Monthly Archives: May 2013

National efficiency

Thermodynamics, especially the first and second laws, are usually perceived as boring and perhaps mysterious by most people, including many engineers, as well as irrelevant by many non-engineers.  However, thermodynamics is fundamental to how engineers deliver products and services to society.  The name ‘thermodynamics’ does not help much, perhaps it would be better to call it ‘energy science’, since it is about energy transfers, conversions and flows.

The national energy flow charts mentioned in my post about ‘Energy Blending’ on 22 May 2013 illustrate nicely the first and second laws of thermodynamics (or energy science).  The underlying basis of the flowcharts is to treat the nation as a system and to account for the energy flows in and out across the system boundaries.  The first law, which is about conservation of energy, demands that the inflow and outflow balance one another, so for the UK and USA the annual inflows were 12.5 and 92 quintrillion joules respectively.  A quadtillion is a million million million or 1 with 18 zeros.

The second law demands that any real process involves an increase in entropy, which is a measure of energy dispersion, essentially lost or wasted energy, and this is also present in the flow charts.  In the centre of the UK chart is electricity generation or conversion with an input totally 82.4 Mtoe [millions tons oil equivalent], an output of 29.5 Mtoe and losses of 48.2 Mtoe, which are demanded by the second law of thermodynamics.  So the overall efficiency of electricity generation in the UK is 35.8% [=desired output/required input].

Footnote: the raw data for the UK and USA energy inflows were 299.2 Mtoe [millions tons oil equivalent] and 97 quadrillion Btu [British Thermal units] respectively which I converted into the SI unit for energy, the joule.  The links for the energy flow charts are:

UK Energy flow chart:

USA Energy flow chart:

Energy blending

As I write this post, the electricity demand in the UK is 37.5 GW [=37,500,000,000 Watts].  The industry claims that wind turbines typically supply about 30 to 40% of their capacity, while the National Wind Watch in the US claims 15 to 30%.  In other words, a large wind turbine rated at 3MW [3,000,000 Watts] would will typically generate 1MW from its 50m blades that give it a total height of about 130m [about 30% higher than St Paul’s Cathedral in London].  So 37,500 such wind turbines would be required to meet current electricity demand in the UK, or one for every 1.6 miles on a square grid covering the country, which is why blending of energy sources is essential [see posting on May 15th, 2013 on Energy diversity].

We can do similar calculations for solar panels, which typically produce 250 Watts /square metre but for only perhaps 4 hours per day in the UK, so that 150 square kilometres of solar panels would be needed to meet current demand, if the sun was shining which it is not – another reason for blending energy sources.

Fossil fuel fired power stations make up 70% of the blend in the UK and are responsible for about 25% of the UK carbon emissions.  The UK government aims to reduce carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 (based on 1990 levels), so about 65% of the UK powerstations have to be changed in the next 35 years to provide a more sustainable blend of energy sources.  This is not long given the scale of the infrastructure projects required and the situation is the same in many countries around the world.  So there is plenty for engineers to do once the decisions have been made on the blend.

[ ]

[ ]

Energy diversity

Probably most people never give a thought to where the power comes from to switch on the light or their TV.  Engineers are primarily responsible for ensuring that the right number of power stations are available to supply exactly the right amount of electricity to match demand.  If supply exceeds demand then energy needs to stored, for instance at the Dinorwig storage scheme [ ]; however if demand exceeds supply then someone’s lights will dim or go out until an additional power station can be switched on or the output increased from one that is running.  The latter is a relatively quick process but switching on a power station takes longer than half time in a televised football match when everyone switches on the kettle or makes some toast.

You can see how national demand in the UK varies in real-time at the National Grid website [ ].  There is a similar “national electricity meter”  for Spain  [ ], which also shows the blend of energy sources being used.

Blending sources such as fossil fuels, hydro, nuclear, solar, tidal and wind is the key to a cost-effective sustainable energy supply with the diversity to adapt to unexpected circumstances.

Sustainable democracy

The concept of a continuously growing economy does not seem compatible with the creation of a sustainable society.  It is not possible to carry on producing more and more in a world that has finite resources, see my post on an ‘Open-world Mind-set’ on 4th January 2013.

Eventually, engineers and scientists will solve the problems of providing a sustainable and high quality of life to the global population.  However, one likely consequence is a world economy that does not grow, at least not as currently measured.  Modern Western-style democracy is based ‘on the ability of competing parties to offer voters a better material future (more stuff) year by year’ [Andrew Marr, A History of the World, MacMillan, 2012].  What is going to happen when voters acknowledge this vision is unrealizable?

Perhaps it is happening already in the US and Europe.  The turnout in elections is low – between 30 and 40% in local elections in the UK last week.  The PR industry is playing a bigger role in politics and selling a brand rather than policies.  Economic growth has all but stopped, and is proving difficult to re-start.

I suspect that sustainable engineering is going to be easy to achieve compared to eliminating the dependence of our democracies on growth.  Let’s hope the patient does not die before being cured of the addiction!