Is Making Biofuel from Whiskey Dregs Worth It?

Whisky Distillary

The renewables industry has seen its fair share of innovations over the last few years as we try to make the world a cleaner place, reduce the cost of energy and combat climate change. Biofuel has always been one of those areas that produce some of the more off-the-wall solutions as we try to find alternatives for one of the biggest and most widely used fossil fuels, oil.

What are Biofuels?

Biofuels are seen as the green alternative for petrol, diesel and aircraft fuel. Their creation involves taking the natural oil from plant material such as corn or sugar cane to produce a bio diesel by careful refining. In the past, the problem has been slow, and expensive processes which meant companies like car manufacturers have veered away from creating the technology for vehicles to run on biofuels.

So how can you make biofuel out of whiskey?

There’s an interesting fact about whiskey. Whilst it takes just a combination of water, grain and a bit of yeast, only 10% of the mixture goes into making Scotland’s favourite tipple. That means the rest goes to waste that has to be disposed of.

Now Celtic Renewables Ltd, a recent start up in Scotland, has found an innovative way to treat that waste and turn it into a valuable biofuel. According to Science Alert, the team at Celtic Renewables have taken an old refining technique and are using it to produce biobutanol, a more efficient fuel than bioethanol that has been used in the past by many industries.

This new process could have far reaching effects in the future. According to Science Alert: “The whisky industry annually produces 1,600 million litres of pot ale and 500,000 tonnes of draff from the distilling process, but Celtic Renewables’ current biobutanol facilities are small-scale and unable to process this much waste.”

If the company get funding to produce the biofuel on a larger scale we could see a brand new way to power our cars and trucks in the very near future. But are we as far along with developing biofuels as we would like to be?

The Future of Biofuels

Although it often takes a back seat compared to other renewable technologies such as solar and wind, biofuel development could still be a very important part of our future. An EU directive from 2009 has mandated that 10% of all transportation fuel provision needs to come from a renewable sources by the end of the decade. The industry has suffered in the past because there are many small producers of biofuel but no concerted effort being made to bring them together which could see the target of 10% difficult to reach. The other problem is that you can’t just throw biofuel into a vehicle that runs on petrol and many vehicle manufacturers have been reluctant to spend money on technologies that may or may not come to fruition.

Some large companies with transport infrastructures are, however, pushing forward with new plans. This includes delivery firm DHL and supermarket chain Sainsbury’s. One main concern is the large distances that delivery vehicles often have to travel which means a completely electric option is currently out of the question. The other option is to go for electric/fuel hybrids but again this raises issues for long distances. That’s why the companies are looking more seriously at developing fleets that run on biofuels and exploring the possibilities of mixing it in with liquefied biogas.

According to the Guardian, Sainsbury’s fleet “has 109 vehicles running on a mix of liquid biomethane from landfill sites and liquid natural gas, out of a total fleet of 1,051.” Small beginnings, maybe, but it’s a start.

Not everyone, however, is a fan of biofuels. For some they produce more carbon damaging effects than fossil fuels and also cause a drain on our own crop productions that we can ill afford with a growing population. According to research by Chatham House, it could also be more expensive for motorists if we switch to biofuels, costing us an extra £460 million a year.


Solar Gets DECC Backing as Cheapest Option for the Future

Solar Panels and DECC

Big changes are beginning to happen in the solar power industry. Home retail store IKEA recently confirmed that they are looking to be 100% energy independent with renewable technologies by the end of the decade. Using solar and wind they are making their buildings across Europe more sustainable and reducing their carbon footprint dramatically.

And more good news came for the solar industry when Department for Energy and Climate Change minister Ed Davey said that the falling cost of setting up solar panels was going to make it the cheapest energy source in the future. On a visit to ReneSola in Sussex this month, Davey said: “The people I talk to, whether they’re in financial institutions or research labs, are showing very clearly that solar costs are going to come down and down, so it will be the cheapest form of electricity, I’m absolutely convinced about that.”

Why Solar Costs Are Coming Down

How we utilise the power we get from the sun has been on the minds of researchers and inventors from the time we first became civilised. Solar power is unique amongst all the renewables in that it can be used across a wide cross section of society to provide power. You find it on the rooftops of domestic properties and industrial buildings; there are large solar farms dotted across the country; it is being touted as the way to power our cars, and you can even buy mini-solar systems to power up your gadgets whilst trekking out in the wilds.

The main reason for the costs coming down are, of course, increased competition and developments in system efficiencies, as well as the governments Feed in Tariff that means installations can reach a significant and beneficial return on investment.

The Independent reported that recent innovations will see solar panels becoming cheaper and safer in the future. Some estimates even show that solar will be a cheaper energy than gas by as early as 2018. With developments such as the research being undertaken in Liverpool to replace the toxic components of solar cells with magnesium chloride the future is looking increasingly bright.

Solar Takes to the Water

Amongst the latest innovations in the news is the 800 solar panels installed on a farm in Berkshire. The difference? The array has been placed on a reservoir rather than on land. This could see solar farms finding a place on hundreds of new sites across the UK and solve the problem recently highlighted that existing constructions were taking up valuable farm land that should be used for agriculture.

These floating solar panels have been developed by French company Ciel et Terre and the innovation has already been used on a large scale in countries such as Japan. The Sheeplands Farm array was installed for a quarter of a million pounds and is expected to earn the owner £20,000 a year from the Feed in Tariff, with a return on investment over the next 15 years.

DECC Comments Welcomed by the Industry

After a year of being hammered with the reduction in subsidies that has created uncertainty in the solar market, Ed Davey’s comments have been welcomed by many industry insiders. The problem this year has been the introduction of Contracts for Difference which are intended to replace the old subsidy and were largely seen as not being suitable for solar farm development.

There are some, though, who believe that the new CfDs may well make things easier for solar developers. According to the managing director of Conergy: “The CfDs will see a new phase of development, and will be more attractive than the [old scheme] as they offer a fixed price. Investors love that certainty.”

Whatever the future of solar panels in the UK, across the world major developments are taking place with more installations being built as we come to realise that the sun and our use of its power is one of the most important renewable energy sources for us all.

Who’s Top of the Renewable League?

UN and Renewables

It’s generally accepted amongst those who are passionate about renewables that a number of governments have been dragging their feet when it comes to implementing green strategies that see us all being less dependent on fossil fuels. The UK, despite the financial crisis and cut backs, has managed to forge forward but others, who you might expect to embrace new energy producing technologies, have started to ‘cool’ off.

According to Greenpeace, Australia’s investment in renewable technologies has reduced by 70% over the last year. The problem is that with the recent recession, many governments in developed countries have chosen to reassess the need for green energy, something that has discouraged investment and is damaging the industry down under.

It’s not all bad news though.

In the US last year, renewables provided over 12% of the energy mix, putting them on course to meet their targets for reducing carbon emissions by 2020. Meanwhile, the Netherlands have been pushing their innovations along, as many of the Scandinavian countries have done even before the climate change crisis. Their latest offering is the opening of a solar cycle path in Krommenie and it is thought that this may be the first of many if it proves a success.

But the great surge forward in recent times has come from a more unlikely country. Often disparaged for its high carbon emissions, China is starting to move forward at such a rapid pace that it is putting the rest of the world to shame.

China Goes Solar in a Big Way

The major producer of solar panels in the world for the last two years, China has been installing them practically everywhere, on school buildings, factories, on farms and tower blocks. Following on from the climate agreement China undertook with the US this year, the country already has a 20 gigawatt capacity, with more to follow. The plan for the near future is to rush through a total of 8 gigawatts for small rooftop installations.

Not only that, China is beginning to dramatically reduce its reliance on the fossil fuels that have so damaged its carbon footprint in the past. Coal usage is down by 68% since 2010 according to a recent article by Bloomberg.

Is India The Big Worry?

One country that still has an unhealthy fixation on fossil fuels such as coal, is India who have huge energy demands but a generally poor population. They have spent decades mining their resources and recent opinion is that their unwillingness to embrace renewable technologies on the same scale as other countries could cause a major imbalance in the battle to tackle climate change.

Indian politicians have made a commitment to increase India’s coal production from 565 million tonnes to over a billion by 2019 and licences are being given out like candy to anyone who has the technology to mine the countryside. The better news for the country is that the Prime Minister has committed to building a large number of solar power stations in the future. Whether that will help to wean the country off coal is something that remains to be seen.

Germany Goes Non-Nuclear

If you take into account that Germany, for the first time, this year got more energy from renewables than it did from fossil fuels and other sources such as nuclear, we may have passed the point where resistance to green technology is a factor in energy production. Where other countries, including the UK, are still debating the need for nuclear, Germany is expecting to get rid of their entire nuclear capacity by as early as 2022 under the government’s Energiewende plan.

Is Nepal Leading the Way?

More out of necessity than through any local desire to be green, the village of Sikles in Nepal is the only place where the houses are totally powered by renewable energy. That’s because it’s difficult to get to this remote place with electricity cables. They depend largely on 32 micro-hydro generators that feed the population with all the power they need. And the good thing is, they produce enough to feed back to the national grid that can be sold and make a profit for the village.

Whilst the future of renewables is looking rosier by the minute, there is still some way to go until we are all committed to the technology that could provide us with energy independence and help improve the world we live in.

Find out more about renewables on our main website.

Is it Time to Stop Knocking Wind Turbines?

Onshore Wind Farm

They’ve come in for a good deal of criticism over the last few years or so, called hopelessly inefficient by some and an ugly blot on the landscape by others. Wind turbines seem to polarize everything that is good and bad about renewable energy production for both detractors and supporters.

For its supporters, wind turbine technology is our hope of becoming fuel independent and producing our own electricity in the future – energy that will also be cheaper and cleaner. For the detractors, we should be spending money on nuclear power plants and other technologies rather than wasting our time on these low grade, hippy initiatives.

During October, for a very short time wind farms actually generated 25% of the UK’s electricity. Supporters said that this was indicative of the value of such technologies to our small island. Detractors said it was just because it was ‘windy’ and a number of nuclear stations were temporarily offline.

More than any other renewable technology, wind turbines seem to reflect our fears and desires for what we want from clean energy. With other developments on the way in solar and tidal technology, we may well be reaching the tipping point that will see us moving to a sustainable future but what is the truth? Should we stop knocking our wind turbines and get on with developing ever more sites? Or do the naysayers have a valid point?

Is wind power worth the amount of time and money that we invest in it?

How Much Electricity do Wind Farms Produce?

There is no doubt that if we are to have fuel security in the future we need to develop our own, independent sources of energy. That’s why the government is looking at exploiting shale gas reserves, building new nuclear power plants, and why we have invested heavily in new technologies such as wind farms, solar panels and hydro-electric.

One of the weapons detractors use about wind farms is that they are far less efficient than other forms of electricity production. According to a recent EU report the cost of producing electricity from wind farms is about €105 per MWh. For gas the cost is €164 per MWh and coal €233 per MWh. The nearest comparison to wind farms is nuclear that produces electricity at a cost of €125 per MWh. That would indicate that the latest government initiative to block wind farm development could mean that we are losing out on a much cheaper way of producing electricity.

A wind farm such as North Hoyle off the coast of North Wales, with 30 turbines each producing 2 MW, is powerful enough to feed into some 40,000 homes. The other issue with wind farms, however, is the impact that they have on the landscape and there are many who are not willing to swap more efficient energy production for a reduction in the quality of the view. Yes, wind farms are large and do have an impact on the environment, but most people are not as against them as many media outlets and politicians would have us believe.

Another damaging issue is that renewable technologies have benefited greatly from EU and government subsidies in the past, something that is often touted as being at the ‘tax payer’s expense’. The truth is that most energy sources, from coal and gas to nuclear and hydroelectric, have all benefited to similar degrees from financial backing by governments over the years. In 2011, fossil fuels were allocated €26 billion in subsidies compared to €30 billion for all renewables.

Renewables Could Produce 90% of our Energy Needs

If we can get past the stage of debating whether renewable energies are good or bad for us and the economy, many believe that, properly developed, they will provide the electricity we need for the future. A recent report by the WWF stated that with continued investment, renewables such as wind, solar, tidal and other hydroelectric technologies could well provide between 60% and 90% of our energy needs by 2030, without the need to build expensive, and potentially environmentally damaging, nuclear power stations. The question, as always with renewable energies, is who is listening to the advice?

Whether we get to the point when we have a sustainable renewable energy provision will depend on who wins the battle of hearts and minds. At the moment people still have to sift through the avalanche of misinformation and prejudice to come to the right conclusions and often the scare mongering and negativity of the media can lead us to believe that we are on the wrong track with renewables. It’s a profitable drum to beat.

But if we want to be truly fuel independent and produce clean electricity for the future then there may be only one direction that leads to the right, sustainable result. The issue is whether governments across the world, including our own, will have strength to push their green initiatives through.

Find out more about how wind power is generated on our Wind Turbine information pages.

Are Solar Farms Affecting Food Production?

Commercial Solar Panels

One of the major benefactors of the development of solar power in the last few years has been farms that have allowed some of their land to be used for large, financially productive solar plants. For many landowners it is seen as a viable proposition to bring in extra money from a clean, renewable energy source.

The problem is that it is beginning to create a few rumbles in parliamentary circles as politicians debate whether installing so many wind farms is having a detrimental effect on our own food production. According to farming minister George Eustace in the Guardian this month, there could be well over 1,000 solar farms in the UK by 2020 but there are concerns that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) has underestimated the impact this could have on our farming economy.

Why Solar Farms are So Popular

With farmers being continually squeezed on profit margins by the large supermarkets, many businesses have been forced into finding additional income to keep themselves going in the current financial climate. Hiring out land to solar and wind farm developers or taking on the investment themselves has proved to be a good move for many land owners who have been able to benefit from income provided by rents or the government’s Feed in Tariff that pays producers for their electricity.

Building a solar farm depends on having a large amount of land available and having the right site-specific factors in place. Many developers will pay farmers around £1,000 per acre in rent a year to use their land and, for those farmers willing to make the initial investment, it can offer a significant and quick return on investment with the government Feed in Tariff. Developers also benefited in the past from healthy government and EU grants to invest in renewable technologies though this may well be coming to an end as ministers raise concerns that farm land should be used for producing food and not electricity.

Cutting the Solar Farm Subsidy

Environment minister Liz Truss recently said in the Daily Mail that landowners will have to stop pocketing lucrative subsidies and use their land for what it was intended. The change is set to take place from next January as David Cameron’s government tries to distance itself further from more green policies. It is one of the major factors that could affect the growth of the solar industry over the next few years.

Whilst many opponents of renewable energy initiatives point to the ‘blot on the landscape’ caused by such installations, the main issue at the moment seems to be how much land is being taken out of commission by the development of large scale solar farms.

Defra have been surprisingly unforthcoming with any concrete details about the overall impact on land usage. Whilst there are developers who have committed to allowing livestock near their expensive solar panel arrays, there are others who are naturally reticent about letting potentially damaging cows and sheep graze in close proximity to their plants. That means we are ending up with less land which is devoted to farming.

It’s not just livestock that is affected. According to Labour’s Paul Flynn there is also concern about the amount of land that is being taken away from crop production. The argument has produced a robust response from the solar industry that has argued installations all take into account biodiversity and the effect on food production.

There is no doubt that things are set to change and the government is taking a stronger stance on solar energy in rural areas. It follows on from the decision to block two large scale solar farm builds in the last year, one in Hacheson, Suffolk that would have been the biggest in the UK with 100,000 solar panels covering 127 acres. It was a signal to the industry suggesting that any future developments on such a scale would also have little chance of being agreed to, something that could cause a major blow to renewable development in the country.

Also at the heart of the issue has been the amount of subsidies that are being used to create our renewables portfolio in the UK, with many now believing that getting the taxpayer to fund such developments is untenable for the long term future, particularly following the long term problems created by the financial crash of 2008.

Find out more about solar energy here.

The Tide is High in Swansea

Proposed tidal lagoon for Swansea Bay

The Proposed Tidal Lagoon

The development of a power generating tidal lagoon in Swansea Bay could see similar projects popping up around the UK coast if it is successful. According to the BBC, the project to build a plant that can produce 240 MW and provide electricity for over 120,000 homes has attracted investment from the Prudential who are putting in £100 million.

Prudential’s Chief Executive commented: “Prudential is committed to invest in infrastructure projects that benefit the national economy. We are also proud to play our part in the development of this world-leading renewable energy technology.”

The tidal lagoon will take the form of a 6 mile long, curved sea wall that is designed to harness the energy of our coastline to drive specially designed turbines and produce a valuable renewable source of electricity. We’re used to seeing wind farms across our landscape and everyone knows that solar is a viable source of renewable energy, but tidal electricity generation has so far lagged behind, despite its huge potential.

Tidal has so far remained on the back burner because of the perceived costs for installation. Back in 2011, the Committee on Climate Change produced a report to say that the cost was too high and the yield too low, but since then it has become clear that their figures didn’t quite add up. That could see more installations being given approval in the next few years.

What is Tidal Energy and How Does it Work?

Most people know what a hydroelectric plant is. We have a few in the UK such as Ffestiniog Power Station in North Wales, and they work using the potential of moving water. They normally consist of a large dam which feeds water under high pressure to hit and turn a number of industrial size turbines. This energy is then fed into a generator and is used to produce electricity. It was one of our first sources of renewable, clean energy even before we became concerned with finding clean solutions to our power problems.

Tidal energy works in the same way. In fact, any moving body of water can be used to turn turbines that can then feed into some kind of generator. At the Swansea installation, bulb turbines will be placed at intervals under the sea wall. The water on the sea side of the wall will be higher than the water on the landside which means the power can be generated to drive the turbines enough to create a large amount of electricity. The system works both ways so that when the tide starts to go out, the water on the land side is higher than on the sea side.

One thing that might well sell the concept of installing tidal power plants is that they also provide a sea defence. With recent problems with coastal erosion and the damage done by storms last year, tidal walls can also protect the mainland whilst producing a valuable source of renewable energy.

The Benefits of Tidal Energy

The Swansea installation may be the first of six similar projects that are planned for the future, with other sites being considered around the coast including Colwyn Bay in North Wales and the Bristol Channel. The network could produce a staggering 30 TWh per year and cover almost 8% of the UK’s power needs.

One problem, however, is the cost. The Swansea installation is expected to be priced around £850 million and construction is going to take around 3 years, with the first energy production expected in 2018. But the Swansea tidal project may also provide income from more than just electricity. There are plans to develop sporting and recreation facilities around the installation and Tidal Lagoon plc believe that this, combined with electricity production, could yield a profit of £76 million a year, providing a quick return on investment over 12 to 15 years.

The Future of Tidal Energy

Compared to its renewable neighbours like solar and wind power, tidal energy has largely been a marginal consideration in the past. That is set to change with a number of worldwide projects currently being undertaken that could see the technology surging ahead in the next few years.

Many scientist now believe that a series of tidal systems and estuary barrages could well provide as much as 20% of the UK’s energy resource if we embrace the available technology and push it forward. The problems that engineers face is that constructions need to be robust enough to cope with tidal extremes and, for a long while, the struggle has been to create a fortified installation that will not cost the earth in repairs when a storm hits the mainland.

Find out more about the history and future of hydroelectric power on our main site.