Renewable energy technologies

Page - July 15, 2010
Renewable energy covers a range of natural sources which are constantly renewed and therefore, unlike fossil fuels and uranium, will never be exhausted. Most of them derive from the effect of the sun and moon on the earth's weather patterns. They also produce none of the harmful emissions and pollution associated with 'conventional' fuels. Although hydroelectric power has been used on an industrial scale since the middle of the last century, the serious exploitation of other renewable sources has a more recent history.

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Solar power (photovoltaics)

Greenpeace Energy Revolution figure 9.7 Photovoltaic (PV) technology involves the generation of electricity from light. The essence of this process is the use of a semiconductor material which can be adapted to release electrons, the negatively charged particles that form the basis of electricity.

The most common semiconductor material used in photovoltaic cells is silicon, an element most commonly found in sand. All PV cells have at least two layers of such semiconductors, one positively charged and one negatively charged. When light shines on the semiconductor, the electric field across the junction between these two layers causes electricity to flow. The greater the intensity of the light, the greater the flow of electricity. A photovoltaic system does not therefore need bright sunlight in order to operate, and can generate electricity even on cloudy days.

Solar PV is different from a solar thermal collecting system (see below) where the sun's rays are used to generate heat, usually for hot water in a house, swimming pool etc.

Concentrating solar power (CSP)

CSP plants, also called solar thermal power plants, produce electricity in much the same way as conventional power stations. They obtain their energy input by concentrating solar radiation and converting it to high temperature steam or gas to drive a turbine or motor engine. Large mirrors concentrate sunlight into a single line or point. The heat created there is used to generate steam. This hot, highly pressurised steam is used to power turbines which generate electricity. In sun-drenched regions, CSP plants can guarantee a large proportion of electricity production.

Greenpeace Energy Revolution figure 9.2

  • Parabolic trough
    Parabolic trough plants use rows of parabolic trough collectors, each of which reflect the solar radiation into an absorber tube. Synthetic oil circulates through the tubes, heating up to approximately 400°C. This heat is then used to generate electricity.
  • Central receiver or solar tower
    A circular array of heliostats (large individually tracking mirrors) is used to concentrate sunlight on to a central receiver mounted at the top of a tower. A heat-transfer medium absorbs the highly concentrated radiation reflected by the heliostats and converts it into thermal energy to be used for the subsequent generation of superheated steam for turbine operation.
  • Parabolic dish
    A dish-shaped reflector is used to concentrate sunlight on to a receiver located at its focal point. The concentrated beam radiation is absorbed into the receiver to heat a fluid or gas to approximately 750°C. This is then used to generate electricity in a small piston, Stirling engine or micro turbine attached to the receiver.
  • Linear fresnel systems
    Collectors resemble parabolic troughs, with a similar power generation technology, using a field of horizontally mounted flat mirror strips, collectively or individually tracking the sun.

Solar domestic hot water and space heating

Domestic hot water production is the most common application. Depending on the conditions and the system's configuration, most of a building's hot water requirements can be provided by solar energy. Larger systems can additionally cover a substantial part of the energy needed for space heating. There are two main types of technology:

  • Vacuum tubes
    The absorber inside the vacuum tube absorbs radiation from the sun and heats up the fluid inside. Additional radiation is picked up from the reflector behind the tubes. Whatever the angle of the sun, the round shape of the Greenpeace Energy Revolution figure 9.3vacuum tube allows it to reach the absorber. Even on a cloudy day, when the light is coming from many angles at once, the vacuum tube collector can still be effective.
  • Flat panel
    This is basically a box with a glass cover which sits on the roof like a skylight. Inside is a series of copper tubes with copper fins attached. The entire structure is coated in a black substance designed to capture the sun's rays. These rays heat up a water and antifreeze mixture which circulates from the collector down to the building's boiler.

Wind power

Greenpeace Energy Revolution figure 9.4Over the last 20 years, wind energy has become the world's fastest growing energy source. Today's wind turbines are produced by a sophisticated mass production industry employing a technology that is efficient, cost effective and quick to install. Turbine sizes range from a few kW to over 5,000 kW, with the largest turbines reaching more than 100m in height. One large wind turbine can produce enough electricity for about 5,000 households. State-of-the-art wind farms today can be as small as a few turbines and as large as several hundred MW.

Wind turbine design

Significant consolidation of wind turbine design has taken place since the 1980s. The majority of commercial turbines now operate on a horizontal axis with three evenly spaced blades. These are attached to a rotor from which power is transferred through a gearbox to a generator. The gearbox and generator are contained within a housing called a nacelle. Some turbine designs avoid a gearbox by using direct drive. The electricity output is then channelled down the tower to a transformer and eventually into the local grid network.

Geothermal energy

Greenpeace Energy Revolution figure 9.6Geothermal energy is heat derived from deep underneath the earth's crust. In most areas, this heat reaches the surface in a very diffuse state. However, due to a variety of geological processes, some areas, including the western part of the USA, west and central Eastern Europe, Iceland, Asia and New Zealand are underlain by relatively shallow geothermal resources. These are classified as either low temperature (less than 90°C), moderate temperature (90° - 150°C) or high temperature (greater than 150°C).

The uses to which these resources can be put depend on the temperature. The highest temperature is generally used only for electric power generation. Current global geothermal generation capacity totals approximately 10,700 MW, and the leading country is currently the USA, with over 3,000 MW, followed by the Philippines (1,900 MW) and Indonesia (1,200 MW). Low and moderate temperature resources can be used either directly or through ground-source heat pumps.

Hydro power

Greenpeace Energy Revolution figure 9.7The main requirement for hydro power is to create an artificial head so that water, diverted through an intake channel or pipe into a turbine, discharges back into the river downstream. Small hydro power is mainly 'run-of-the-river' and does not collect significant amounts of stored water, requiring the construction of large dams and reservoirs.

There are two broad categories of turbines. In an impulse turbine (notably the Pelton), a jet of water impinges on the runner designed to reverse the direction of the jet and thereby extracts momentum from the water. This turbine is suitable for high heads and 'small' discharges. Reaction turbines (notably Francis and Kaplan) run full of water and in effect generate hydrodynamic 'lift' forces to propel the runner blades. These turbines are suitable for medium to low heads and medium to large discharges.