Literature Review Chapter: Renewable Energy Alternatives, Including Wind Power, Biomass

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¶ … renewable energy alternatives, including wind power, biomass, and solar power. An analysis of the potential for solar energy applications in Greece is followed by an assessment of the impact of the current economic crisis taking place in Greece on solar energy initiatives today and in the future. A summary of the literature review concludes this chapter.

Overview of Renewable Energy Alternatives

A general definition of alternative energy provided by Kramarae and Spender (2000) states that this term includes systems such as hydroelectric power plants, wind generators, solar power, and biomass (in the form of wood fuel, crop, municipal and industrial waste, as well as animal manure). In many ways, these alternative energy sources are certainly not new, but have rather been used by humankind for thousands of years. In this regard, Kramarae and Spender note that, "From time immemorial the power of the sun, forests, wind, tides, and water has been harnessed. Only since the industrial revolution have the energy-hungry nations of the world used large quantities of coal and oil in their raw states to generate the quintessential modern fuel: electricity. Coal and oil are now considered the mainstream sources of energy and are used to power the economies of the industrialized world" (2000, p. 41).

Fossil fuels such as coal and oil, though, are finite in supply while alternative energy sources are renewable and can be sustained over time. Indeed, many experts predict that peak oil (the point at which oil supplies will begin to be permanently depleted) may be as soon as the mid-21st century (Rosentreter 2000) or between 2070-2120 in a best case scenario (Nath, Hens, Compton & Devuyst 1999). In this regard, Gressor and Cusomano emphasize that, "Despite years of generous government subsidies and continuing worldwide investments by the global oil industry to accelerate technological innovation, the rate of discovery of new oil sources began declining decades ago and has never recovered" (2005, p. 20). As a result, the rush to identify replacements for an increasingly energy-hungry world has driven research into alternative energy resources.

During periods of relatively cheap oil and gas, though, the corresponding interest and investment levels in alternative energy resources are diminished. For example, Farrell cautions that, "The problem is that our default mode appears to dictate a halt in the development of alternative technologies as soon as the price of a barrel of oil falls within tolerable parameters. This inevitable knee-jerk response to an easing of an oil crisis has got to go" (2008, p. 6). Despite the waxing and waning of interest levels in alternative energies resources over the years, some progress has been made (Nath et al. 1999). Solar, biomass and wind power are all making a positive contribution to global energy needs (Nath et al. 1999) and these alternative energy resources are discussed further below.

Solar

Solar power is probably the oldest renewable energy resource available to humankind today. The sun's energy has been harnessed for millennia to light fires and passively heat dwellings, but some significant progress in the use of solar power has been achieved over the course of the last 200 years or so. According to Katsioloudis, Bondi and Deal, "Although Swiss scientist Horace de Saussure is credited with making the first solar collector in 1767, the first person to patent solar thermal electric technology to produce power from the sun's thermal energy was Robert Sterling in 1816 in Edinburgh, Scotland" (2009, p. 12). Moreover, in 1839, a French experimental physicist, Edmund Becqurel, determined that solar power could be used to generate electricity, an accomplishment that predated the introduction of internal combustion engines by nearly half a century (Rosentreter 2000). During the 19th century, solar power was used to generate hot water throughout the United States (Rosentreter 2000).

Despite this extensive use of solar power, it was not until 1954 that scientists at Bell Laboratories developed the first photovoltaic cells (Rosentreter 2000). Photovoltaic cells allow the conversion of sunlight into electricity (Katsioloudis et al. 2009). According to Rosentreter, "Considering that photovoltaic cells have been the exclusive power source for satellites since the 1960s, and how rapidly television evolved during an era known as the Atomic Age, it is a wonder that solar technology hasn't advanced further" (2000, p. 8). Researchers at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) as well as their Russian counterparts have traditionally viewed solar power as a stopgap measure only while they searched for more powerful sources of renewable energy for their satellites and other space mission needs (Katsioloudis et al. 2009). Recent innovations in nanotechnologies and organic materials that can be used in solar cell arrays, though, may provide superior performance of these systems in the near future (Cunningham 2007).

Although commercial solar-powered plants are still costly to implement initially, their costs are lower during the later operating life span of the plants (McKee 1999). According to McKee, "Therefore, solar power is more attractive to municipal utilities. The relative attractiveness of solar power is substantially influenced by fuel escalation [and] solar power is now economically competitive for municipal utilities. Solar power is a backstop technology and, as such, oil and gas price increases will be moderated by the existence of this new, relatively cheap energy source" (1999, pp. 122-123). Clearly, there is an inextricable relationship between the costs of fossil fuels and the amount of interest that is directed at alternative energy resources such as solar power. This point is made by Dorn who notes that, "During the 1990s, cheap fossil fuels, combined with a loss of state and Federal incentives, put a damper on solar thermal power development. However, recent increases in energy prices, escalating concerns about global climate change, and fresh economic incentives are renewing interest in this technology" (2009, p. 33). While a relatively reliable energy source (the sun does not always shine of course and some regions of the earth receive far less sunlight than others), biomass systems represent a reliable resource and this technology is discussed further below.

Biomass

Biomass is an umbrella term that is used to describe any type of organic substance that can be used to generate energy, including industrial, commercial and agricultural wood and plant residues, municipal organic waste, animal manure, and crops that are grow specifically for energy-generation purposes (Cleveland & Morris 2006). According to Cleveland and Morris, like solar energy, biomass energy has been around for some time as well. "Biomass energy," they advise, "was utilized in 1860 to meet over 70% of the world's total energy needs, mainly through the conventional combustion of wood fuel for heating and cooking. By 2000, the percentage contribution of biomass energy to the world's energy demands had decreased to about 10%" (Cleveland & Morris 2006, p. 42). Innovations in technology using advanced combustion, gasification, and liquefaction processes, though, have made biomass systems more efficient in recent years (Cleveland & Morris 2006). In reality, though, because the organic sources of biomass production ultimately rely on sunlight as well, it is reasonable to relate this alternative energy approach to solar power in a larger sense. Moreover, the wind is also driven by the sun and this alternative energy resource is discussed further below.

Wind

According to Elliott, wind power is a significant alternative energy resource already. This author adds that, "The winds are an indirect form of solar power and they have been used for centuries as a source of energy. More recently wind power has become one of the more successful renewable energy technologies" (Elliott 1999, p. 88). Likewise, Hollander reports that, "As a renewable resource, wind power has much to commend it. The large wind farms can supply significant amounts of electricity to the main grid systems when the wind blows, while smaller turbines can be used by farms, homes, and businesses in windy locations, such as along coasts, and also can be used in remote areas to which bringing power lines would be prohibitively expensive" (2003, p. 149).

Wind turbines are increasingly being grouped together in so-called "wind farms" so that connections with the power grid, control systems and road access can be shared that have been installed throughout the United States and Europe, providing a substantial contribution to the energy needs of these regions (Elliott 1999). According to Elliott, "Typically a separation of between 5 and 15 blade diameters is needed between individual wind turbines, to prevent turbulent interactions in wind farm arrays. This means that wind farms can take up quite a lot of space, even though the machines themselves only take up a small fraction of it, and this has led to some objections. It is argued that there would be insufficient room in countries like the UK to generate significant amounts of power" (1999, p. 89). Although wind farms have a number of attributes, including the fact that they do not require any fuel or water to operate and they do not generate any pollutants, greenhouse gases, or toxic wastes, the downside includes the aforementioned space requirements, they are noisy, many observers suggest they… [END OF PREVIEW]

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