Power stations: Fossil fuels vs alternative fuels

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A statistical analysis by the government’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy released in June 2021 revealed the UK’s energy consumption in Q1 2021 as low.

This stemmed from Covid-19 restrictions reducing the demand, with energy requirements for industrial use down 2.1 per cent on the same period last year, and demand from shops, restaurants, offices and public buildings down 4.6 per cent.

However, domestic energy demand was up 8.9 per cent as people stayed at home during the periods of lockdown and, with the government removing all remaining Covid-19 restrictions and people freely mixing again, Q2 2021 will likely show a large increase in the UK’s energy consumption.

Indeed, according to a recent report from National Grid ESO, the electricity system operator that supplies homes and businesses across Great Britain, 21 Terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity were run through its network in July 2021 alone.

To put that into perspective, that’s 20 billion washing machine cycles!

But where does this power come from?

According to National Grid ESQ’s report, renewables such as wind, solar, biomass and hydro account for approximately a quarter of the UK’s total electricity generated in July 2021.

Nuclear accounted for 15 per cent, but the UK is still heavily reliant on fossil fuels to generate electricity, with gas and coal making up 43 percent.

As the UK imports a further 15 percent of its power, mainly comprising coal, oil and natural gas from countries such as Russia and Norway, the amount of electricity that could be considered generated through fossil fuels is probably much higher than 43 per cent.

How are fossil fuels used in power stations?

There are various types of gas-fired power plants including:

  • Simple cycle gas turbine (also known as open cycle gas turbine (OCGT):
    Use hot gas combusting in air to rotate a turbine, which drives a generator and generates electricity. These are cheap to build and can start quickly but are inefficient.
  • Combined cyber gas-turbine (CCGT):
    Feature multiple simple gas turbinesequipped with a heat recovery steam generator and a steam turbine to run more efficiently.
  • Reciprocating engine:
    Use reciprocating internal combustion engines but tend to be smaller than other types of gas-fired plants and used for emergency power / balancing variable renewable energy systems such as wind or solar.

In terms of emissions, gas-fired power stations produce approximately 500g of CO2 per kWh of electricity generated.

That’s about half the amount of carbon emitted by coal-fired power stations but more than ten times that of nuclear power or renewable energy.

Coal-fired power plants work by burning the fuel in a boiler to produce sream, which is driven under huge pressure into a turbine. This spins a generator to produce electricity.

The steam is cooled, condensed back into water and returned to the boiler, where the process is repeated.

Reassuringly, coal is on its way out in the UK at least, with the government planning to close all coal-fired power plants by 2024. In fact, there are only three left, located in West Burton and Ratcliffe on Soar (both in Nottinghamshire) and Kilroot in Country Antrim, Northern Ireland).

Originally, Great Britain was supposed to end all coal power by 2025, but the government brought forward this deadline by a year, likely as an attempt to re-establish an image of leadership at the upcoming COP26 climate summit in Glasgow after months of mixed signals on climate strategy.

Why are fossil fuels still so extensively used to generate electricity?

It’s simple really. Firstly, different fuels carry different amounts of energy per unit of weight. Power stations use fossil fuels because they are more energy dense than other sources.

Natural gas can generate a lot more electricity than an equal amount of wood, which is good for power stations both in terms of output and serving the energy needs of homes and businesses, as well as their bottom line.

Operating a power station is a highly energy-intensive process and renewable technologies, whilst generating electricity of their own, aren’t nearly powerful enough to viably run a plant built for coal or gas.

Fossil fuels are relatively cheap to extract out of the ground and straightforward to store and transport, increasing these cost efficiencies. They also do not rely on the weather like renewables such as wind and solar, so they are extremely reliable.

And although fossil fuels are finite (i.e. they will eventually run out), they are still in plentiful supply.

What are the disadvantages of fossil fuels?

Yes, fossil fuels are cheap and easy to use, which makes them seem like a good source of electricity. But fossil fuels’ cost to society is high.

The main drawbacks to fossil fuels are well documented, starting with their contribution to climate change. Burning fossil fuels releases huge amounts of carbon and other greenhouse gasses into the air, causing pollution and global warming.

And it’s not just greenhouse gasses either, burning coal and oil releases nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide. This can cause acid rain which can ruin forests, rivers, soil and lakes.

In addition, particulate matter, which refers to a mixture of solid particles and liquid droplets that can be found in the air, emitted through the burning of fossil fuels, can cause heart attacks, strokes, lung cancer and other diseases.

Are there alternatives for fossil fuel-fired power stations?

Fossil fuel-fired power stations are still key to the UK’s energy infrastructure, therefore it is not feasible to expect the use of coal, gas and oil for generating electricity to disappear overnight.

However, in recent years developing technologies have led to huge innovation in the fuel industry and there are now credible alternatives for power plants. This is good news for the energy sector, which is under huge pressure to reduce its carbon emissions.

Alternative fuels for power plants include various biofuels and fuels made from non-recyclable waste, such as our own range of Solid Improved Recovered Fuel (SIRF) pellets, which are designed specifically for energy-intensive processes such as electricity generation.

SIRF pellets vs fossil fuels:

SIRF pellets are highly advantageous when compared to fossil fuels. They offer a high net calorific value, which means they can be used in power productions, as well as other high-energy-use industries such as cement and brick production.

Because they are made from dry commercial and industrial waste such as paper, wood, card and non-chlorinated plastics (which we source from local waste streams) it saves this material from being sent to landfill.

This is important when it comes to reducing carbon emissions, because every tonne of landfill has a carbon footprint equivalent to approximately 650kg of CO2 emissions, as well as releasing poisonous gasses such as carbon monoxide and methane.

Like fossil fuels, SIRF pellets are also easy to transport and handle, creating cost efficiencies when it comes to logistics and storage.

With regards to cost, SIRF pellets are far cheaper than fossil fuels (or wood pellets) and can contribute to savings of more than 50 per cent of a power plant’s energy costs overall.

Conclusion:

Ultimately, energy companies that currently use fossil fuels to generate electricity should be (and are) looking at alternatives.

In 2008, the UK government passed the Climate Change Act, which commits the country legally to reducing greenhouse emissions 80 per cent by 2050.

Recently, the country’s climate watchdog, the Climate Change Committee, challenged the government for failing to implement proper plans to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions or prepare for the accelerating effects of climate change.

Change is coming and now that there are cheaper, greener alternatives to fossil fuels, there is no excuse.

Waste Knot Energy’s first production facility in Middlesbrough will come online over the next few months and begin producing SIRF pellets. We also have more plants in the pipeline, which are at varying stages of the planning process.

Contact us to find out more.

Dr Matt Goodwin, Director, Waste Knot Energy

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