Tag: energy policy

The 4 most common myths about renewables

Renewables make up more of the world’s energy mix than ever before. And yet, misconceptions about these new or alternative technologies – such as biomass, solar and wind – are common.

Some of these concerns are – for the time being – partly justified, some completely subjective, and some are demonstrably wrong. Here’s a closer look at the most pervasive myths and what truth there is behind them.

Renewables are unpredictable

An oft-repeated misconception is that renewables aren’t a full-time solution to our power needs. It’s true that solar isn’t generated at night and wind turbines don’t operate in still weather, but the canon of renewables is bigger than its two most well-known technologies.

Tidal power still depends on environmental factors, but tides are much more predictable than wind or sunlight. For countries lucky enough to have ready access, geothermal power – which uses heat from the earth’s core to power generators – is even more reliable.

Biomass solutions, such as compressed wood pellets, are a fuel-based power source, meaning they are flexible so can be used to generate electricity on demand and operate as a base-load power option, much like coal or gas. At Drax Power Station renewable electricity is generated on demand using compressed wood pellets and delivered to the National Grid 24-hours-a-day.

Now, thanks to advances in weather forecasting, the National Grid can plan ahead to balance the system with other renewable and low carbon technologies when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. Just a few years ago the primary fall back was relying on coal power stations to pick up any slack.

It might not be possible to power the world entirely with one renewable source, but the right mix of technologies could provide an answer to the question of how to ensure a stable and secure low carbon energy supply.

Heavenly Scene Stormy Skies

Renewables are expensive

There is some truth in this, but it’s important to note that these costs are falling. Many of the high costs associated with renewables have been down to a lack of infrastructure investment.

A number of the components required in construction of structures like wind turbines and solar panels are expensive. And, as many renewable facilities need to be located in different areas to existing traditional facilities, extensive power grid extension is often needed. But these are problems that once set up, should bring down the costs of renewables such as solar and wind.

Setting up biomass-powered facilities is considerably cheaper. Compressed wood pellets can be used in upgraded coal power stations, so there’s no need for expensive new connections to the high-voltage electricity transmission system.

There are even ways renewables could bring about cheaper power for consumers. Research commissioned by Drax and published by NERA Economic Consulting and Imperial College London found that, if the same government support offered to some renewable technologies (i.e. wind and solar) were open to all (such as biomass), consumers could see potential savings of £2 billion on their energy bills.

Renewables are ugly

While this isn’t necessarily an opinion shared by everyone, it is one that is often cited. Onshore wind farms often draw the most ire, but they aren’t alone. Large investments are being made in offshore wind farms, which are both more discrete and better positioned to take advantage of stronger offshore currents.

And hydropower projects like dams and tidal barrages can in the long term create whole new habitats, ecosystems and leisure facilities in the form of artificial lakes and surrounding forests.

Nobody uses renewables

In 2015, 99% of Costa Rica’s electricity came from renewable sources, including hydro, geothermal, wind, biomass and solar. Closer to home, Sweden draws more than 50% of its electricity from renewable sources, including 22% from bioenergy – 90% of which comes from forestry.

In the UK, renewables use is steady and rising, accounting for 25% of all electricity generated domestically in 2015. In the first half of 2016, 20% of the UK’s renewable power was supplied by Drax. Contrast those figures against coal, which in the UK declined from supplying 30.8% of UK power needs in Q1 2015 to just 15.8% in Q1 2016, and our increasing use of renewables is even more evident.

Consumers have been buying 100% renewable electricity tariffs from companies such as Good Energy for more than a decade. Businesses are increasingly getting in on the act too. Two thirds of the power generated by Drax in the first half of 2016 was sold directly to companies via Drax Group’s business electricity supplier, Haven Power.

And with campaigns such as RE100 challenging the world’s biggest firms to commit to renewable-only power, household brands such as Ikea, M&S and Google are either already 100% renewable or only a few years away.

Misconceptions about renewables will remain as long as we’re still in the transition out of fossil fuel use. But the industry has made huge strides from where it was just 10 years ago.

Thanks to better, more affordable technology, an increasingly friendly corporate sector, and a greater awareness of environmental issues at large, these products and services will continue to improve, grow and increasingly becoming more mainstream.

How does Europe use biomass?

Family on summer Senja coast (Norway, polar day)

At the heart of Norse folklore is a figure called Yggdrasil that connects its nine worlds and gods. It’s an immensely important and holy icon, but it is not a god itself – it is an ash tree.

That the central figure of mythical Scandinavian cosmology should be something as humble as a tree is no surprise, Scandinavia is a heavily forested region. Sweden, the largest country in the area, is more than 68% forest. Wood is an inherent part of life there. For thousands of years it’s been used as a resource and a fuel, and today is no different.

Throughout much of Europe the same is true. But, while historically wood was used only for cooking, heating and light, today its use as a form of energy also includes generating electricity and heat when formed into compressed wood pellets.

Europe and wood pellets

Nearly 22 million tonnes (Mt) of wood pellets were used in the European Union in 2015, making the region the leading wood pellet consumer in the world. It is also the world’s leading producer, creating roughly half of the world’s global output – largely from European trees.

A report from the Standing Forestry Committee, set up to represent the forestry industries in EU countries, found that just 4% of the woody biomass used in the EU was imported.

Of the 22Mt used across Europe, 10.5Mt was used for heating, while 11.5Mt was used for industrial uses like fueling power plants. But in the UK, the level of wood used for fuel falls some way behind EU averages. Thanks in large part to Drax and its transition from coal to renewable wood pellet-powered electricity generation, that’s changing, but the UK still has a way to go to catch the continental average.

Where is the UK falling behind and how is wood being used to power the rest of the continent? Here, we look at some of the largest consumers and producers of biomass in Europe and how it’s being used.

Sweden

Sweden is the third highest consumer of wood as a source of energy in Europe, trailing only Finland and Latvia in its use. A key use of biomass in Sweden is powering district heating systems. In a district heating system, rather than each building or home having its own boiler, whole areas of cities are heated through a single central plant distributing heat to buildings. These plants can be powered by a variety of fuels, but many run on wood pellets or distribute the waste heat captured at power plants.

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Germany

In 1713, an accountant and mining administrator, Hans Carl von Carlowitz, published what is considered the first ever book to look in depth at forestry management, effectively kickstarting the modern idea of sustainable forestry. In the 300 years that have passed, Germany has embraced the cultivation of wood and has made wood and biomass a fixed part of its energy makeup.

More recently, the Renewable Energy Heating Act and Market Incentive Programme was passed in 2009, which requires new building owners to provide a percentage of their heat from renewable sources, including wood-fired boilers. The aim is to increase the country’s share of renewable heat to 14% by 2020.

Europe, Biomass, Germany

Finland

Nearly three quarters of Finland is forestland, making it one of the most forested countries in the world, let alone Europe. As a result, wood plays a large part in Finnish culture. Stora Enso, one of the world’s leading paper and packaging manufacturers is Finnish and more than 20% of the country’s exports are from wood and wood products. Coupled with a strong focus generating much of its energy from renewables, energy derived from wood and products made from wood is high.

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United Kingdom

In 2013, less than 10% of all energy used in the UK was generated from wood and wood products. This places it some way behind countries like Germany and Sweden, in part owing to a lack of infrastructure for providing heating derived from wood and wood biomass.

This could change if the government continues to back technologies equally in initiatives like the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI). Available to homeowners, landlords and commercial customers, RHI provides incentives for installing generators of renewable heat such as wood pellet boilers.

To reach climate goals, the then Department of Energy and Climate Change noted that both biomass-driven electricity generation and heating should continue to increase in the UK. And with the upgrade of Drax and Lynemouth power stations from coal to compressed wood pellets, there are positive signs the UK can catch up to the European biomass average. In doing so, renewable biomass electricity generation can also help increase wind and solar power generation in the UK, and help create a more sustainable energy future.

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