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We won’t be covering the latter question here (there are hundreds of resources available online that will help steer you towards a more energy efficient path), but we will be examining the major sources of energy (fossil fuels, renewable power and nuclear power) and explaining exactly how they get turned into energy and end up at your doorstep.
Fossil fuels are very much the bread and butter of the energy world, but they are also unsustainable, with the world’s reserves of oil, coal and natural gas diminishing by the minute. Still, fossil fuels remain the most common source of global energy, and are likely to remain so until the taps quite literally run dry.
Natural Gas – Natural gas is extracted from the earth by gigantic drilling stations, which are generally built out at sea. These behemoths are able to mine natural gas from deep within the earth and send it to a plant where is can be filtered, removing all the water, acid, mercury and nitrogen, which would render it unusable and dangerous. Once the natural gas has been properly filtered it will be sent to the national grid, which will add the sulphur smell that we all associate with gas (the gas is naturally odourless). It can then be distributed to suppliers, who will supply it to your home via a series of pressurised pipes.
Our consumption of natural gas has increased dramatically in the last 10 years, with more than 3020.4 million tonnes (oil equivalent) used worldwide in 2013, as opposed to 2424.7 million in 2004. The region that consumes the most natural gas is Europe and Eurasia, which uses up 31.7% of the world’s total supply, but North America is not far behind at 27.8%.
Oil – Oil is still mined in much the same manner it has been for hundreds of years, only now the methods are obviously a little less archaic. First, a reserve of oil is found (as with gas, a lot of oil is found under the sea) and a well is drilled, the oil is then extracted through this newly created bore hole. It’ll then be sent to a boiler, which burns the oil and converts chemical energy into heat energy, which heats the water stored in a series of pipes coiled around the boiler. This creates steam, which drives a turbine that in turn drives a generator. This is where the electricity is created and sent through a transformer to convert it to a high voltage of around 400,000 volts. This high voltage is sent through power lines, which run into a transformer that converts the voltage back to a sensible level before it is fed into our homes.
Our global consumption of oil has not increased that drastically over the last decade, but there has still been a rise from 3869.1 million tonnes in 2004 to 4185.1 million tonnes last year and it remains the most common source of energy in the world. Though it might be expected that North America would be the main culprits when it comes to oil consumption, they actually fall behind Asia, with the Asia Pacific consuming 33.8% of the world’s total oil supply and the USA consuming only 24.5%.
Coal – With coal, the latter stages of the process are very similar (in fact, almost identical) to the process used to convert oil, but at the beginning stages the process is a little different. First, coal is mined via an underground or surface mining operation, before being transported to the power station. Here, it is ground into a fine powder and blown into a boiler, where it’s burned in order to convert chemical energy to heat energy. The coal is ground into a powder to increase its surface area, helping it burn faster and producing less waste. From here on in the process is almost identical to the oil process, apart from the addition of the exhaust stacks, which filter out the dust and ash and vent them into the atmosphere. These exhaust stacks are so tall because the idea is to let the exhaust disperse before it hits the ground, leaving the surrounding air unaffected.
The vast majority of the world’s coal reserves are consumed by Asia, with the Asia Pacific accounting for a whopping 70.5% of global coal consumption. They must be using a lot of it too, as in the last decade overall consumption has risen from 2798.5 million tonnes (oil equivalent) in 2004 to 3926.7 million in 2013!
We all know deep down that we really should be using more renewable energy resources, but unfortunately, in a struggling economy, fossil fuels are just too convenient and affordable for the masses to ignore. There has been a steady rise in renewable power consumption throughout the 21st century, however, with solar power especially catching on like wildfire in the developed world.
Hydroelectric – We all know that hydroelectric power is sourced through dams, but how those dams actually manage to convert water into power is something that remains a mystery to all but the most scientifically adept amongst us. It’s quite simple really; a dam blocks a river, turning one side into a reservoir. The dam is lined with gates, each of which have turbines attached that are powered by the pressure of the water as it’s released through them. The turbines are connected to a generator, which converts the mechanical energy generated by the turbines into electricity. The process is then very much the same as with oil and coal, indeed, the one variable in all instances is how the initial energy is collected.
Whilst it might still be seen as a ‘fringe’ energy source (unless you’re referring to Las Vegas, of course, the global consumption of hydroelectricity has actually risen quite substantially in the last ten years; from 635.1 tonnes in 2004 to 855.8 in 2013.
Solar – Very much the recent success story of the renewable energy source world, solar power has come on leaps and bounds since the turn of the century, when it was seen as a fringe concern. The process is incredibly easy and localised, which explains why so many homes now are deciding to “Panel up.” The panels, which are generally connected to your roof, collect sunlight that knocks loose electrons, which are encouraged to travel in the same direction by the semi-conductor to create an electrical circuit. A direct current is then generated and converted into an alternating current using an inverter. This current is then fed into your home via a fusebox. Simple as that!
Of all the renewable energy sources, solar has seen the biggest increase with an oil equivalent of 28.2 million tonnes consumed in 2013 compared to a pitiful 0.6 million in 2004!
Wind – Wind blows over the blades of the windmill motor causing it to spin, which drives a generator. This converts the mechanical energy to electrical energy and this energy is taken via a series of cables to a substation, where it’s converted to a high voltage. The process from there is (you guessed it) to send the voltage through the power lines to a transformer, which… you know the score by now, right?
The use of wind power has risen dramatically throughout the fledgling 21st century from 19.4 million tonnes in 2004 to 142.2 million in 2013.
The one constant you might have noticed, in fact, with all of these energy sources is that they have all risen steadily since the dawn of the new century. This is simply because there are more of us now than there ever has been and we’re becoming more and more wasteful. This waste could be negated somewhat, however, if more of us decided to take the initiative and invest in renewable energy sources.
The big bad daddy of them all. Nuclear energy has had an incredibly conflicted recent history, but it is actually incredibly cost-effective and efficient, and is still used heavily in Europe and North America, which use 46.7% and 37.9% of the globe’s nuclear power respectively. Still, years of scaremongering and a few disastrous meltdowns have had an adverse effect on the popularity of nuclear power, so whereas in 2014 we used 624.7 million tonnes of it, we now only use 563.2 million.
When it comes to explaining nuclear power, and how it creates the energy that fuels our homes, you would need a scientific doctorate to really give it the credence it deserves. It’s a fascinating and complicated process that I will attempt to condense into the basics to the best of my abilities. Wish me luck!
Fuel rods, which are sealed metal cylinders containing uranium, are stored within a nuclear reactor. Neutrons are fired at the uranium atom, causing it to split and release two or three more neutrons, converting the nuclear energy which holds the atoms together into heat energy. Whilst this is happening in the core, water is being pumped into the reactor, where the reaction happening inside the core heats it to about 300 degrees Celsius. To stop it from boiling, incredibly dense atmospheric pressure is applied. This hot, pressurised water is then sent through the reactor through a coolant pump into a steam generator, whilst a second stream of water is sent through the steam generator under significantly less pressure. This allows steam to be created, which powers a series of turbines. From here on in, the turbine powers a generator, which uses an electromagnetic field to change the mechanical energy into electricity. Rinse and repeat. We got there in the end!
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