If you want to teach renewable energy well, embrace the complexities (sponsored)

It can be tough to stay up to date with the ever-changing world of renewable energy – but we owe it to our students to find interesting ways into the topic

Sebastian Witts

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Education has to take the events of the wider world and distill them into relevant learning – but rapidly developing global events can make teachers feel like tearing up even the most freshly published textbook. Our world is changing and we need to make sure that our students have a contemporary understanding of it.

Renewable energy is an issue at the forefront of the future that young people will live in, so we must challenge their misconceptions and explore the nuances of this complex topic. Here are four interesting ways to approach it with your classes:

Give a global perspective

Renewable energy is no longer the underdog: at 1pm on 7 June, 2017 it reached a new record, providing 50.7 per cent of the UK’s energy. This was the first time that renewable energy use exceeded that of traditional sources – a significant landmark in the journey to a low-carbon future. But the situation varies significantly across the world.

Why not try a lesson exploring the mixed global picture? You can provide students with summary cards for the energy mix of different nations – they can then analyse each nation’s energy reliability, affordability and ability to meet the expectations of global climate goals such as the Paris Agreement.

Look into the wind

Wind power is becoming cheaper to harness and is being helped by some smart technological advances – such as floating wind farms. They use a helium-filled outer layer to lift lightweight turbines 600 metres above the ground and capitalise on higher and more consistent wind speeds.

One of the world's first floating wind farms, Hywind 2, is under construction off the coast of Scotland – with turbines that can be moored to the seabed at depths of between 100 and 700 metres. Offshore wind farms have previously been restricted to shallow areas, where turbines can be attached to giant pillars fixed to the ocean floor. Floating turbines can be installed far away from coasts, avoiding many of the aesthetic criticisms that have hampered other wind-based projects.  

But, as with much cutting-edge technology, cost is a barrier. The Hywind project was only made viable by a significant subsidy from the Scottish government and more traditional offshore wind farms could be constructed at around half the cost.

Students are often asked to place different energy sources along a continuum but these exercises also offer an opportunity to encourage deeper consideration of specific types of power. You can adjust activities (such as this diamond sorting task for different energy sources) to include examples of various types of wind and solar energy, giving more nuanced understanding of developments in these areas.

Bring in the battery power

One of the major leaps for renewable energy may take place behind the scenes. The sporadic nature of renewable production – relying on the sun shining or the wind blowing – means that the energy needs to be stored for use at a later time. And so companies across the world are racing to develop battery technology that is more efficient and less flammable than the standard lithium ion model.

Tesla is currently leading the way, and recently committed to installing the world’s largest ever battery in South Australia. It will store energy created by a nearby wind turbine project, with the capacity to supply more than 30,000 homes.

It’s important that students understand the complexities of building a low-carbon energy future. Examples such as Tesla and the wind farm in Australia can easily be explored through research activities. Try providing your class with an image of a Tesla car, CEO Elon Musk, a wind turbine and the state governor of South Australia – ask them to research a connection line, which will spark independent study and some complex subsequent discussion.

Embrace the unusual

Since 2013, the Abbey Stadium Leisure Centre in Worcestershire has been partially (and controversially) powered by a nearby crematorium. The heat generated from crematoriums is usually lost to the atmosphere, but the local council has invested in the scheme, saving an estimated £15,000 a year and providing around 40 per cent of the centre’s heating needs.

Unusual case studies such like this are an excellent way of getting students to explore the debate around renewable energy. When selecting examples and asking students to get to grips with specific details, it helps to have a hook that will make them more memorable.

As with so many issues, the need to reduce our dependence on carbon-based energy is complex and the challenge will not be met with one single solution. If educators can provide a holistic understanding of the topic, students will be more meaningfully engaged and more likely to explore careers addressing the big questions.

Sebastian Witts is an assistant headteacher at The King Alfred School in Somerset

You will find lots of energy themed and curriculum resources and information on www.jointhepod.org/teachers

Sebastian Witts

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