3.5.7.6 Innovations in the Energy Industry

There are several programmes for major innovations in the energy industry, to complement the currently available alternatives to fossil fuels (3.5.7.5).  Some of these innovations are very expensive to develop, requiring government support – and international co-operation in some cases.  The ones listed here are carbon capture and storage, new ways of storing electricity, and options to develop nuclear energy to avoid some of the problems associated with current technology.

For some heavy industrial plants, and electricity generation that still uses fossil fuels, carbon emissions can be avoided.  Carbon capture and storage (CCS) Is a technology which could be developed and represents opportunities for employment as well as helping to meet carbon emissions targets.  Lord Heseltine’s report, Tees Valley: Opportunity Unlimited, pointed out that Britain is well placed to exploit this opportunity (by using underground storage in depleted oil wells offshore in the North Sea).

An Economist article, Supplying clean power is easier than storing it, describes some innovations in electricity storage.  Solar power and wind turbines have become economical ways of generating electricity, but they suffer from not being constantly available.  Additional capacity has to be available to supplement them when needed, and to cater for peak electricity demand.  New developments are beginning to make batteries a practical solution for storing electricity on an industrial scale, and investments are being made in technologies such as lifting heavy weights and electricity storage in molten salt.

The nuclear industry went sharply into decline, referred to in The Economist as Half-death, following the disaster at Fukushima in 2011, when a tsunami engulfed one of the world’s largest nuclear power stations.  That article noted that:

“Adding renewable-energy capacity does not solve the problem: when the wind doesn’t blow and the sun doesn’t shine, nuclear energy still provides the best low-carbon source of reliable “baseload” electricity.”

There is still scope to revive the industry by addressing some of the problems that caused it to become so unpopular.  A recent report, TVEL outlines innovation in nuclear fuel, described the use of a mixture of new and re-used fuel; “The ultimate aim is to eliminate production of radioactive waste from nuclear power generation”.

Another possible innovation is nuclear fusion, using a similar process to the sun: combining hydrogen atoms.  There is a virtually inexhaustible supply of hydrogen and the helium that is produced is harmless.  Scientists and engineers have been working for years to develop a viable fusion reactor and this is now looking promising – as reported by the BBC: Nuclear fusion is ‘a question of when, not if’.  That report noted that the Iter project, based in France and funded by the EU and others, is forecast to have a viable system by 2025; it also listed other projects, one of which is a private company in America.  Caixin Global, though, has recently made a more eye-catching announcement: China’s Latest ‘Artificial Sun’ Fusion Reactor to Power On in 2020.

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This is a current page, from the Patterns of Power Edition 3a book, © PatternsofPower.org, 2020.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition03/3576a.htm