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Free Energy: Is It Possible?

Updated on May 2, 2018
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Sustainable Urban Energy is Neil's brain child to enable the design, development and production of affordable home produced electricity.

Preface

This series of articles are written, in part to share information, and in part, to identify the best options for generating electricity both sustainably and affordable.

I am working on a new type of renewable energy system suitable for use in an urban environment to feasibly enable everyone to produce their own electricity.

If you have any information, comments or ideas that may be helpful towards this goal, I would be very grateful.

Neil

Wind - free fuel for turbines

Introduction:

There are many different ways of generating electricity; most involve a huge supply chain before reaching the end user. With long established fossil fuels the infrastructure has been in place for many years enabling a secure supply at a reasonable price.

New renewable energy sources are often in very remote areas and require new infrastructure pushing the costs up.

To balance the costs and make renewable energy more competitive, conventional power generation have to pay a carbon tax.

As the demand for electricity increases,this article looks at the different types of fuels to try and identify if there are ways to reduce the cost to the end user.

Global energy by source

Source

Electricity generation costs

The global demand for electricity continues to rise year on year. The data for actual generation costs however is a mind field of acronyms, a variety of measurement units, averages and levelling with future installation predictions over three levels. There are the installed capacity and generation capacity, conversion losses, fuel costs and availability, fuel types and generation types. Then there are distribution costs, distribution loses, not to mention the profit margins of all the companies in the supply chain from source to end user to consider as well as the environmental and political aspects; and don’t forget about the taxes.

Coal is obviously still the largest fuel source used for electricity generation, but with environmental issues and the planned closure or conversion of many coal fired power plants by 2025, can we honestly meet the growing demand without it?

There are lots of websites which provide data on electricity generation and costs, below are the main government sites for the UK and US:

Fuels used to produce electricity

To generate electricity we need fuel. We use a wide variety of fuels and generation methods, with new methods developing each year.

It was a surprise to discover the order in which these fuels were first used to produce electricity.

  • Hydro - The earliest recorded hydro produced electricity was at Cragside, Northumberland. England in 1878.
  • Coal - the world's first coal-fired public power station, the Edison Electric Light Station, was built in London in 1882.
  • Solar - the first solar cell was built, by Charles Fritts in 1883, who coated a semiconductor with an extremely thin layer of gold.
  • Wind - The first electricity generated from wind was in Denmark in 1891.
  • Geothermal - the first electricity generated from geothermal energy was in 1904 at Larderello, Italy.
  • Wave - the first electricity from wave power used an oscillating water column device in 1910. Constructed by M Bochaux-Praceique near Bordeaux, France.
  • Gas - In 1940 Natural gas turbines produced the first commercial electricity generation at a plant in Neuchatel, Switzerland.
  • Nuclear - the first nuclear reactor to produce electricity was on the 20th December 1951 at the EBR-1 experimental station near Arco in Idaho, USA.
  • Oil - there is little information as to when oil first was used; however, in England, the first half of Bankside 'B' in London was an oil fired power station which started to produce in 1953.
  • Biomass - one of the oldest form of energy, but the newest to be used to generate electricity. The first biomass generator started to produce in 1982.

Hydro

Source

The first hydro power system at Cragside, Northumberland. England is now run by the National Trust in the UK which has installed a new Archimedes screw and brought the hydroelectric plant back on line.

Since hydroelectricity's inception, the overall concept is still very much the same. the use of flowing water is used to turn blades, which rotates a generator.

The earliest commercial hydro station that produced electricity was the old Schoelkopf Power station No. 1 on US soil near Niagara Falls. This used a hydraulic canal routed from the lake above the falls to the river below the falls. Power was generated by a dynamo with a capacity of 1,800 horsepower.

What is known as conventional hydro power is generated from installing a dam in an existing river. The store water is used to power large hydro-turbines at the base of the dam. This is the most effective way of harnessing the power of water.

Pumped storage is not new, water has been pumped uphill with a variety of devices (including the Archimedes screw) for centuries; however pumping water up for storage and use to generate electricity was not common until around 1930.

Run of the river (ROR) hydro, again is not a new concept. Water wheels have been around for centuries; however, ROR electric producing systems are relatively new, but the power source is classed as "unfirm" power.

Wave is also classed as hydro, but due to the growing focus on wave power, it is now viewed on its own.


Coal

The Edison Electric Light Station, or otherwise known as Holborn Viaduct Power Station was built at 57 Holborn Viaduct in London and started to produce electricity in January 1882.

Coal fired power stations are called a thermal power generator which uses heat from the burning of fuel to produce steam which in turn powers a steam turbine, the turbine powers a generator to produce electricity.

The Edison Electric Light Station was powered by a 125 horsepower (93 Kw) dynamo producing at 110 volts DC (Direct Current).

Little has changed with coal generation systems. The coal has developed to a variety of forms including smokeless; the conversion process has improved and the steam generation and ultimately the power generators have improved; however the overall efficiency is only around 33 to 50%.

There are three main types of coal thermal power plants:

Pulverised coal fired power plants (PCF) use coal which is ground to a fine powder. The process produces heat around 1,300 to 1,700°C providing steam for the turbines. PCF is the most common method used and produces around 90% of the electricity produced from coal. it is also the least efficient and the highest producer of CO2.

Fluidised bed combustion plants (FBC) is where the coal is mixed with air in a fluid bed (mixing gas and solids). These plants cut NOx production and allows the capture of sulphur, therefore producing less SO2.

The major problem with this type of plant is the quality of coal. These plants use low quality coal reducing the overall thermal efficiency which in turn produces higer levels of CO2.

Integrated gasification combined cycle plants (IGCC) are the most modern type of coal powered plants with a thermal efficiency of between 40 to 50%. Only four of these plants are operational globally.

Although the thermal efficiency is higher, the process from fuel to electricity needs to go through an additional step, gasificaation of the coal.

The gas is used to generate around 60% of the electricity from the fuel and the heat generated is used to drive a steam turbine which generates around 40% of the electricity.

Solar

My 4KW solar installation
My 4KW solar installation

Although Photo-voltaic electricity was first discovered in 1876 it was not until 1883 when the first power was generated. Charles Fritts used selenium with a very thin layer of gold; however, due to the properties of selenium, the cells were only 1% efficient.

The first solar array, which used Frits' cells, was installed on a New York city roof top in 1884.

It was not until 1953 when the first silicon photo-voltaic cells were created increasing the efficiency dramatically from the original selenium cell.

There are two main types of solar power generation systems:

Photo-voltaic (PV) panels use direct sunlight to generate electricity. There are two types of panel: Monocrystalline silicon panels work generally in both full sun and cloudy conditions. Polycrystalline silicon work best in direct sun.

Concentrated solar power (CSP), just concentrates the solar energy using lenses and mirrors. The original CSP plants used the concentrated solar energy to generate electricity directly via solar panels. Recent developments use the concentrated solar power to heat special sand stored in a tower. The stored heat is used to generate power via steam turbines which allows the plant to generate electricity even when the sun is not shining.

Wind

Clyde wind farm. Scotland.
Clyde wind farm. Scotland.

Wind has been a source of power for many centuries and although the first actual wind driven electric power plant was built by Poul la Cour, a Danish scientist, in 1891, the first wind produced electricity was in 1887.

Professor James Blyth built a 10 m high wind turbine with cloth sails which charged accumulators to power the lights of his cottage at Marykirk, Scotland.

The early turbines were all horizontal axis turbines, similar to an old windmill, but in 1931, the Darrieus wind turbine was developed. This was a vertical axis turbine which could generate with the wind coming from any direction.

It was not until the late 1900's early 2000's when wind power really started to develop.

There are two main types of turbines in use today:

The Horizontal Axis Wind Turbine (HAWT) is the most widely used, both for large commercial wind farms and small individual use. Although the basic design has not changed a great deal, the technology has advanced dramatically allowing for taller towers and larger blades.

The Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (VAWT) is growing in popularity in certain areas, but issues with vibration and the lower shaft bearings still appear to cause problems with regards to noise and maintenance.

In addition to the above, a new technology is being developed and promises to reduce to cost of electricity generation dramatically:

The Kite wind turbine is basically a kite which flies on a long tether. The main advantage is that it can be situated at an altitude where the wind is strongest enabling it to produce even if there is little wind close to the ground. Another advantage is that it does not require a large tower to operate, reducing the installation costs.

Geothermal

Krafla geothermal power plant in Iceland.
Krafla geothermal power plant in Iceland. | Source

Prince Piero Ginori Conti tested the world first geothermal power in 1904 in Larderello, Italy, which successfully illuminated four light bulbs; However it was not until 1911 when commercial power was generated at the same site.

There are three basic types of geothermal power generation systems:

Dry steam power stations are the original, simplest and most efficient of geothermal stations. They are also the least used. They utilise only the steam directly from the ground to run the turbine. The spent steam is then condensed and returned to below the surface.

Flash steam power stations use the hot water from pressurised underground reservoirs. The pressurised water needs to be at a minimum temperature of 180°C. As the water rises to the surface the pressure decreases allowing the water to boil and release steam which is used for the turbines. unused water and condensate steam is then pumped back to the reservoir. This is the most common form of geothermal power station used.

Binary cycle power stations is a more recent development and can use water temperatures much lower than those above. The process uses the hot water to vaporise a liquid with a much lower boiling point than water to drive turbines. This type of power plant is now the most favoured.

Wave

Illustration of the device from the magazine Power, November 1920.
Illustration of the device from the magazine Power, November 1920.

The first wave powered generation, which was constructed in 1910 by Bochaux-Praceique, is an indirect generator. As the tide rises, so does the pressure inside the column. the pressure is used to turn an air driven turbine. As the tide recedes, the negative pressure can also be used.

After the initial interest in wave power in the early 1900's there is little information on any additional developments until the 1940's when Yoshio Masuda tested various concepts.

It was not until the 1970's and the oil crisis, when a renewed interest saw the development of the salter's duck (often referred to as the nodding duck).

There are a number of different types of wave generator, some in full operation, others as working prototypes, with many more in the design stage. The main six are:

  • Oscillating water column
  • Oscillating wave surge converter
  • Overtopping device
  • Point absorber buoy
  • Submerged pressure differential
  • Surface attenuator

There are very few similarities to each of these devices, or simple explanation, except to say they use the power of wave/tide motion to produce electricity.

GAS

Source

The Neuchatel gas power plant, Switzerland was the first commercial generation of electricity which came on line in 1940; however, in 1937, Sun Oil used a gas turbine to generate electricity and air for private use at its Philadelphia plant.

Gas turbines use ignited gas to directly drive the generators. Early versions of gas power stations vented the heat into the atmosphere; however, later developments used the excess heat to generate steam to be used in steam turbines. This increased the plants overall efficiency.

There are two main types of gas power stations:

The simple cycle gas plant is generally used to meet peak or fluctuations in the demand cycle. As the control mechanism is the gas feed to the turbine, with no requirement to control water or steam flow, these plants can quickly adjust to variations in the demand for electricity.

The combined cycle gas plant (also known as a combined heat and power plant (CHP)) is the same as the simple cycle gas plant, except instead of expelling the hot gasses they are used to make steam for steam turbines. The efficiency of the simple cycle plant varies around 33 to 35% (similar to coal). When combined with steam generation, the plant efficiency can reach up to 60%.

Nuclear

Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant
Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant | Source

Although the first electricity produced from nuclear power was in 1951 in Idaho, producing around 100 kW. The first Nuclear power plant to produce electricity to the grid was in Russia (USSR as it was known) at Obninsk Nuclear Power Plant producing around 5 MW.

Types of nuclear power plants

  • Pressurised water reactor (PWR)
  • Boiling water reactor (BWR)
  • Natural uranium reactor, gas-graphite (GCR)
  • Advanced Gas Reactor (AGR)
  • Gas-cooled reactor at elevated temperature (HTGCR)
  • Heavy water reactor (HWR)
  • Fast breeder reactor (FBR)

Electricity generation using Nuclear is as complicated as the fusion part; however, the basis is that the reaction creates heat to convert water to steam to drive the turbines.

Oil

Source

Although oil is still one of the primary electricity producers (around 5% of the worlds generation) the origins of its first use is not clear. The information points to around 1953. The Bankside 'B' power station was specifically designed to burn oil for electricity generation. Due to the economic climate at that time, a number of other plants built shortly after on the Thames were designed to use both oil and fossil fuels, depending on the fuel market.

There is basically only one main type of oil power plant and it does not have a specific name; however the principals are almost identical to coal, only the combustion methods are slightly different.

Small oil generation use the internal combustion engine; however, this is only practical for the generation of relatively small amounts of electricity.

Biomass

Source

As with all natural sources, the use of wood and other combustible materials has been used by man for many centuries. However, the term 'Biomass' did not come into play until around 1975. Originally used to describe the use of solid products such as wood, but now covers liquid and gas products.

There are four types of biomass:

  • Wood and plant matter
  • Solid waste products
  • Gas such as land fill gas and gas produced by anaerobic digestion
  • Alcohol fuels

Wood, plant matter and solid waste power plants are very similar to a coal power plant and use the heat from the combustion process to generate steam.

Gas biomass power plants are basically the same as natural gas power stations.

Alcohol fuels are rarely used to produce electricity and are used more as vehicular fuels such as bio-diesel.

Fuel review

Hydro has the most efficient turbines and produce no emissions in power generation; however, dammed hydro installations are restricted to specific geographic locations and there are limits to pumped hydro installations.

Coal, irrelevant of any improvements or cost reductions that can be made is deemed no longer environmentally suitable for power production.

Solar has limitations; however the advances in CSP, especially with heat storage, the possibility of providing a constant power supply may prove beneficial, but the cost of these new developments will not allow any cost reduction in the near future.

Wind is the fastest growing power producing industry yet the costs far outweigh the production. Large amounts of taxpayers money is being pumped into the industry to enable the electricity to remain competitive.

Geothermal, like hydro is probably at its peak of efficiency, but also like hydro, it is restricted to specific geographical locations limiting the growth of this sector.

Wave power is still very much in its infancy. only time will tell if the power of the seas will provide sustainable and cheap electricity.

Gas has taken over the role of coal an the main source of electricity production. it is flexible enough to compensate for the massive fluctuations in power from renewable energy sources.

Nuclear appears to be expensive all the way round. construction costs of new plants escalate daily and spent fuel storage will be required long after the reactors have been decommissioned.

Oil is definitely a limited producer and tends to be used more as a convenience than a necessity.

Biomass is a relatively unique power producer. New constructions tend to be small in capacity and larger plants tend to be converted old coal power stations.

Generation costs (2010)

Life / Power density / cost

Fuel
Plant life span (Years)
Power density (w/m²)
Approx generation costs $/MWh
Hydro
80
250
80
Coal
40
10,000
100
Solar
25
100
230
Wind
25
2
100/325*
Geothermal
40
400
100
Wave
N/A
N/A
N/A
Gas
30
10,000
110
Nuclear
60
12,000
115
Oil
30
1,000
N/A
Biomass
40
8,000
120

* Offshore wind

N/A - No available information

Cost analysis

The overall cost of energy is driven by the fuels, infrastructure, taxation, licencing and decommissioning; however, it is the diversification of fuels and generation types which predominantly controls the cost to the end user. Without such diversification, the costs would be ultimately controlled by the large corporations who own the majority share main fuel source.

The majority of the worlds electricity is produced from Coal and Gas. Both theses fuels are fossil fuels and both are subject to the carbon tax which has increased the generation costs. Even with this increase, the compact nature of the power plants (producing around 10,000 watts per square meter) still make them commercially viable. Additional increases in the carbon tax, emission tax and energy tax will undoubtedly push coal out of the viability market in the short term, and eventually Gas.

Hydro is the worlds third largest electricity producer. Classed as a renewable energy, Hydro is not subject to the same taxation as fossil fuels, it has the longest generation facility life span and is the cheapest of all fuels in electricity production. New hydro (dammed) facilities are extremely limited due to environmental concerns. Pumped hydro however can be utilised, but this is more of a storage system than a direct electricity producer.

Nuclear has the advantage of not being subject to the carbon tax and having the longest generation facility life span. The down fall is that the spent fuel storage and expected decommissioning cost make Nuclear slightly more expensive.

Biomass is slightly contentious with respect to the carbon tax. Although all biomass conversion processes produce CO2 it is classed as carbon neutral. As the cost of generation is high, any additional taxation would push biomass out of the viability market.

Wind is starting to be reported as a contender to fossil fuels; however, many reports only use data over very short periods (high outputs) of time and not over an extended period. Although the cost of generation is very much even with other fuels for onshore wind, the cost for generation of offshore wind is more than three times higher making it the most expensive electricity producer.

Solar (PV) will never be able to compete with conventional power as power production needs daylight. Solar does have one advantage over wind with the respect that it can be installed on existing infrastructure (roof tops) local to existing power supplies, reducing infrastructure costs.

There is very little data on wave technology; however, with the offshore costs of offshore wind, the costs for offshore wave may be similar.

Conclusion

The overall conclusion is that with the current technology, fuels and generation types, it would be the fossil fuels that could reduce to cost of generation, but this would require increased efficiencies and reduced fuel costs. As fossil fuels are subject to environmental issues and increasing carbon taxation, the investment in to further research and development is limited to each specific supply chain and is not seen as significant.

Cost reductions in hydro and geothermal may be possible; however the growth potential of theses sectors is limited and would not make sufficient enough impact to reduce the cost of electricity to the end user.

Nuclear already has issues with tightening regulations and licencing along with the longevity of spent fuel storage and decommissioning, and it is unlikely that the costs will significantly reduce.

Solar may provide some reduction; however, this would require mass deployment of solar PV on every rooftop and heavy investment into storage.

Wind is subject to massive investment of taxpayers money and with escalating cost associated with more and more remote locations, the free fuel source seems to have little effect on the reduction of generation costs.

Biomass has the same issues as fossil fuels at a higher cost and less taxation. Even the conversion of existing coal facilities, has not reduced the generation costs.

New technologies, such as the kite turbine, wave power and even the power walkways that are appearing in airports and major footpaths may eventually provide some reduction in the future if the technology can be deployed cost effectively.

As for free energy, only self generated electricity comes close to providing the end user with cheap power. Even if energy could be generated free or at a low cost, the infrastructure and distribution of power will still need to be paid for.

© 2018 Neil Coulson

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