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Energy - Factors affecting energy supply

Physical factors affecting energy supply

Many natural or physical factors can control whether we can supply energy.  These include the geology of regions, what the climate is like and how favourable the environmental conditions are.

Geology - access to raw materials,
Geology is all to do with the rocks and minerals that are found in regions across the world.  This determines whether countries have access to fossil fuels or not.  Coal formed millions of years ago in tropical swamps and was compressed slowly over time; crude oil is the remains of compressed sea life as is natural gas.  These fossil fuels will only have formed under those conditions in certain parts of the world, so whizz forward millions of years and those fossil fuels will only be available in a select number of countries whose geologic past had those conditions. The UK had those conditions in the past so has available reserves of coal (although severely depleted) on land and has natural gas and crude oil in the North Sea.
Other complications for countries in accessing these resources include;
1. Is extracting the resources easy?
2. How large and extensive are the resources?  Is the cost of extracting the resources lower than the value of those resources?
3. How long will the energy resource last?

Oil_Reserves_Map
 

Climate
This is a major factor when determining what types of renewable energy supplies can be used and where.  Hydro Electric Power requires regular supplies of rain water for example, in colder climates where water freezes HEP will not function through winter. Solar panels run off light and not heat, so it does not have to be a particularly warm day for the panels to work well. However, a clear, bright day is the best weather condition for optimal solar panel output. On a clear, non-cloudy day the panels receive the maximum amount of light possible.  For cloudy locations around the globe solar panels are less efficient and at extreme latitudes towards the poles the panels will be inefficient through long winter nights.  Likewise, for wind turbines optimum conditions are required. Most wind turbines start generating electricity at wind speeds of around 3-4 metres per second (m/s), generate maximum ‘rated’ power at around 15 m/s (30mph); and shut down to prevent storm damage at 25 m/s or above (50m/s).

Wind energy potential map

The World's potential for wind energy at 80m high - Source:https://openei.org/wiki/Global_Renewable_Resource_Potential

Environmental conditions
In some locations around the globe the environments make it very difficult to access energy resources.  This can make them uneconomic to extract.  Very cold climates can pose problems, as can resources found under the seas and oceans if they are in high wave energy environments.  Similarly, there are deposits of oil in the oceans North of Alaska, and it is thought that there are deposits in the Great Southern Ocean around Antarctica.  These are very hazardous to access, will the pressure from decreasing resources in more accessible locations put pressure on companies to try and extract these resources?

The Human factors affecting energy supply

The cost of exploitation and production
The cost of energy is partly dependent upon how much people are paid to produce it. If wages increase for example, the cost of the fuel will increase. If the fuel source is deep underground this increases the cost of accessing that energy resource.  This may force production and extraction of resources to other parts of the world where wages are cheaper or the fuel source is more accessible (such as from surface mines).

This situation can change over time.  The UK has large reserves of coal under the ground and estimates of 23 trillion tonnes under the sea (source), it is just that it is uneconomic to mine it at the moment.  As global reserves of coal fall over time it may become economic to mine British coal again. There is a large open cast mine at Shotton Surface Mine in Northumberland and another one is planned for Druridge Bay, also in Northumberland.

Shotton surface mine

Prices can also fall as well as go up.  In 2016 oil prices fell because of extra production from Iran (which has previously been banned by sanctions from selling its oil) and because of the development of shale gas in the USA.

 

Changes in technology
Technology changes over time, and as we advance our technology we can make new energy resources available or improve the efficiency of current energy producing technologies.  In the past decade, the Fracking of shale gas has become possible, using a controversial process that involves pumping a fracturing fluid under high pressure into the drilling pipe to widen fractures in the rock or to create new ones. The fluid consists mainly of water but is mixed with quartz sand and chemicals.  This may cause contamination of water supplies and could cause seismic activity and damage to homes.  Scotland has moved in 2017 to ban Fracking.

There are experiments underway to create a fusion reactor.  Fusion power is a form of power generation in which energy is generated by using fusion reactions to produce heat for electricity generation. Fusion reactions fuse two lighter atomic nuclei to form a heavier nucleus, releasing energy.

Within renewable energy, advances have been made to improve the output of these technologies.  Solar panels are now cheaper, can be mounted on a rotating platform so they track the sun and we have developed black solar cell technology that can generate power even on cloudier days.

Wind turbine in Cramlington

Political factors
The decisions made by political leaders can affect what types of energy are produced and how much.  The UK government has a goal of banning the sale of diesel and petrol-powered cars by 2040 to push the sale of electric cars for example.  Libya is a leading producer of oil, but civil war there has severely limited its output.  In Iran, the dropping of a trade embargo (in place by many countries to try to stop Iran developing nuclear weapons) resulted in a surge in production.

In 2015 the United Nations (UN) developed a set of sustainable development goals.  One of these goals was to achieve sustainable energy by 2030.  This target puts pressure on country governments around the world to cut fossil fuel use and develop renewable energy sources.

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