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Everyone needs a basic knowledge of energy

WORLDWIDE: At the European Wind Energy Association's annual conference in Brussels earlier this year, a financial journalist who has specialised in energy-related issues asked me: "If I have one kilowatt, what should be done to turn it into a kilowatt hour?"

Afterwards, still a bit puzzled by the question, I wondered whether it is fair to expect at least a basic level of energy literacy from professionals like this journalist? Put in a wider context, should that not apply to anybody, as modern societies increasingly depend on and are thus affected by power and energy issues all the time?However, in real life my experience is rather different, with the meanings of kilowatt and kilowatt hour often unclear even to professionals.

As individuals living in modern society we often appear trapped when it comes to energy issues. A column in an engineering magazine earlier this year argued that we all consider it normal to use electric light and a wide variety of electric appliances at any time, day and night, but refuse to accept that our desire for unlimited energy use and availability requires a matching power-generating capacity. And this is exactly where the problem arises.

Many of us do not like lignite and coal-fired power plants for their negative environmental and climate-related impacts. Nuclear power has lost much of its recently won appeal following Japan’s nuclear disaster in Fukushima earlier this year, and long-term waste storage remains an unresolved issue. Burning oil and natural gas is associated with energy dependence on countries in the Middle East and Russia, reinforced by fears of future oil shortages and uncontrolled price increases. High expectations of huge new shale gas deposits discovered at several places offer great promise, but alarm bells are already ringing over environmental pollution linked to the exploration.

Of all renewable energy sources, wind power is one of the most cost-efficient and fastest-growing clean technologies offering substantial benefits to an increasing number of forward-looking countries and regions. A combination of vision, ambition and long-term financial, legal and other support is therefore essential.

But in countries lacking such support structures, political leaders and other decision makers tend to put their faith in "ultimate solutions", such as high-tech kites and glider-type floating turbines, instead of focusing on less fancy but proven conventional technology. In these circumstances, promises of superior efficiency and low generating costs, combined with the prospect of instant success, may blur those countries' vision and decision making even further.

Residential urban roof-mounted wind turbines are another example. These often tiny installations enjoy similar positive client and political appeal, not least due to romantic perceptions and supplier claims suggesting total energy independence at individual household level. Some vendors have even promised that, as well as covering annual electricity demand, sufficient surplus electricity would be left to power an electric family car.

I have been equally surprised by supplier claims suggesting North Sea offshore turbine performance —kilowatt hour per square metre rotor-swept area — for roof turbines, which are known to generally operate in a poor wind-resource environment. But while such claims are often met with great enthusiasm they ignore the fact that energy in the wind depends on wind speed cubed. For instance, 10m/s North Sea winds contain a factor of 125 more energy compared to a realistic average wind-speed value of 2m/s for many urban residential areas.

Common misconceptions

A while ago I listened to a radio programme on the risks of future fossil energy shortages, in which a Dutch dairy farmer participated. When asked about the possible impact of energy shortages, the farmer replied it would not affect him and his business much as his cows would still produce the same quantity of milk. What this farmer failed to understand is that like all highly mechanised agricultural systems, modern dairy farming heavily depends on fossil energy inputs.

That energy dependency is due to the fact that human labour has been largely replaced by mechanical power and other fossil-energy based external inputs. Energy is required for the manufacturing, operation and upkeep of agricultural equipment, the production of mineral fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, animal feed imports, transportation, etc. The production of nitrogen fertilizers alone is estimated to consume 5% of the world’s natural gas production.

Some insight into basic principles of power and energy will serve as an instrument against poor decisions being made out of ignorance and prevent many energy-related misconceptions. Society will certainly benefit.

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