There has been a lot of talk over the past few years about different energy technologies and which are the best for Bermuda.
In this article, we take a look at why solar water heating and solar electricity generation are two great technologies that we will be seeing a lot more of — not just in Bermuda, but across the whole world as the use of fossil fuels such as oil, coal and LNG (liquefied natural gas) are phased out.
How much energy is available?
When picking an energy source to power your car, home, business or even a small island nation, the first step is to consider how much energy is available.
We know it’s sunny here, but how does our solar energy resource stack up against our consumption of energy?
Pretty well it turns out — covering just a fifth of our roof area with solar photovoltaic panels can produce up to 42 per cent of our current demand for electricity.
If we had one or two large-scale projects, such as a solar farm at the airport, this could push this easily past 50 per cent.
Considering that we waste more than half the energy we consume through inefficient technologies and bad habits, we can see that it is conceptually possible for our island to be completely powered by the sun once this waste is eliminated.
It is worth mentioning that affordable technologies exist today that could be used to achieve the required efficiency gains.
Unlike solar energy, fossil fuels will not be available in the future, which is why it is so important that we learn to live without them sooner rather than later.
These fuels have been running out since humans sunk the first oil well and dug the first coal mine.
Will the energy be available when we need it?
One of the main arguments against solar energy technology is that it is unpredictable.
As we discussed in the last edition of Go Green, this is not really true as weather patterns can be predicted with such accuracy these days that some companies are now able to offer close to minute-by-minute forecasting by using real-time satellite images to predict when clouds will shade solar energy systems.
Clouds aside, the sun rises every morning and follows a predictable seasonal pattern that can be forecast hundreds of years in advance.
While solar output may vary throughout each day, we know that it will always be available over the long term.
Fossil fuels can provide short-term energy on demand, which tends to give the illusion of energy being there exactly when we need it. The reality is that fossil fuels in Bermuda rely on a complex supply chain vulnerable to storms, political unrest, terrorism, labour disputes and other unpredictable events.
With only a few months’ reserve supply on the island, we are living with a constant risk of supply interruption, not to mention dwindling global supplies.
How much can we use?
Last year the Pacific island of Tokelau became the first country to be powered 100 per cent through a solar photovoltaic generation system, proving it is possible to power modern society with solar technologies today.
Looking at the global context, it is important to consider whether solar production can be scaled to provide a worldwide energy solution.
The vast majority of solar panels are constructed from aluminium, glass and silicon, which are all composed from some of the most abundant elements known to mankind.
This is important, as it means solar is a scalable solution. Solar panels can also be recycled at the end of their useful life, so they really do offer a sustainable source of energy.
The situation for fossil fuels could not be any different — most climate scientists agree that greenhouse gas emissions produced by their combustion need to peak within the next couple of years and then rapidly decline.
We know that their use needs to be rapidly phased out, but trillions of dollars’ worth of fuels must be left in the ground unused if we are to avoid dangerous climate destabilization.
How much can we afford?
Over its lifetime, a solar energy system in Bermuda will generate energy for 75 per cent less than generating electricity using oil.
The greenhouse gas emissions produced during the system’s manufacture are usually paid back within a year or two, so these systems are both financially and environmentally affordable.
Considering the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and the ever-increasing cost of fossil fuels, they are unaffordable from both an environmental and economic perspective. We simply cannot afford to continue investing in technologies and fuels that belong in a museum.
How reliable is the technology?
Solar water heating and solar electricity generation systems require little maintenance and have lifetimes of many decades.
The original solar photovoltaic cell invented by Bell Laboratories in 1954 is still generating electricity today.
Because most systems are composed from many smaller individual panels, which each contain dozens of individual cells, they carry a high degree of built-in redundancy as individual panels can be easily replaced.
Fossil fuel generators often contain thousands of moving parts that need maintenance, making them vulnerable to sudden failure.
In practice, many solar energy generation systems have demonstrated much higher availability than fossil fuel plant.
As Bell Laboratories proclaimed back in 1954, “If this energy could be put to use there would be enough to turn every wheel and light every lamp that mankind would ever need.”
Despite present concerns about the sustainability of fossil fuel consumption, thanks to solar technologies we can rest assured that the future is bright.
Chris Worboys is the business strategy consultant for Bermuda Engineering Company Ltd. For more information call 279-5907 or see www.bermudaengineering.com