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The University of Southampton

PHYS2015 Introduction to Energy in The Environment

Module Overview

Is it necessary -- and is it possible -- for the UK and other countries to make the change from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources? And what sort of changes would be involved, on a global, national and personal scale? Is there any one renewable energy source that can provide most or all of the UK's energy needs? Can we continue to expand air travel indefinitely by making planes much more fuel efficient? Questions like these are becoming increasingly common and important, but clear answers can seem disappointingly rare. Against this background, the goal of this course is to develop a clear understanding of the physical principles that govern the key modes of energy generation and usage. This will then allow us to explore if and how our current energy needs can be supported by different types of energy sources (from fossil fuels to renewable to nuclear). We will also look carefully at the motivations for moving away from fossil fuels, considering both climate change and the finite nature of non-renewable resources. Throughout the course, the emphasis will be on developing insight, rather than on memorizing specific numbers or factoids. We will do this by learning how to develop simple, highly approximate, but nevertheless quantitative models of physical processes. These will allow us to find surprisingly clear-cut and definitive answers to seemingly difficult questions, including those posed above. Please note that although there are no formal pre-requisites, the mathematical skills required for this module are: - Manipulating and solving algebraic equations - Simplifying expressions using approximations e.g. the binomial approximation - Calculating basic geometrical properties: area, volume, surface area - Applying simple trigonometric functions: sine, cosine, tangent - Working with exponential and logarithmic functions - Interpreting graphs of functions or data on linear and logarithmic scales - Using and converting units for physical quantities such as length, time, energy, etc. No calculus is used in the module.

Aims and Objectives

Learning Outcomes

Knowledge and Understanding

Having successfully completed this module, you will be able to demonstrate knowledge and understanding of:

  • Depict the promises, problems and limits associated with different forms of energy (e.g. fossil fuel-based, solar, wind, tide, wave, geothermal, nuclear fission, nuclear fusion...)
  • Describe the physical principles underlying energy production and usage
  • Recognize the need for quantitative analysis in designing energy sustainable plans
Subject Specific Intellectual and Research Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Illustrate the energy demands associated with human needs and activities (transport [trains, planes, automobiles], food/farming, housing...)
Transferable and Generic Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Construct and use approximate, but quantitative models for key physical processes
  • Distinguish the choices and compromises that need to be made in designing a sustainable and socially/politically viable national/international energy plan
Subject Specific Practical Skills

Having successfully completed this module you will be able to:

  • Ability to carry out analyses of energy plans


- Basic principles: different forms of energy, relation to force and power, exponential growth. - Motivation: climate change (incl greenhouse effect), the finite nature of fossil fuels (incl peak oil), energy security - The balance sheet: analysis of key energy consumption and sustainable production modes - Consumption modes covered include: car travel, plane travel, heating, food, gadgets, imports, lighting. - Production modes covered include: wind, wave, hydro, tides, nuclear (fission and fusion), solar (PV and thermal), clean coal. - Effective ways to reduce consumption and/or increase production - Implications for energy plans and energy policy

Learning and Teaching

Wider reading or practice66
Preparation for scheduled sessions18
Follow-up work18
Completion of assessment task2
Total study time150

Resources & Reading list

An online maths revision module is available. 

David MacKay. Sustainable Energy Without the Hot Air. 



MethodPercentage contribution
Final Assessment  100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Set Task 100%


MethodPercentage contribution
Set Task 100%

Repeat Information

Repeat type: Internal & External

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