With 2014 looking like it’s going to be the warmest year since records began, in 1880, but probably much longer ago than that, we need to take collective action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. I have already explained just recently why things like maize biogas are such a bad idea, so I was disappointed to read, in a report from Forum for the Future, that they thought planting 240,000ha of farmland to grow biogas crops was the way forward. I asked FfF report writer, Iain Watt, which crops they based that figure on, but I haven’t received an answer yet. According to FfF that 240,000ha of land would produce just 1GW of energy per year. Even the NFU are only aiming for 100,000ha of biogas maize, and that’s 100,000ha too many.
Solar farms have sprouted up all over the place recently, thanks to generous feed in tariffs. Now the Government is slamming the industry into reverse by stopping subsidies for farms over 5MW, and reducing the feed in tariff. This means the absurd proposal to build a solar farm on Rampisham Down SSSI is unlikely to be repeated, at that scale anyway.
While terrestrial Solar and Wind can produce significant amounts of our energy needs, they won’t deliver everything. And there is a big problem with electric energy production. Transmitting the energy from where it is produced (solar or wind farm) to where it is to be consumed, has a big energy cost. In the UK its estimated to be around 8% but in other countries it can be as high as 35%. Now if every (appropriate) roof of every building in Britain had solar panels, that could provide electricity directly to places where it is used, avoiding transmission losses. But it still wouldn’t provide all our energy needs.
Another approach to reducing these transmission costs is to convert the electrical energy from the sun into a fuel which can be stored and moved without the transmission losses (though obviously with transportation costs.) If solar energy could be converted into hydrogen, for example it could be moved (by gas pipes) efficiently to places where it was needed, just as the fossil fuel Methane is moved (as natural gas). Burning renewably produced hydrogen is a “clean” fuel because it only produces water when burnt.
Could it be possible to use solar panels to produce hydrogen? Yes it could, easily. Electrical energy can be used to produce hydrogen from water, through electrolysis. Where is there a an abundant supply of water? the sea.
Is it beyond our human capability for ingenuity to produce a large scale solar powered hydrogen plant. If we could produce very large arrays of solar panels, floating on the sea, producing hydrogen, this fuel could then be transported around the world, either in submarine pipes, or using large tankers, such as the 235 massive Liquid Natural Gas tankers that already ply the world sea lanes. I’d go for the pipeline option myself, to reduce the risk of calamity.
It’s the sort of megascheme that could go wrong for all sorts of reasons. But it seems that this is an option worth exploring, as the technology is practically already available. Scottish chemists have recently increased the efficiency of the hydrogen production process by 30 times. At least it would be worth exploring, as an alternative to things like Nuclear Fusion, which may not happen in time to ward off the impacts of Climate Change.