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New energy sources pose tough community challenges

ieee_225_145_pixels_blueEditor’s Note: This article is the second in a series of six special features the IEEE is preparing for Greenbang, and is authored by Saifur Rahman, director of the Advanced Research Institute at Virginia Tech and Vice President for New Initiatives and Outreach for the IEEE Power and Energy Society (PES).

As the Earth’s natural energy resources run low, how can innovative technologies help meet demand without damaging the environment?

Most of us understand that we need to develop new sources of energy … and quickly. According to the International Energy Agency’s (IEA) World Energy Outlook 2008, world primary energy demand will expand by 45 per cent between 2006 and 2030 — an average growth rate of 1.6 per cent each year.

As the IEA states, we face a real challenge in “securing the supply of reliable and affordable energy and effecting a rapid transition to a low-carbon, efficient and environmentally benign energy system.” Thus it is equally important that we find both economically and environmentally sound ways of doing so.

To face this challenge, we need to develop technology and infrastructure (for example, an intelligent or smart grid) that can successfully integrate new sources of energy supplies into the everyday balance of communities. However, there are a number of factors at play when introducing new sources of sustainable energy into the local environment — and these have to be considered.


For example, consider a government-funded pilot for a sustainable energy project. The pilot must achieve two objectives: firstly, allow the developers to field-test full- or commercial-size devices; and, secondly, identify and correct any design limitations which cannot be experienced during laboratory-scale testing. In essence, it must demonstrate the feasibility of the concept or practical applications of the technologies it uses.

Due to the innovative nature of any new technology, these pilots are generally one-of-a-kind and expensive. Without adequate long-term planning and financial and policy support from host governments, many of these new technologies and systems do not get off the ground.

Even after successful pilots, the government may still need to bring down the initial cost of the commercial venture — through tax incentives and policy support like renewable portfolio standards — to encourage further investment in the commercial application of the technology. A good example of this is the history of wind turbine generator development in the United States and Europe. During the last 15 years, this technology has become commercial on a large scale.


In communities where these pilots occur, community leaders will face a number of challenges, including land use, public concern and opposition to the deployment of a new technology. Project developers also sometimes ask officials to waive existing safety and environmental regulations which can delay their deployments and/or make them prohibitively expensive.

For instance, when the first fuel-cell demonstration plant was planned for New York City, the local fire department objected due to the storage of flammable hydrogen fuel. The objection was eventually overcome when certain safety features were incorporated into the design and operation of the hydrogen storage tanks in the city.

Another source of concern to communities can be energy source development’s potentially adverse affects on the natural habitats of birds and mammals. Impacts from oil and gas drilling have been widely documented, but there are new concerns about, for example, the negative impact of wind turbines on avian migration. Similar concerns have been raised against tidal and wave power due to the potentially negative impact they can have on marine life. In the case of offshore wind energy projects, extensive studies are carried out with respect to maritime traffic, seabed habitat, bird migration and the landing of power cables on the shore.


While there is still much to be explored and developed, it is vital to establish what needs to be improved before you can make changes in demand and supply for sustainable energy.

Think about petroleum-based fuel: There is a strong interest in converting gasoline/diesel fuel vehicles to run on natural gas, which is generally cheaper and cleaner. However, there is a severe shortage of compressed natural gas (CNG) filling stations in many countries, including the UK and the United States. There is no point in trying to reach goals which need an increase in natural gas resources unless there is a concerted effort — both at the government and private-sector levels — to encourage and facilitate CNG delivery points.

A second example is the electric power transmission network, the lack of which holds back many resource-rich countries — which can supply less-expensive and less-polluting hydro-electricity — from marketing to consuming countries. The same applies to wind-energy projects in the upper Midwest of the United States. Transmission networks must therefore be built to encourage the development of such sources of electricity.


Improvements in energy efficiency and reliability from production, delivery and consumer perspectives will differ according to the product or service.  Consider electricity, where attempts are being made to improve the conversion efficiencies of thermal power plants. Coal-fired power plants which operated at around 30-per cent efficiency 10 to 15 years ago are now approaching 40 per cent. Due to improvements in technology, controls and operator training, the reliability of electric power plants — including wind-turbine generators — has improved significantly over the last decade as well.

In terms of delivery, both the efficiency and reliability of electric power transmission lines have improved due to the use of flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) devices; further improvements will be possible with the emergence of smart or intelligent power grids.

In terms of consumer end-use, the application of high-efficiency compact fluorescent lamps (CFL) and light-emitting diode (LED) lamps has improved the electricity-to-lumen efficiency significantly.

While the future development of innovative and sustainable technology is uncertain, strides are certainly being made at a governmental level ranging from China to India to Europe to the United States. For this to be successful, however, it requires a more collaborative approach between government, industry, community leaders and ordinary citizens so that environmentally sound solutions are examined without bias or unfounded fear.

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