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One of the things we’re thankful for is that the climate emergency is now part of the modern news narrative. Thanks to climate change campaigners like Greta Thunberg, Alexandria Villasenor, and Sir David Attenborough, and groups like Extinction Rebellion and Greenpeace, the world has never been more aware of the need to change how we source our energy.
And with Great Britain’s electricity system recording its greenest ever day over Easter bank holiday, we wanted to take a look today at how far we’ve come in replacing fossil fuels and non-renewable energy sources with renewable and clean ones.
As a business that makes 100% plastic-free and petroleum-free skincare, we understand the damage of fossil fuels and their derivatives – not to mention the fact that they are not renewable. From day one we have used 100% certified renewable and UK generated electricity, adding to our goal of conserving resources whenever possible.
Clean Energy: Is It Any Good?
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve undoubtedly heard someone spreading misinformation about clean energy. From the power outage in Texas resulting in some Senators claiming it was due to solar panels not working in the winter to the notion that wind turbines will kill thousands more birds and bats than fossil fuel plants, there’s a ton of fake news surrounding renewable energy that can, on the surface, sound extremely concerning.
The first, and perhaps most obvious, upside of switching to clean energy is that it uses renewable sources that will be around for years to come. Whether that’s through harnessing the latent energy in waves, wind power, or even using the heat below the Earth’s crust, these sources aren’t depleted when we use them for energy generation.
Another significant advantage of clean energy is that it offers an unparalleled ability to adapt to a country’s natural climate. For example, offshore wind farms are a great option for countries with expansive coastlines and, particularly in the case of the US, with towns and cities on the coast that are miles away from other forms of energy generation.
Renewable energy generation also, surprisingly, doesn’t require as much upkeep as traditional energy plants because they have fewer moving parts to maintain. Clean energy is also significantly safer, too, particularly when you factor in deaths caused by air pollution and waste.
So why isn’t renewable energy more widely accessible?
One significant issue is that renewable energy is, unfortunately, still not as reliable as fossil fuels and nuclear energy. Wind turbines, for example, need a minimum wind speed to push the blades and, therefore, be economically viable. Renewable energy also requires roughly 10 times the amount of land as energy generation from fossil fuels and nuclear fission, which is a leading factor in land-use conflicts.
Renewable Energy Initiatives
None of the above is to say that renewable energy doesn’t offer a lot of promise in reducing – and maybe even reversing – the impact of climate change. While many still believe that renewable energy isn’t economically viable, and with the fossil fuel industry still lobbying Western governments, experts believe that 100% renewable energy is entirely possible to achieve by 2050.
This has been made possible by the increasing investment in renewable energy initiatives that seek to discover new and innovative ways to replace our reliance on fossil fuels and nuclear energy with clean energy sources.
Microalgae has massive potential, not just for biofuel but for removing CO2 from the atmosphere, and even as a cosmetic ingredient
Microalgae and Biofuel
The experimental use of microalgae in the production of biofuel is, on the surface, a strange development. However, it offers massive potential, particularly as microalgae are easy to grow in large quantities in lab conditions. Plus, given that they can convert atmospheric carbon dioxide into more useful products like lipids, carbohydrates, and other bioactive chemicals, they’re not just an ecological and sustainable way to produce energy – they also offer some potential in removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.
Microalgae aren’t just a promising way of generating biofuel but a sustainable ingredient in our Hemp and Algae Face Cream because of its ability to address damaged skin and prevent further damage.
Solid-State, Cobalt-Free Rechargeable Batteries
Batteries, and particularly the most common lithium-ion type, often lose charge capacity over time. Electric car lithium-ion batteries, for example, are estimated to last an average of 10-20 years, but over that time, their charge capacity will decrease, effectively limiting the range of a single charge. Not only that, but electric car batteries require large amounts of rare earth elements, or REE, like cobalt, lithium, and nickel, all of which are mined through very polluting processes – and that’s before we begin talking about cobalt mining and child labour.
The inventor of the original lithium-ion battery, John Goodenough, has since led a team at the University of Texas in the invention of solid-state battery cells that uses a form of glass and not only reduce the need for REE like cobalt but offers significant improvements on the battery lifespan. While their claims that this new battery will improve in capacity over time is still debated, it’s a promising development that could significantly improve the environmental impact of battery use.
The Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) uses the heat from magma wells to heat water, which is then redirected at pressure through steam turbines to generate energy.
Geothermal Energy Generation From Volcanoes
Harnessing geothermal energy is a simple principle, but one that is often difficult to produce on a larger scale. However, researchers in Iceland, Hawaii, and Costa Rica have been working towards harnessing clean energy from the heart of volcanoes.
The Iceland Deep Drilling Project (IDDP) uses the heat from magma wells to heat water, which is then redirected at pressure through steam turbines to generate energy. While its potential as an energy source is still being explored, the IDDP offers us significant insight into how we can harness geothermal energy.
Hawaii is already investing significantly in geothermal energy, however, as they have no fossil fuel reserves of their own. As importing enough oil to meet energy demands costs an average of $5 billion per year, the cost of electricity is between two and three times the national average. But, with five active volcanoes in the state of Hawaii, the Puna Geothermal Venture offers a lot of promise in the way of generating geothermal energy.
Elon Musk’s Battery Farms
A major criticism that clean energy often faces is storing that energy before it’s lost. Because renewable energy comes from sources that may only be active for hours at a time, like the sun or wind gusts, this variability means that renewable energy isn’t always available on demand.
In 2017, major strides were made in this area with the activation of the Neoen-Tesla Horndale Power Reserve in South Australia. Based on the lithium-ion battery technology that gives Tesla cars their impressive range and rapid charging capacity, the power reserve was built to store energy from the state’s wind and solar power farms for use when demand peaks or not enough energy is being generated to meet demand.
In 2017, major strides were made with the activation of the Neoen-Tesla Horndale Power Reserve in South Australia
This battery bank can power 30,000 homes for over an hour, so while it was designed as a backup rather than a sole power reservoir, there’s great potential in this technology to help us move towards a 100% renewable power grid.
Musk and Tesla are also behind the building of a massive energy storage project in Texas that will be big enough to power 20,000 homes on a hot summer day. We certainly haven’t heard it all from the prolific entrepreneur.
Britain’s First Energy-Positive House
Generating renewable energy on a household scale is a difficult task. While solar panels are widely available, to make the best use of the energy they generate, homeowners have to invest in batteries that can often make generating your electricity more expensive than sourcing it from the grid.
In 2015, designers from Cardiff University worked with the Low Carbon Research Institute to build a £125,000 house that generates more electricity than it uses. The Solcer House is a three-bedroom detached house and it’s roof consists entirely of solar panels that feed electricity into batteries. With highly efficient insulation to keep energy locked into the house, it’s estimated for ever £100 the homeowners spend on electricity, they should be able to generate £175 of electricity for the grid in return.
Today, there as many as 30,000 low-carbon homes planned for construction, although none are expected to have the same energy efficiency as the house above. Despite that only 900,000 homes have solar panels installed, but 62% of UK homeowners would consider installing them, it’s clear that the demand for home-generated electricity is there. With new technologies like this in the pipeline, it’s a good start towards helping homeowners in the UK use more renewable energy.
Electricity out of bacteria and “thin air”
Perhaps one of the most exciting initiatives from the last few years is Air-gen. While the idea of generating electricity from the air alone seems far-fetched, Assistant Professor Jun Yao and Professor Derek Lovley from the University of Massachusetts have developed a device that uses water vapour to generate an electrical current.
Using a thin protein nanowire film less than 10 microns thick and made by the bacteria Geobacter metallireducens and Geobacter sulfurreducens, this device can generate a sustained 0.5 volts per 7 micrometres of film.
While this technology is still in its early stages, Yao has speculated that on an industrial scale, Air-gen could be used in wall paint to help generate power at home, or even in industrial systems to generate significant amounts of renewable energy.
Given that they published their work in Nature only in 2020, there’s still a long way to go before we see the practical applications of Air-gen. It’s still an exciting development, though, and we can’t wait to see how it’s going to be used to power the future.
Whitford’s Commitment to 100% Renewable Energy
As an ethical and responsible plastic-free skincare company, we have a major responsibility to leave this world in a better state than we found it. One of our goals is to conserve as many resources as possible to make sure sure future generations can still enjoy the natural wonders of our planet.
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Sources and further reading:
Benjamin K. Sovacool (2012) The avian and wildlife costs of fossil fuels and nuclear power, Journal of Integrative Environmental Sciences, 9:4, 255-278, DOI: 10.1080/1943815X.2012.746993
Liu, X., Gao, H., Ward, J.E. et al. Power generation from ambient humidity using protein nanowires. Nature 578, 550–554 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-020-2010-9
Maria Helena Braga, Chandrasekar M Subramaniyam, Andrew J. Murchison, and John B. Goodenough, Nontraditional, Safe, High Voltage Rechargeable Cells of Long Cycle Life, Journal of the American Chemical Society 2018 140 (20), 6343-6352, DOI: 10.1021/jacs.8b02322
Khan, M.I., Shin, J.H. & Kim, J.D. The promising future of microalgae: current status, challenges, and optimization of a sustainable and renewable industry for biofuels, feed, and other products. Microb Cell Fact 17, 36 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12934-018-0879-x
Ram M., Bogdanov D., Aghahosseini A., Gulagi A., Oyewo A.S., Child M., Caldera U., Sadovskaia K., Farfan J., Barbosa LSNS., Fasihi M., Khalili S., Dalheimer B., Gruber G., Traber T., De Caluwe F., Fell H.-J., Breyer C. Global Energy System based on 100% Renewable Energy – Power, Heat, Transport and Desalination Sectors. Study by Lappeenranta University of Technology and Energy Watch Group, Lappeenranta, Berlin, March 2019.
Offshore Wind Technology Data Update Walter Musial,1 Philipp Beiter, 1 Paul Spitsen,2 Jake Nunemaker, 1 Vahan Gevorgian,1 Aubryn Cooperman,1 Rob Hammond,1 and Matt Shields1 1 National Renewable Energy Laboratory 2 U.S. Department of Energy NREL/TP-5000-77411 October 2020