Some of the problems of looking to renewable energy sources for salvation from global warming are rehearsed in the letter from Chris Parton (April 14). Some of the statistics provided for the power that is potentially available from non-fossil fuel sources are rather optimistic.
Remote wind, wave, hydro and solar power generators, in addition to the turbine and generator losses themselves, incur above-average transmission and distribution losses before the electrical power reaches the consumer.
At least 30% of the generated power is likely to disappear in heating the power industry’s real estate.
In fact, given the inefficiencies associated with heating and lighting, and the electrical losses incurred in user equipment and consumer goods, only about 10% of the energy contained in fossil-fuel ends up performing a useful task.
To supply mankind’s energy needs for wind alone would require a wind farm extending over an area almost equal to that of Australia. There is not enough suitable coastline to make much of a contribution from waves, nor is there sufficient desert to rely on massive arrays of solar panels for our energy needs.
In any case, if we are to make a significant impact on the problem of global warming, it has to be done within the next 20 to 25 years. The science suggests that by 2030 the industrialised nations of the globe will need to have cut fossil-fuel usage by 90%-95%, if the critical rise in temperature of two degrees centigrade, above the pre-industrial level, is to be avoided.
The professional engineers, who would be required to underwrite a significant expansion in renewable power generation capability, do not exist in anything like the required strength. The numbers of school pupils entering universities to study electrical engineering or physics, here, in North America and in Europe, have been stagnating for at least the past 20 years.
There is virtually no indication that governments are about to introduce massive incentives to turn this around.
The only real solution is the drastic reduction in energy usage throughout the developed world, which probably means long-term recession. Energy-efficiency drives and lifestyle changes will be essential to the reduction process but, more controversially, as the new science chief at the Science Museum in London has recently suggested, we will need significantly to reduce the global population level to procure the savings needed.
How politicians and business leaders in democratic societies will address these real and incredibly difficult issues, we have yet to find out.
Alan J Sangster, Edinburgh.
14 April 2008
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