near Manchester in the UK after its developers promised it could help store renewable energy for weeks rather than hours. The project aims to use renewable electricity to chill air to -196C, transforming it into a liquid that could be stored in large metal tanks for weeks. When needed, the liquid can be turned back into gas, and used to turn a turbine and generate enough electricity to power up to 200,000 homes for five hours.

 

While we may not be anywhere near a solution to the energy crisis we currently face, you only have to scratch the surface of the internet to find that there are incredible engineering projects being carried out all over the world to bring us one step closer to becoming a more sustainable world where heating our homes, businesses, schools and factories needn’t break the bank. 

 

Information sources:

https://www.newscientist.com/article/2303699-energy-crisis-what-can-the-uk-government-do-to-help-cut-fuel-bills/

https://www.theguardian.com/business/2022/jan/10/heres-how-to-solve-the-uk-energy-crisis-for-the-long-term-store-more-power

https://www.carbonbrief.org/analysis-uk-is-now-halfway-to-meeting-its-net-zero-emissions-target

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