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Oil and water: The future of marine renewables
Friday, 25 March 2011 15:27
Article Index
Oil and water: The future of marine renewables
Maritime Renewable Energy
Wave Power
Bio Mimicry
All Pages

by James Ashworth*

The age of cheap energy is over.

This undoubtedly presents huge challenges, but it also opens up huge opportunities for engineers and scientists. The use of oil as a dependable and secure long term option looks ever more improbable as the world’s supplies are rocked by political and price instability. Predicted global energy demand growth of 40 percent by 2030 points towards a future scramble for supplies. And the environmental picture prevails ever stronger. Those that ignore the changes face becoming like “the best horse-whip manufacturer in town just as they invented the motor car”.

Questions over renewable energy are inevitably linked to political will and the cost and availability of carbon-based alternatives. But renewable technology has moved on and some of it might be closer to hand than we imagine. Nature has provided engineers with technical solutions to many of today’s challenges, opening up a new field called “bio-mimicry”. The world’s oceans contain over 5,000 times current global energy demand. Wind and solar power are important but maritime renewable energy will inevitably play its part too. What are the options available?

Oil and Democracy

The seething discontent that has surfaced in the Middle East and North Africa is a portent of tectonic changes to come. Many oil suppliers are governed by old men enforcing often brutal and usually autocratic rule. The deals, under which oil is supplied, will likely bear little detailed future and open scrutiny. The West lauds political emancipation. But it is hoisted by its own petard. Pluralistic democracy and free speech are poor bedfellows with shadowy deals. Other shifts have occurred that serve to change the picture further.

1. Current unrest makes guaranteed oil supplies increasingly uncertain

Less than two decades ago, 70 percent of the world’s oil supplies were under the operational control of the world’s major oil companies. Today, this position is reversed. 70 percent of world oil is now controlled by governments, many of whom are facing actual or potential civil unrest. Most oil companies have already passed their point of peak production and we can wonder at what might be their long term business model.

Game Changers

There is probably more oil left in the ground today than that used in the history of man. But what remains is far less accessible than that used and much is to be found in deep water or under ice. This means that the cost of extraction multiplies. The recent 'Deepwater Horizon' disaster in the Gulf of Mexico did more than expose an uncomfortably close relationship between the US Government, its safety regulators and the oil industry. It generated raw anger amongst the voting public that will have most politicians thinking twice about supporting exploration in environmentally sensitive areas. Increasingly vocal opinion and toughening legislation point towards additional costs of compliance.

2. The 'Deepwater Horizon' changed the game

Within the last three to four years, we have witnessed the development of horizontal drilling techniques. Drilling into Barnett shale deposits, small explosions are used to crack the rocks and release plentiful natural gas. Traditional gas prices have been linked to oil. But any significant growth in global economic activity or other upward pressure on oil prices will likely see the gas price decouple. Relatively cheap, abundant and “clean” gas (it produces roughly half the CO2 of oil) could replace expensive and “dirty” oil as the transportation fuel of choice. It is already making big inroads into oil fired power plants.

Meeting the demand for global energy

Some estimates predict global energy demand will rise from current levels around 25 Terawatt hours (TWh = 1012 Watt hours) up to 40TWh. Meeting this demand without producing devastating levels of environmental pollution present huge challenges. In February, China's Environment Minister, Zhou Shengxian warned that pollution and the demand for energy and other resources “threaten to choke China’s economic growth” and Premier Wen Jiabao said China was lowering its annual economic growth target from 7.5 percent to 7.0 percent, in part because of its impact on the environment. The holy grail of nuclear fusion (the energy that powers the sun) is still some way off. So the intermediate solution will comprise a mosaic of technology. Current renewable technology, whilst offering good environmental credentials, is mostly too small the meet the requirements of the grid. And the wild weather conditions that favour renewable generation tend to be remote from the population demand. Power distribution technology has still not caught up with generation.

The only sensible, clean and capable solution today for significant grid power generation lies with Uranium 235 and nuclear fission. Public perception and misconception surrounding nuclear technology is politically charged and emotional. In truth, atomic bombs and nuclear power are as closely related as a tsunami is to a glass of water. The French have been generating 80 percent of their power needs and exporting more over decades, without incident. The current disaster at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant is undoubtedly of concern. But it clouds the real issues as the factual is held hostage to the sensational. Nuclear power remains fundamentally safe and clean.

Renewable power has traditionally land-based on photovoltaic generation (solar cells) and wind turbines. The challenge has always been the trade off with arable land for solar farms and aesthetic and acoustic pollution of large wind turbines. Both have also offered relatively low levels of power output; good for supplying small communities, but not good for long distance grid generation. This is changing and the new generation of offshore devices hold out the promise of large scale, renewable power some of which is already in the making.