The problem with renewable energy resources isn’t the technology, but the quantity of supply

JonathanMatthews

renewable energyWhen talking about supply chain, either professionally or more casually, people typically default to the assumption that supply chain is about the movement of goods and people from one destination to another. Other “non” physical goods, such as electrical energy and renewable energy resources, are almost never discussed in a conversation about supply management, and why would it be? It’s always there, ready at a moment’s notice. Plug an electrical cord into an outlet and the device is instantly on. Electricity, as we use it in our day-to-day lives, is always available. (I am, of course, making the assumption you’re not reading this on your phone in the middle of a power outage.) Electrical transmission doesn’t need to worry about typical supply chain issues such as expiry dates, lead times/critical paths, methods of shipment, or delays. Instead, electrical companies only need to worry about demand and insuring that the supply is adequate to meet humanity’s ever growing hunger of energy. And it is this renewable energy supply chain that brings its own unique challenges. As Earth’s population continues to grow, developing nations are starting to become energy dependent and developed countries continue to increase their consumption. To meet this demand, new power plants are continuing to be built to keep up with this demand, which is where the problem lies. Countries are embracing “green” technologies such as wind, solar and tidal that are environmentally friendly, (unlike traditional “old” plants which used coal and oil), but these environmentally friendly options have one major drawback, something that most people don’t think about: quantity of supply.

To properly understand the problem of green energy supply, look at how much energy developed nations actually consume. Population wise, Canada can be considered a “small” nation with roughly 35 million people. In 2010, Canada had an electrical demand of 500 TWh (Terra-watt hours).1 For your reference, a Watthour (Wh) is a unit that measures the energy required to power a one-watt device operating for one hour. This 510TWh is in itself a large number, but ponder for a moment the energy consumption of the United States with a population of nearly ten times that of Canada! As it stands, a lot of the electrical supply is provided by “traditional” plants, such as oil and coal. As everyone is aware, these plants are extremely dirty to run and terrible for the environment. Water dams don’t emit any pollutants into the atmosphere and are “clean”, but they do extreme damage to the lakes and the land surrounding the river. Nuclear power, while being very clean in operation, has very toxic waste and can certainly have a tremendous environmental impact, as Chernobyl and Fukushima can show.

Solar Energy

Switching to renewable or “green” power plants is great, but consider the Solana Generating Station (a solar farm) in Arizona, which just opened in 2013. This solar farm uses 1,920 acres to generate an average of 944 GWh.2 While 944 GWh seems like a respectable power output, this output is severely lacking compared to a nuclear power. The Bruce Nuclear Power Plant in Ontario occupies 2,300 acres of land and has an average generation of 45,000 GWh3 of electrical energy. For the Solana Generating Station to create the same electrical output as Bruce Nuclear, it would require roughly 91,525 acres of land!4 In a sunny, desert-ish region such as Arizona, this may be possible. But consider for a moment the environmental impact in Canada of having to clear that much land!

Wind Energy

Fortunately, wind power can mitigate much of the land issues that solar has, since wind turbines don’t require a large footprint and can even be built in the sea. Unfortunately, even wind power still pales in comparison. The largest wind farm in the world (the London Array, which is built entirely in the sea) only has an average generation of 2,500 GWh. Better than the solar generating plant, but still a far cry from the supply capability of nuclear power.

Making new solar and wind farms is a step in the right direction, but they’ll likely never be able to supply all of the needs of a country such as Canada, the US and other heavy electrical dependent countries. These renewable energy resources are also very dependent on location. Solar farms are great down in the desert, but not an efficient use of funds further up north. Likewise, tidal power is useless to any place that doesn’t have tides.

Nuclear Fusion

Fortunately, scientists are making big strides on a new form of energy that will completely revolutionize the supply of clean electrical energy: nuclear fusion. Using Hydrogen as a fuel (the most abundant material on Earth) with a waste product of Helium and producing more energy than today’s nuclear power plants, fusion reactors will be the ultimate form of clean energy. The nuclear plants in operation today use a fission reaction, which is the process of splitting atoms. Electrons are shot into a uranium atom splitting it apart, releasing energy and additional electrons. These additional electrons in turn collide with other uranium atoms, releasing more energy and electrons in a process referred to as a chain reaction. Energy is required to keep this chain reaction under control and preventing a Chernobyl type disaster. When this control energy is removed (such as in the case Fukashima), the chain reaction will continue unhindered and eventually explode.

Nuclear fusion is the complete opposite in that it combines two hydrogen atoms together, fusing them into the Helium element (what we use to fill balloons). This process is the same reaction that occurs in stars such as our sun. The problem is that the fusion of hydrogen atoms requires a TREMONDOUS amount of energy to start and maintain. (For comparison, to set off a Hydrogen reaction, scientists initially used a nuclear (fission) bomb to start the process). Opposite of a Fission reaction when control energy is removed, a fusion reaction will simply sputter out and cease operating.

The emergence of fusion energy will supply this world with the safest, cleanest and largest energy output, such that humanity will never need to worry about “green” energy again. But we’re not there yet. 2016 has seen a number of major milestones achieved in fusion research, but current fusion experiments currently require more energy output then they produce.

If they haven’t already, a number of people may wish to point out that countries such as Denmark or Portugal are very close to being completely powered by renewable energy. With only 501 Twh (Portugal) and 331 Twh (Denmark), these are quite small compared to even just Canada.

All this to say, the next time you plug that appliance into a wall outlet, take a moment to think about the supply of power to your house. Researchers are making great strides to provide the world with safe green energy supply, but many difficulties remain. One can now see how the supply of green energy is certainly not without its supply challenges, one that perhaps deservers a closer look.

As a side note, the world electric power production in 2014 was 23,536,500 GWh5, or, because I’m excited to be typing out this many zero’s, 23,536,500,000,000,000 Wh.

 

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[1] http://www.nationmaster.com/country-info/stats/Energy/Electricity/Consumption

[2] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solana_Generating_Station

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Nuclear_Generating_Station

[4] ((1920 acres/944GWh) * 45,000 GWh)

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_electricity_production

JonathanMatthews

Jonathan joined Kinaxis in April 2014 as a service operations analyst. He has worked at companies like IBM, Shell Canada, Empire group and holds a Bachelor of Business degree from Saint Francis Xavier University.

More blog posts by Jonathan Matthews

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