ZCBlog: A round-up of last week’s wind news with added gas!

Oh boy, was last week a blustery time for the future of British energy! Wind is a free resource and the sheer abundance of it across the UK during the past seven days highlights how important renewables can be for future energy strategies.

Over 9% of the UK’s electricity was generated by wind turbines on the 19th , 20th and 22nd of November. However, the total amount would have been higher because this value does not take into account turbines connected to local grids. On the morning of 22nd November, energy generated from wind-farms was more than gas. Indeed, wind power on that morning contributed over 4GW to the national grid, which is equivalent to four nuclear power stations.

This percentage of the UK’s daily electricity demand equates to around 90 GWh. That is as much as you get from burning 30,000 tonnes of coal, which would produce 90,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide because coal is pretty much pure carbon. When burning it, carbon atoms are combined with two oxygen to make a CO2 molecule. One carbon dioxide molecule has the atomic mass of 3.7 carbon molecules. Therefore by burning 1kg of coal you produce more than 3kg of CO2.

Wind is already making a valuable contribution to our energy supply. The growth rate is impressive. There is now over 6 Gigawatts of capacity compared with 2 Gigawatts in 2007. However, to create the type of low carbon energy system described in CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain 2030 report, we will need to see continued rapid deployment of onshore and offshore wind. And further changes to our energy system will be required, such as storage so that wind power can continue to supply ever greater quantities of clean energy.

Sceptics often claim that wind farms are not nearly as carbon efficient because wind needs to be backed up by burning fossil fuels. They argue that when the wind is blowing, gas turbines will have to be switched to a lower efficiency that negates any carbon savings. Combined cycle gas turbines (CCGT) are one of the most efficient gas-fired turbines in use. In a recent study, Loughborough University researched how different operation profiles influence the energy efficiency of a modern 800MW CCGT. The results show that when the turbine output modulates between 400MW and 800MW then the carbon footprint of the gas turbine per unit of electricity produced is only increased slightly compared to optimal constant operation at full 800MW capacity. This illustrates that when the wind blows harder and wind turbines produce more electricity we can reduce the amount of gas we use in turbines without having to pay a significant penalty in terms of turbine efficiency.

The evidence suggests that when we have more wind power we burn less gas and emit less CO2. The truth is that for every megawatt hour of wind generated energy, gas-powered electricity is reduced by the same amount. But how would the variable nature of wind fare during times of high demand if it became a primary resource? Well, current work by the ZCB team suggests that even with offshore wind farms spread all around the UK there will be times when almost no power is produced, and sometimes this will happen at times of high energy demand. On the other hand, it is worth noting that the UK is Europe’s windiest country so a lot of the time energy production from wind will exceed demand.

The ZCB team are busy researching methods of storing this excess energy chemically in the form of hydrogen or methane. Electrolysis can be used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen, using renewable electricity. The benefit of this is simple. It produces an energy store that can be re-used when demand requires it. Unfortunately, hydrogen is more difficult to store and handle than the natural gas (mostly methane) our gas grid uses today. The good news is that there are chemical processes to produce ‘synthetic’ methane gas from hydrogen and CO2. Methane produced in this way could be a great substitute for natural gas, which is a fossil fuel, and could be used as fuel for backup gas power stations to keep the lights on when the wind doesn’t blow. The Department of Energy and Climate Change(DECC) certainly seem to think this solution has potential as they have just awarded ITM Power a research grant to investigate this exact process. ZCB are very excited by the possibilities of synthetic methane. You can read more here.

And to end on a bit of extra good news – A major wind turbine manufacturer is now planning to open a factory in Scotland. The country is the windiest in the UK and politicians there have previously spoken out in defence of wind-farms. This deal is expected to create 750 jobs so let us hope this bolsters more interest in British wind power and aids further job creation within the renewable energy sector.


ZCBlog: Nuria Mera Chouza’s Internship

¡Hola! My name is Nuria. I am the one wearing red in the team photo and I’m a volunteer for the Zero Carbon Britain team until the end of December. Now it’s my turn to tell you something about what I do for ZCB!

I studied Chemical Engineering for five years at Cádiz University, Spain. I have been trying to focus my career on the energy sector, mainly renewable energy, so I applied for the European Leonardo da Vinci grant, to do an internship abroad. The scheme offers grants for Europeans to come and work in Britain. Knowing what I studied and my interest in sustainable energy, they told me about CAT. When they told me the tasks I would have here, I searched “Centre for Alternative Technology” on the internet and I said “I want to go there!”

Before arriving, I thought I would enjoy my work but living here would be hard. I am far away from home, and I am not as fluent in English as I would like! But things are never that hard when you are surrounded by nice people. Everyone at CAT has made me feel at home since my very first day here. They work hard on things that they really believe in. It proves that with just a little perseverance and an open mind, a brighter way of life and another future is possible. Having a walk through CAT you soon realise how many things we are missing and forgetting by living the way we do.

But what I am doing here?

In the Zero Carbon Britain 2030 scenario, wind power is a very important energy source. But renewable energies are not perfect yet and the people who are against them say they are unreliable, they say it’s “because you can not have them when you need them”. Yes, wind is a variable source of power. It doesn’t blow every time we need it and sometimes it blows when we don’t need it. In fact, some wind farms need to stop even when the wind conditions are perfect because the energy demand is low. That means that the chance to produce energy is lost because we don’t need the power at that very minute.

“Wind power can’t be as good as fossil fuels,” say the pessimists. “Because it can’t be stored for later use.”

So I have accepted the challenge! For the new ZCB report we are studying how to store the energy produced from off-shore and on-shore wind turbines. It’s my role to research the feasibility of producing hydrogen as an energy carrier, from electricity by electrolysis, and then recover the energy stored in it. Electrolysis is an electro-chemical process which uses electricity to split water molecules (H2O), which produces hydrogen gas (H2) and oxygen gas (O2). This hydrogen gas can be used in hydrogen engines or fuel cells to recover energy, or it can be combined with CO2 to produce synthetic fuel in a chemical process called Fischer-Tropsch, where hydrogen and carbon are combined to build hydrocarbon chains or in other words, carbon-based fuels. So by using hydrogen in this way, we can make an intermittent energy source like wind power far more reliable.

Because I have been researching this, the rest of the team have been able to look at the bigger picture while I focused my energy on what I enjoy! The team have given me the support I needed to research my ideas and I’m proud of my contribution to the project. I am scheduled to leave CAT in December but I really want to stay and continue working in such a great environment! Everyone here keeps on telling me how important it is to have volunteers and different nationalities working here.

ZCB is a scenario for Britain but why not let people from other countries play their part!


ZCBlog: A response to John Hayes’ comments on wind power

CAT disagrees with John Hayes’ recent comments on the development of wind power in the UK.

As a long industrialised nation, the UK should be doing more than the minimum required to meet its targets. We should be pioneering a shift toward renewable resources, which we can continue to rely on in centuries to come – unlike rapidly dwindling fossil fuels. Wind – which the UK has an enviable abundance of – remains an integral part of that shift.

The Centre for Alternative Technology’s Zero Carbon Britain report shows how we can harvest a substantial share of our energy from wind power. The proposed use of on-shore wind power is much smaller to that of off-shore wind but we do believe that the benefits of on-shore wind farms has yet to yield their maximum potential. Wind power is an established energy source with a proven track record, the UK has significant wind power resources and therefore it should be cornerstone of our energy policy.

We believe that the next stage in the development of on-shore wind should be to increase local benefits by developing structures for increased local investment, to enable developments to share a much higher proportion of the returns with local communities.

ZCBlog: Global climate change and reducing carbon emissions in Europe


During October Jan Labohy has been working as an international intern for CAT’s Zero Carbon Britain research team, analysing how other rapid decarbonisation scenarios within the international community are similarly exploring how we can rise to meet the threat of dangerous climate change.

Jan studied political, media and environmental sciences at Masaryk University in the Czech republic. He has been working in the Ecological Institute Veronica as the Climate Protection Coordinator since the beginning of 2011, specialising in climate protection on a city-wide scale. His work involves organising the Czech Earth Hour campaign; working within the Czech NGO Climate Coalition to organise conferences or excursions in the field of energy efficiency and climate protection.

Jan’s one-month intern placement with ZCB has been focused on exploring objectives and methodologies used in different scenarios on how to reduce carbon emissions. Fortunately there are many similar initiatives around the globe tackling the big questions present in ZCB2030. Projects are under way, across Europe and beyond, looking at how we all produce and consume energy. Reports such as Energy [R]evolution, published by Greenpeace, illustrate how the international community can reduce their carbon output by cutting the use of fossil fuels. WWF have also proposed energy scenarios for a number of countries. But while many of the energy reports are published by independent organisations, some are sanctioned by governmental bodies with different hopes for decarbonisation. However, every one of these scenarios has one primary concern that unites them: How can we minimise carbon heavy energy production?

By analysing twelve scenarios from eight different European countries, Jan’s research highlights key differences or common threads within each report. It has been an enlightening project and the team are keen to use his findings to improve their research for the third report of ZCB2030.

Unfortunately Jan’s time with the ZCB team has already come to an end. His work has been invaluable and the results will be a great asset for the ongoing direction of ZCB2030. Jan has just begun his PhD studying sustainability communication and the ZCB team wish him all the best.

ZCBlog will be publishing a summary of Jan’s findings soon.

For more info on the zerocarbonbritain2030 project visit our website!


ZCBlog: The new Zero Carbon Britain 2030 blog


Welcome to the new blog for Zero Carbon Britain 2030! All of the team have now settled in and we’re speeding ahead with the current research phase of the project. Learn more about who we are here.

In addition, we have been joined by Nuria Mera, a chemical engineer on a placement from Spain, and Jan Labohý from the Czech organisation, Veronica. Our brand new Artist in Residence, Joanna Wright will also be following the development of the third ZCB2030 report and incorporating a zero carbon future into her output.

The ZCB office is getting full!

In between bouts of rigorous debate, the team have spent half the time with their heads buried in ZCB2030, really probing and testing the work from the last research phase. We’ve been listening to feedback, and adding our own questions and critique. Part of the scientific method relies heavily on a critical mind – asking difficult questions and challenging assumptions. That is exactly what we’ve been doing.

The remainder of our time has been spent starting work on the larger project areas that had already been identified for further work. The two main research streams that we have started looking at in more depth are how to keep our lights on whilst depending on a highly variable renewable power supply, and also how to keep us healthy eating a low-carbon diet.

Over the next few months, whilst work will continue on all of the above, we’ll also be stepping further outside ZCB – looking at research produced by other institutions and organisations. We’ll make sure that the scenario we describe in ZCB is up to date, and incorporates fully the current scientific understanding, and any recent developments in research and technology. We look forward to having you along for the ride and we will be keeping you updated with regular posts, so watch this space!

There may be some exciting new discoveries along the way, but our main aim remains the same. As our new favourite quote states:

“The right target for both mugging little old ladies and carbon dioxide emissions is zero.”

– Ken Caldeira, Carnegie Institution of Washington