Things I noticed and thought were interesting
Week ending 3rd November 2019
Apologies for the long break. After exhausting negotiations, it wasn’t until late June that the car charging company that I chaired was finally sold to French energy giant Engie. That was followed by a period of hibernation to write a book; What We Need To Do Now is aimed at a general audience and lays out a ‘net zero’ programme for the UK. All being well, it’ll be available in mid-January and can already be ordered.
1, 'Flexing' nuclear. Rising PV penetration poses problems for grids with large amounts nuclear power. High solar output at midday combined with inflexible nuclear implies periods of excess supply. A new US research programme will add electrolysers to power stations to make hydrogen at these times. The hydrogen from these experiments will be used for transport fuel, reduction of iron ore and other commercial uses. At one nuclear plant, the largest in the US, a ‘reverse electrolyser’ will be installed that can operate either to generate hydrogen or to turn it back to electricity in a fuel cell when electricity supplies are short.
2, Low carbon fuels for sea transport. Not before time, the world shipping industry is beginning to think about the transition away from the nasty fossil fuels it currently uses. Maersk, the largest shipping container company, says that it will have its first full carbon-neutral deep-sea vessel by 2030 and its research suggests the possible fuels are biomethane, alcohols such as ethanol, or ammonia. Dry bulk specialist Oldendorff carried out similar research, this time ruling out biofuels and focusing on ammonia. The shipping industry faces difficulties with the potential toxicity of ammonia, but it is increasingly looking like the energy source of choice for long-distance routes.
3, Wind to hydrogen. This is a truly exemplary project. The German government announced the funding for a wind-to-hydrogen project in the windy north west of the country. The project organiser is the operator of an oil refinery that uses hydrogen. A 30 MW system will provide the initial experimental data – and enough H2 for the refinery’s own needs – by 2025, with the intention to expand up to 700 MW. (These numbers put the project into the top rank of renewable hydrogen schemes worldwide). A dedicated offshore wind farm will produce hydrogen for conversion into renewable aviation fuel. The oxygen from the electrolyser will go to a cement plant. There, 100% oxygen will mean that the exhaust gas from the works will be pure CO2, decreasing the cost of carbon capture. The heat from the electrolyser will flow into a district heating scheme.
4, Grid scale batteries. Australian fossil fuel generator AGL told investors that it was seeing the ’dawn of the battery age’. Announcing a commitment to a 200MW/400MWh project, several times bigger than the largest existing global installation, it said that ‘grid-scale batteries now have a real market role’. It projects 3 GW of grid batteries by 2030 but also says that the storage capacity of EVs in Australia will be several times that level by that date.
5, Fuel cell heavy trucks. Although Japanese and Korean car manufacturers still believe fuel cell private cars have a good chance of beating battery vehicles, I’m deeply sceptical. The steep cost reductions we continue to see in batteries make it very difficult for fuel cells to compete. Charging times will fall as cars become capable of accepting more than 50 kilowatts. It is a different story for heavy long-distance trucks. I haven’t checked the data but I’m told that a truck with ten tonne capacity might have two tonnes of batteries on board, significantly curtailing its cargo carrying capability. Fuel cells might work well, and we’re seeing rapidly increasing interest from the global manufacturers. Cummins showed an impressive concept vehicle at the main North American show. Hyundai did the same, focusing on the potential design advantages of hydrogen vehicles, including more space for driver amenities, such as a shower and cooking facilities.
6, PV in 2050. Norwegian renewables giant Statkraft published its latest global forecasts. It sees solar becoming cheaper in sunny countries than existing coal plants by about 2023. It envisages PV becoming the largest global source of electricity in 2050 and forecasts costs of around €15 a megawatt hour by this date. Nevertheless, it still sees a role for fossil fuels in electricity production at mid-century, albeit for less half the number of terawatt hours of today. I don’t think I understand this; why would power producers stick with gas or coal plants that are costing three times wind and solar?
7, Offshore wind. The International Energy Agency produced some big numbers on the scope for offshore wind around the world. It estimated a total potential of around 420,000 terawatt hours a year, nearly twenty times global electricity consumption. Of that figure, 87,000 is from water shallow enough for fixed turbines. Floating turbines, often far from coastlines, make up the rest. The maximum potential for Europe is around 50,000 terawatt hours, of which around 20,000 is in water less than 60 metres deep. This is four times current European consumption. As is increasingly the case in studies of renewable energy, the IEA also estimates the likely cost of hydrogen made from temporary surpluses of electricity, quoting a figure of $2-$2.50 per kilogramme of hydrogen, or about 6-7 US cents per kilowatt hour of energy. This is seems a little high to me, but even at this level ‘green’ hydrogen competes with fossil fuel sources.
8, Forestry as offsets for oil. Shell announced details of its new offsetting programme in the UK, saying it would pay for tree planting. As in the Netherlands, where the scheme has been operating for a few months, it wants to counterbalance the CO2 from 20% of its retail fuel purchases. This is equates to approximately 2 million tonnes of emissions to be offset in the UK and the company budgets £10m to achieve this in 2020, a rate of £5 per tonne. Other oil companies use roughly similar numbers for the cost of offsetting using reforestation. Shell’s initiative is part of a Europe-wide move among oil companies (including ENI and Total, for example) to back tree planting as an escape route to being able to continue exploiting oil and gas reserves with limited financial repercussions. £5 a tonne of CO2 is, of course, far below potential carbon tax rates, or the cost of direct air capture of CO2. My ill-tempered blog post on this topic is here.
9, Adding large amount of renewables to the UK grid. In another recent blog post, I argued for what I call ‘massive overbuilding’ of renewables as the cheapest route to full and rapid decarbonisation across the economy. I used data from the UK in September to estimate that if the country multiplied its use of grid-connected wind by six times, it would have supplied sufficient electricity to cover total power needs (not all energy, just electricity). The key conclusion is that if temporary surpluses had been converted to hydrogen, then used in power plants to match periods of wind deficit, the overall cost would have been equivalent to using combined cycle gas turbines equipped with carbon capture. These calculations were based on recent auction prices for UK North Sea wind farms, combined with UK government figures for the cost of gas with carbon capture. This work is at an early stage and critical comments are very welcome.
10, Small scale synthetic fuels. This is my favourite project from the eight months I been away from this newsletter. A trial installation at the University of Karlsruhe in Germany is producing 10 litres of fully carbon-free aviation fuel a day. This happens in a shipping container that captures CO2 from the air and contains an electrolyser to make hydrogen from hydrogen and then combines them in a Fischer Tropsch process to make long chain hydrocarbons. The plan is to expand up to a couple of thousand litres a day in a pre-commercial version. One of the most impressive features of this technology is that it will work at small scale, so microgrids seeking to store energy will be able to use single shipping containers. Equally importantly, Karlsruhe promised what seem very high levels of energy conversion efficiency, estimating that 60% of the electricity going to the plant will come out in the energy of liquid fuels.