Could More Investment in Renewables Spell the Death of Fossil Fuels?

The Death of Fossil Fuel

It used to be that investors would shy away from investing heavily in renewable technologies. After all, putting your money into fossil fuels such as gas and coal, not to mention nuclear, always seemed a safer bet. However, the latest developments seem to suggest that many investors are moving into the renewable arena, and not because it’s the green thing to do but because there is a substantial profit in those solar panels and wind turbines.

Investment in Swansea

This month a further £100 million was invested in the proposed tidal power station planned for Swansea Bay, following on from a similar amount that was put in by the Prudential last autumn. The difference this time is that the money comes from a consortium, InfraRed Capital Partners. It follows a growing trend of investors looking to get their cut of the big renewable projects both here in the UK and abroad.

With a reduction in subsidies for many UK projects, finding private investment to carry the installations through has become all important.

Solar Driving the Investment Boom

According to the Guardian recently, it’s the growth in the solar market that has started to drive greater investment in renewables. In 2014, it grew by 16% with some £205 billion put into projects, fuelled in some respects by the US and China. Increased investment also comes down to the lowering cost of solar and its growing competitiveness with other energies, particularly fossil fuels.

There have been some big investments, notably the $1 billion put into the Setouchi solar plant in Japan and a similar amount in South Africa. Energy Secretary Ed Davey recently linked renewables to a boost in the economy of the UK: “Renewables are proving they can be cost competitive, which is why they are playing a key role in powering the economic recovery.”

Cheaper Oil and Renewable Investment

The news might not all be good though. The sudden fall of oil prices may well have an impact on the total investment in renewable energies. A number of experts believe that renewables are now well enough established that they can weather the storm of cheaper fuel being on the market and attracting away the money. In places like the US and the UK, renewables generate significantly more power than oil but that’s not the case everywhere including large expanses such as South America and the Middle East where it is more competitive.

Where the falling fuel price may affect markets like the UK is in the uptake of biofuels – why would businesses go for the more expensive alternative if they can get cheap oil? The other issue is going to be how long the oil price slump lasts and the impact that will have. It may of course need policy makers around the world to take a harder stance if they want to meet their emissions targets in the future.

The China Effect

Many industry experts have said that the increase in renewable investment last year may well prove a little more difficult to replicate in 2015. That’s because a large part of the increase has come from the substantial efforts of the Chinese to embrace technologies such as solar panels. According to Bloomberg: “Funding surged because of a 32 percent expansion in China’s commitment to renewables, as well as a record $19.4 billion committed to offshore wind projects that were years in the making. Money also flowed into electric cars, especially for Tesla Motors Inc., just before cheaper gasoline prices reduced forecasts for that segment.”

The Future of Renewable Investment

In the UK, government uncertainty about how it is going to fund renewables as they try to balance the books for the national budget could lead to some degree of reticence about investing in green technologies. It’s the same in other parts of the world, particularly in Australia where their renewable energy target is facing an uncertain future. Countries such as China and US, however, are pushing forward and if renewables are to become the mainstay of our energy provision in the future, then the conditions for sound investment will have to be provided by policy makers and governments alike.

Can Biomass Play a Key Part in Our Future Energy Needs?

Biomass Boiler

Focus has turned to the future of biomass in recent times. Could it be providing a more significant part of our energy needs, not only in localised situations such as offices and homes, but also on a grander scale with large power stations fuelled by wood burning?  The truth is, it’s not all good news for the industry – there have been rumblings the Renewable Heat Incentive is only benefiting rich landowners and that it could even end up costing UK tax payers billions in subsidies.

What is Biomass?

Biomass is fuel derived from a wide variety of organic material that includes scrap lumber, crops and the debris from forests, as well as waste products such as manure. Rather than putting these waste products in landfills or burning them away on open ground, biomass fuels can be used to create heat and electricity on both small and large scales.

In large biomass power stations, the burning of the waste is used to create steam that then drives a turbine and produces electricity and, for many, it is seen as the ideal replacement for our coal fired stations – a clean, renewable energy source that could have a substantial impact on our sustainable power production.

Can We Fire Up Large Scale Biomass?

According to energy chief executive Dorothy Thompson in the Telegraph recently, burning waste is a more efficient way to produce energy and could well be the prime renewable source of the future. The problem that biomass often suffers from, especially on a grand scale, is that it is associated with the cutting down of forests to provide the wood needs to be burned. This is not the case as wood is only taken from sustainable forests and a large amount of the biomass created comes from off cuts and debris that would otherwise be left to rot.

Another issue is whether transporting the fuel to the energy plants is a good way for the UK to reduce its carbon footprint. Whilst the actual process of burning and creating electricity in a large power station is attractive, you need to take into account the fuel costs of transportation and the footprint created in gathering and processing the biomass in the first place.

These environmental credentials are the things that currently dog a company like Drax which is working in Yorkshire to convert units to operate on biomass. In relation to coal transportation, which these stations are largely replacing, the savings of 80% may at first seem creditable and a recent commissioned report has suggested that biomass can produce more overall savings than other renewables such as wind.

The jury is still out on biomass on a large, industrial scale and there are many who believe, particularly in the Government, that it is more suited as a transitional technology, cutting down our emissions whilst reducing our reliance on fossil fuels such as coal.

Is Biomass as efficient as we think?

The Renewable Heat Incentive was introduced to encourage businesses to take up and install more sustainable energy sources. It was later expanded to include domestic premises and covers biomass boilers, air and ground heat pumps and solar thermal. Whilst on the surface all seems well with this kind of subsidy, a recent report by the Department of Energy and Climate Change has raised doubt on whether biomass is as green as we all think and whether it is contributing properly to our reduction in carbon emissions.

Biomass accounts for the vast majority of payments under the RHI but the technology is now thought to be between 10 and 20% less effective than at first thought. This is bad news for the government who have pushed biomass as one of the leading technologies that can help the UK reach their targets for 2020.

Added to this is the suspicion that payments under the RHI are generally going to wealthy landowners who are benefiting unduly from this particular subsidy. According to Simon Lomax from the Kensa Group: “It is concerning that government has belatedly recognised that many biomass installations will seemingly not contribute to its renewable energy targets despite billions of pounds of public money being committed via the RHI.”

Is Biomass Benefitting the Rich?

A slightly more disturbing news story this year came from the Mirror which suggests that biomass is largely benefiting rich landowners and property tycoons rather than other businesses and domestic homes. The complaint is that whilst many of us are living in fuel poverty and having difficulty in making ends meet, the rich are getting a combined guaranteed income that could reach in excess of £10 billion over the next 20 years. The newspaper cites the owner of a manor house who invested £95,000 to heat his home and stables and who is expected to receive profits from the RHI of around £23,000 a year.

The Future of Biomass

There’s no doubt that if you have the money for the initial investment, having a biomass boiler installed to heat your property can lead to a pretty good return on investment over the 20 to 25 year life of the device. There may well be a change of heart from the government in the future however (though current installations have their RHI payment guaranteed), influenced more by the notion that they are not as efficient as previously thought. The case of biomass of course raises that perennial question as to whether renewables can grow and develop without the input of government subsidies that make them more favourable for homes and businesses alike.

Is Perovskite the Future of Solar PV?

Perovskite Solar Panels

Talk to the industry experts in Solar PV at the moment and it won’t be long until conversation gets onto the subject of perovskite.  This solar cell component may be the new kid on the block, but it is proving to be a popular choice for research and development, potentially providing a much cheaper and more efficient alternative to silicon cells.

According to industry experts, it may have some way to go before it’s the main technology for solar but the perovskite structure could well help revolutionize the industry in the years to come.

What is Perovskite?

Naturally occurring perovskite was first brought to the attention to the scientific world when it was discovered in 1839 in Russia. Deposits have been found around the world in areas such Arkansas, Switzerland and in the limestone that was ejected when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The crystals have interesting electrical properties when they are exposed to a magnetic field which means they are useful in telecoms and microelectronics.

As far as solar PV is concerned, the slightly confusing thing is that it is the perovskite structure which is actually used in the cells. The term ‘perovskite structure’ applies to any material that has a similar type structure to calcium titanium oxide. There are many different kinds of perovskite structure and the difference between them depends on the spacing between the atoms and molecules which often dictates the uses that they are put to.

What is Perovskite Solar PV?

Solar panels that use perovskite cells depend on using what is called an absorber material which means it takes the heat and light from the sun and transforms it into an electric current. There are a number of different types of absorber but the most commonly used is methylammonium lead trihalide. There was initially some concern of the inclusion of toxic lead in these cells but this has been recently addressed when tin was used instead.

The Benefits of Perovskite Solar PV

Compared to silicon cells, perovskite is proving easier to process. Silicon needs to go through several stages to ready it for electricity generation which require high temperatures and the use of a vacuum – something that is problematic, if not insurmountable, on the industrial scale needed. Perovskite structures can be produced by a couple of different manufacturing processes that are potentially far more promising in respect of scale and sustainability.

The other benefit of perovskite is that it can be produced in a number of different forms, including thin film, which means that it could have a far wider range of uses than other minerals currently being considered for solar PV. One downside, so far, is that perovskite solar PV currently operates at lower efficiencies than silicon but this may well change as the technology develops.

Research into Perovskite Solar PV

Whilst we have known about the potential for the perovskite structure in electricity production for a few years now, it wasn’t until 2009 that researchers found that it could be incorporated into solar cell technology. The problem here was that it wasn’t terribly stable, lasting only a few minutes in some cases, and the power output was not particularly efficient, around 3.8%.

From then on, however, the fight was on to find a solution that stabilised the energy production and increased the efficiency. Current silicon solar PV is designed to last quite a long time, 20 to 25 years for most solar panel installations. In 2012, scientists at Oxford University found that they could make perovskite structure cells more stable with a solid state hole transporter, which also increased efficiency to around 10%. A lot has depended on exploring the architecture of the cells which operate in a different way to silicon, but the race is currently on across the world’s research establishments to find the most efficient and hardy combination.

The Future of Perovskite Solar PV

Finding an easy to produce and robust alternative to silicon has been on the minds of solar PV researchers for a while now. If the technology is to forge forward and become our energy production of choice then it needs to be cleaner, more easily manufactured and durable enough for the task we need it to perform.

Even over a short time we have seen increases in the efficiency levels of the perovskite cells since they were first used back in 2009 but there is still some way to go. In truth, the limited light to electricity conversion is unlikely to hamper future industrial development of the perovskite solar PV technology but its current instability, particularly in humid conditions, may well do.

It could well be used in more installations such as office window glazing panels because it can be produced in very thin films and this could also change the way we look at the deployment of solar in our homes and offices in the future. Oxford University are currently working on this and the eco magazine Nature has recently reported on areas where perovskite cells are already being used: “As with the coloured dye-sensitized solar windows recently installed in the SwissTech Convention Centre of the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne4, other highly efficient perovskite-based photovoltaic glazing panels could soon make their market debut.”