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Energy is the capacity to do work. Before you go on, review Modules 13.11/12 (Fossil Fuels) and
Chapter 14 (Energy). The main consumers of natural, or primary, energy are:
electricity generators (providing electricity as a vital secondary energy source for modern life)
transport vehicles (carrying passengers and freight by road, rail, shipping and aeroplanes)
smelting and chemical industries (making metals, cement and other products from minerals)
Electricity generators are major consumers of primary energy. They provide us with electricity
for lighting, heating, cooling, radio, TV, computers and the many devices that use electric motors.
The table on the next page lists the main types of installation and their sources of primary energy.
In many countries huge power stations are fuelled by coal,
but coal is slowly being replaced by oil, and oil by natural Hydraulic fracturing (or fracking)
gas. Each of these is less polluting than the last and is used to extract the natural gas
generates more energy per ton of greenhouse gas (CO 2). that sometimes occurs in beds of
However, all these fossil fuels are unsustainable because coal or shale. Hydraulic fluids at
they are non-renewable and emit CO 2. Bio-fuels such as high pressure are pumped into the
ethanol and biodiesel can be made from crops. They are beds to break up the coal or shale
renewable and sustainable; the crops absorb CO 2 when and release the gas. This process
they are growing and emit it when they are burnt. Nuclear has been criticised because of the
power stations use uranium which is not renewable. And danger that hydraulic fluids might
although radio-activity is normally contained in the reactor contaminate underground water
buildings, accidents that lead to dangerous leaks and the supplies, and because some of the
safe disposal of radio-active wastes are two serious issues. gas, mainly methane (CH4), might
The only traditional big power stations that are sustainable escape into the atmosphere where
it is a potent greenhouse gas.
are hydro power stations (Modules 14.9/10) in which water
flowing through a dam turns water turbines. Solar thermal
power stations are also sustainable but only a limited
number exist and many of these are small. Arrays of mirrors focus the suns heat onto boilers to
generate high pressure steam which turns steam turbines. Other sustainable installations are
mostly small scale. This has the advantage that they can usually be closer to consumers so that
less power is lost in transmission. Wind turbines are widely used and generate a significant
proportion of mains electricity in some countries. Solar voltaic panels are used on a small scale to
provide electricity direct to homes and businesses and there are also a few larger installations.
Installations that use wave, tidal and geothermal energy are still being developed.
Transport vehicles are major consumers of primary energy. Every day they carry vast numbers
of passengers and huge loads of freight all over the world by road, rail, water and air. At present
most vehicles use fossil fuels (petrol, fuel oil or
diesel) which are not renewable and emit CO2.
Sustainable alternatives are bio-fuels such as
ethanol and bio-diesel. Cars can be modified to
run on ethanol and trucks, trains, ships and planes
can be modified to run on bio-diesel. Planes will
probably always need liquid fuels where a small
weight of fuel provides a lot of energy. However,
fuel crops may have to compete for land with food
Airbus crops and better options are possible for other
vehicles. For big ships these options may involve
new developments in wind and solar technology
coupled with energy efficient engines. And for trains, trucks and cars the options are likely to
involve electricity. Hybrid cars that combine the use of petrol and electric engines are already
available. They produce at least 50% less CO 2 than conventional vehicles. Electric trains have
been in use for a long time and all-electric cars are already used in some countries. Of course,
electric vehicles are only sustainable if the electricity they use is produced sustainably!
Smelting and chemical industries are major consumers of primary energy. They provide all the
materials that the modern world depends on from metals, cement and plastics to paper, textiles
and medicines. Fossil fuels provide heat for most industrial processes. Coal is also used as a
source of carbon to reduce ores to metals, and oil and natural gas as sources of hydrocarbons for
the manufacture of many chemical products. This is not sustainable but in most cases it may be
possible to develop new processes using products obtained from crops in place of fossil fuels.
1. What are (i) primary energy sources, (ii) bio-fuels,
(iii) smelting, (iv) fracking, (v) turbines, (vi) generators,
(vii) mains electricity, (viii) hybrid cars, (ix) metal ores?
2. Where do these forms of energy ultimately come
from? (i) Wind, (ii) wave, (iii) tidal, (iv) geothermal.
3. Discuss competition of fuel crops with food crops.

18 - 12
ELECTRICITY GENERATION Primary Renewable / Pollution Notes
Type of installation: energy source Non-renewable (See also Modules 14.9 & 10)
Thermal power station Coal Non-renewable CO2, acid rain, particulates In thermal power stations, different energy
Oil Non-renewable Mainly CO2 sources are used to boil water to generate high
pressure steam. This drives steam turbines,
Natural gas Non-renewable Mainly CO2
which drive generators, which feed electricity
Nuclear (fission Non-renewable Possible discharge of into regional electricity grids or direct to users.
of uranium) radio-activity when there is Thermal power stations have low efficiencies.
an accident; (safe disposal
Many big coal and oil companies have been
of wastes is also an issue)
criticised for using their wealth and influence to
Bio-fuel Renewable Mainly CO2 delay action on climate change by spreading
Solar (heat) Renewable misinformation and confusion about global
warming and other pollution issues.
Hydro power station Flowing water1 Renewable Water flowing through a dam drives water
turbines, which drive generators, which feed
electricity into regional electricity grids or direct
to big users such as aluminium smelters. Hydro
power stations have high efficiencies.
Solar photovoltaic panels Solar (light) Renewable Domestic and small/medium/large installations
which feed homes, offices and electricity grids.
Wind turbine Wind2 Renewable Small installations, widely distributed, which feed
into electricity grids.
New devices being developed Wave2 Renewable Probably small to medium installations, widely
distributed, feeding into electricity grids.
New devices being developed Tidal3 Renewable Probably large installations, at a few suitable
sites, feeding into electricity grids.
New devices being developed Geothermal4 Renewable Probably large installations, at a few suitable
sites, feeding into electricity grids.

Hydro power comes ultimately from solar energy (evaporating water) and gravitational energy (causing the water to fall as rain and then flow downhill). 2 Wind and
waves are caused by solar energy interacting with the atmosphere. 3 Tidal movements are caused by the gravitational energy of the moon and sun. 4 Geothermal
heat is generated partly by gravitational energy compressing rocks in the Earths centre and partly by radio-active decay of isotopes in the crust (nuclear energy).

Energy sources and issues associated with generating electricity