Energy Matters

In January 1889 one of the worlds first modern power stations, as we would recognise it today, opened in Newcastle upon Tyne. The Forth Banks Power Station heralded the birth of the modern era of power generation, building on principles first used in the early days of steam in the seventeenth century, but allied with modern, almost experimental technologies.

The basic principles of the process used remain the same in the majority of power stations today. Something is burnt to produce heat, in this case coal, this heats water, producing high pressured steam which in turn spins turbines. These turbines are connected to huge turbo-alternators, which are essentially banks of magnets spinning within large coils of wire. The movement of the magnetic fields within the coils produces electricity, which in itself is the basis of nearly all power production today bar photovoltaic solar panels. The opening of this power station, although a leap of faith to some extent, must have been quite an occasion with dignitaries coming from far and wide. Although not too far as air travel had another 14 years before the Wright Brothers would take their first 12 second flight into history, and with 19 year until the first Ford Model T rolled off the production line it is unlikely that any came by car. The event would also only receive printed press coverage being another 33 years before BBC would make their first radio broadcast. A lot has changed since then, our thirst for energy has grown exponentially and our life styles changed beyond recognition but 125 years on our reliance on burning fossil fuels for power has not dwindled. Today 63.8% of the UK’s electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, with another 19.8% from Nuclear and finally 14.8% from renewables such as wind, hydro and solar. These figures also do not include our personal use of gas, which most households have relied upon since the 1920’s for cooking and later heating. So is our present and future energy production stuck firmly in the past? Well, no. I don’t think so.

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Being a Design and Technology teacher I take a keen interest in energy, it is after all what a large proportion of my subject is built around and I am lucky to live in a time when energy production has never been so diverse or interesting. Within the UK we have schemes harnessing almost every imaginable renewable energy source such as wave and tidal power, hydroelectricity and wind turbines are becoming more and more commonplace. Scotland has gone for these in a big way, as anyone who has driven the M74 recently will know. They have invested large areas of land in remote mountain and lowland areas to these monoliths. Teaching in Milton Keynes I am lucky enough to have a wind farm only 15 miles away just off junction 15 of the M1. Finally but far from least we have solar energy or Photovoltaic (PV) cells to give them their proper name, which are becoming more cost effective and more popular for domestic and commercial production. Again close by to MK is a solar farm hidden away in the countryside no more obtrusive, or noticeable for that matter, than fields of rapeseed or corn. All of these technologies utilised within the UK are a great resource for me teaching my subject. I am lucky that the national curriculum asks for the study of new and emerging technologies and their social and environmental impacts, while at GCSE all exam boards ask an understanding of the social, moral, ethical and environmental impacts designers have. So for me I get the chance to look at and discuss with students the various choices for energy production and we learn that although not simple decisions to make they are important environmental and crucially economical decisions which must be made now and in the future.

Educating our students about the wide and complex issues surrounding our energy needs is important but I often wonder if we as an education system could be doing more to lead by example. I used to work on an industrial estate and often wondered why the government didn’t effectively rent our roof space to install solar panels. They would gain green low cost energy and we could be given a small reduction in energy tariff as rent so we could both gain from the joint venture. Mine like many schools is heavily energy dependant, with computers, projectors, interactive whiteboards and God only knows how many lights and like many is a building utilised by the local community. We rent out large areas of the school to local groups on evenings and weekends and thus it is open and being used nearly 24/7. Even at nine or even ten in the evening the 500m long building is still fully lit and heated and I often wonder if the government and we as a school are not missing something. Why doesn’t every public building have solar panels on it? Ignoring the environmental benefits to this, energy prices are increasing year on year. As supply (of fossil fuels) gradually reduces and demand steadily increases prices will continue to rise and the amount of our taxes being used to heat and light public buildings like prisons, schools, council offices etc. is set to continue to rise. Surely it makes financial sense for the government to push for a much larger roll out of solar panels across Britain’s roofs. They could go one stage further by making it a planning condition that all new builds would have to have a given percentage of roof space dedicated to solar paneling. With this guaranteed demand the government could fund UK businesses to design, manufacture and install these panels bringing in jobs and taxes to the UK and higher demand would lower costs making them more affordable for the domestic user. So is this going to happen, well in a word no, but the government have published their “Roadmap to a Brighter Future” and their plans could go someway to starting that process and schools should definitely show interest in their scheme.

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Within this “Roadmap” the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) set out a few plans, which should be of interest. Firstly they plan to work with private companies as well as community projects to implement as many solar photovoltaic (PV) installations as possible, as they put it “opening up the solar market for the UK’s estimated 250,000 hectares of south facing commercial rooftops”. Another element of the strategy sees the Cabinet Office leading on implementing solar panels on much of the governments estate, while the Department for Education is working on ways to improve efficiency and reduce their annual £500 million energy bill. Importantly for schools they will encourage the deployment of solar panels on schools as well as promoting energy efficiency. The Rt. Hon. Michael Gove said “Solar panels are a sensible choice for schools, particularly in terms of the financial benefits they can bring. It is also a great way for pupils to engage with environmental issues and think about where energy comes from.” This is an encouraging step for the education system going “green” and DECC have already supported 300 schools in securing finance for PV schemes. DECC have produced a document called “Power to the Pupils” which lays down the benefits and options for schools converting to renewable sources of energy and is well worth a read for all schools.

So why are the government pushing solar panels on our roofs? Well there are a number of reasons. As our energy production diversifies from a few huge power stations into a larger number of smaller, variable input plants this puts strain on the National Grid. The grid is not a battery, it does not have capacity for storage, it simply moves energy from one place to another so supply and demand must always be in equilibrium. Ever wondered why in high winds some wind turbines are not spinning? Well this is because when the wind farm is making too much energy due to limits, grid capacity or simply a lack of demand they use brakes to stop the turbines turning. We throw away energy because we cannot balance it out against demand, but at the adverse we can not rely on wind turbines completely because at that peak demand when we all get up in the morning and turn on the kettle there may be no wind. So the grid has to rely on fossil fuel power stations, which produce a steady output but are not quick to react to fluctuations. For this hydro is great as the electricity can be turned on in the time it takes water to fall down a pipe but it is reliant on rain. Nuclear however is always on, always producing a given amount, day and night regardless of demand, so 4 hydroelectric plants in the UK use surplus Nuclear energy to turn the turbines on in reverse over night and pump water back up to the reservoirs ready for peak demand the next day. Inefficiencies are born within the system where conversion and transportation occurs. Every step of the way from digging up the fuel to transporting the finished electricity along a network of wires dissecting our countryside, energy is lost. The advantage of solar power is it can produce electricity where it is needed, at our houses and places of work. No transportation is needed, no moving parts, no noise, no by-product, no waste, less demand on the grid and no fuel. Just clean, green, free energy from the sun and with panel and installation costs reducing dramatically over the last few years it would seem to make economic, environmental and educational sense. The Department of Energy and Climate Changes “Power to the Pupils” pamphlet says a main benefit of going solar is “Education and engagement: being able to communicate to pupils the benefits of sustainability through a working example of renewable technology in their own school will provide more direct engagement, particularly in the subjects of geography, science, design and technology and IT. This can also help to inspire the wider community to take action to address climate change. Taking these benefits into consideration, the business, moral and educational case for installing PV in schools is very compelling”. So read the pamphlet, show it to your head, discuss it with your colleagues and lets move our schools away from nineteenth century technology and towards smart economic, environmental and educational twenty first century choices.

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