MYTH 1: SOLAR POWER IS TOO EXPENSIVE TO BE OF MUCH USE
In reality, today’s bulky and expensive solar panels capture only 10 percent or so of the sun’s energy, but rapid innovation in the US means that the next generation of panels will be much thinner, capture far more of the energy in the sun’s light and cost a fraction of what they do today. They may not even be made of silicon. First Solar, the largest manufacturer of thin panels, claims that its products will generate electricity in sunny countries as cheaply as large power stations by 2012.
Other companies are investigating even more efficient ways of capturing the sun’s energy, for example the use of long parabolic mirrors to focus light on to a thin tube carrying a liquid, which gets hot enough to drive a steam turbine and generate electricity. Spanish and German companies are installing large-scale solar power plants of this type in North Africa, Spain and the southwest US; on hot summer afternoons in California, solar power stations are probably already financially competitive with coal. Europe, meanwhile, could get most of its electricity from plants in the Sahara desert.
It would need new long-distance power transmission but the technology for providing this is advancing fast, and the countries of North Africa would get a valuable new source of income.
MYTH 2: WIND POWER IS TOO UNRELIABLE
Actually, during some periods earlier this year the wind provided almost 40 percent of Spanish power. Parts of northern Germany generate more electricity from wind than they actually need. Northern Scotland, blessed with some of the best wind speeds in Europe, could easily generate 10 percent or even 15 percent of the UK’s electricity needs at a cost that would comfortably match today’s fossil fuel prices.
The intermittency of wind power does mean that we would need to run our electricity grids in a very different way. To provide the most reliable electricity, Europe needs to build better connections between regions and countries; those generating a surplus of wind energy should be able to export it easily to places where the air is still. The UK must invest in transmission cables, probably offshore, that bring Scottish wind-generated electricity to the power-hungry south-east and then continue on to Holland and France. The electricity distribution system must be Europe-wide if we are to get the maximum security of supply.
We will also need to invest in energy storage. At the moment we do this by pumping water uphill at times of surplus and letting it flow back down the mountain when power is scarce. Other countries are talking of developing “smart grids” that provide users with incentives to consume less electricity when wind speeds are low. Wind power is financially viable today in many countries and it will become cheaper as turbines continue to grow in size, and manufacturers drive down costs. Some projections see more than 30 percent of the world’s electricity eventually coming from the wind. Turbine manufacture and installation are also set to become major sources of employment, with one trade body predicting that the sector will generate 2 million jobs worldwide by 2020.
MYTH 3: MARINE ENERGY IS A DEAD-END
The thin channel of water between the north-east tip of Scotland and Orkney contains some of the most concentrated tidal power in the world. The energy from the peak flows may well be greater than the electricity needs of London. Similarly, the waves off the Atlantic coasts of Spain and Portugal are strong, consistent and able to provide a substantial fraction of the region’s power. Designing and building machines that can survive the harsh conditions of fast-flowing ocean waters has been challenging and the past decades have seen repeated disappointments here and abroad. This year we have seen the installation of the first tidal turbine to be successfully connected to the UK electricity grid in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland, and the first group of large-scale wave power generators 5km off the coast of Portugal, constructed by a Scottish company.