Things I noticed and thought were interesting
Week ending 29th March 2020
1, Pure carbon from air-captured CO2. A new project at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, a centre of research into carbon capture and use, was funded by the German government. The pilot will turn CO2 from the air into pure carbon (‘carbon black’). Carbon black has a wide variety of applications, including tyre manufacture, and is a highly priced product. The proposed process will use the CO2 collected by Climeworks equipment, as well as renewable hydrogen, to make methane, which is then bubbled through liquid tin. The methane separates into pure carbon and hydrogen, which can be recycled. Because of its very high value, attempts have been made to make carbon black from organic materials in the past but I think this is the first time that air-captured CO2 has been the source of the carbon.
2, Power to methane. Electrochaea is the world leader in the biological conversion of hydrogen and CO2 into methane. Ancient bugs called archaea rapidly absorb CO2 and renewable hydrogen from a fluid and convert these molecules into methane. Electrochaea’s technology can thus act as a bridge between the electricity network and the natural gas system. (Methane dominates the ingredients in natural gas). The company announced successful results from a large-scale trial in Switzerland which injected gas into the local grid for a total of over a 1,000 hours. Energy efficiency (expressed as the energy value of methane output compared to the hydrogen input) was 89%, including heat collection. The huge advantage of the Electrochaea approach is that can operate at a wide variety of sizes, and works at low temperature and pressure. Although the conversion proces inevitably involves energy losses, widespread existing natural gas infrastructure may mean it is cheaper overall to convert surplus electricity into hydrogen and then methane rather than leave it as H2.
3, World’s largest green hydrogen plant. The size of future hydrogen manufacturing sites continues to sharply increase. Chinese electricity generator Beijing Jingneng indicated to local media that it would build a 5 gigawatt site in Inner Mongolia with 2 GW of wind, 1 GW of solar and about 2 GW of hydrogen conversion capacity. (To calculate this last figure I have used the estimate of 4-500,000 tonnes of hydrogen production a year). The site is close to proposed new chemical plants which I assume will use the hydrogen produced. This single plant will make just under 1% of the current world needs for hydrogen. It’s worth mentioning again that a green hydrogen plant of this size would have been wholly unimaginable as little as a year ago.
4, Hot water tanks for demand response. A new scheme run by consortium of hot water tank manufacturers and software companies will use a virtual battery of 350 UK hot water tanks to test 'demand-side response'. Households with electric water heating will be fitted with equipment that enables the heating element to be switched on and off depending on the state of the wider electricity market. The system will learn when the household typically uses hot water and will arrange to heat the tank when electricity is in oversupply. This important project seems to be a response to the sophisticated hot water tanks produced by Mixergy, which already allow the household to financially benefit by adjusting water heating to conditions in the electricity market.
5, Ammonia for shipping. Experts are divided as to the best route forward for long-distance shipping. Ammonia is an important contender as the replacement for fossil fuels. Made from hydrogen, it can be stored relatively easily but is also toxic and corrosive. Wartsila, one of the most important suppliers of ships’ engines, said it was conducting onshore trials with ammonia. It hopes for the first experiments on ships in 2022. Any replacement for heavy oil requires engine modifications and, most importantly, very widespread global availability of the new fuel. In this latter respect ammonia may be a better candidate for marine fuels than pure hydrogen, which many see as the main contender.
6, Wood for buildings. The French government decreed that all new public buildings should be constructed with at least 50% wood or other biological materials, such as hemp. This transition is surprisingly easy - see the section on cross-laminated timber in What We Need To Do Now - and can potentially result in buildings that store CO2 and thus have a negative carbon footprint. France also said it wanted 100 urban farms in towns and cities, an initiative than can be productively copied across the temperate world.
7, Prices for Australian wind. A proposed new 1 GW onshore wind farm in Queensland seems to have been tendered at a price of below £25/€27/$30 per megawatt hour. This undercuts any fossil fuels production but also brings the price of power down to levels that make hydrogen production economic. As the ever-insightful RenewEconomy web site points out, wind is a better bet for grid supply in much of Australia because large scale solar faces the disadvantage of producing electricity at the same time as millions of PV-equipped homes. Until we see very large scale conversion into hydrogen, grid solar is going to tend to command lower average prices than wind power. (I saw this on Reneweconomy.co.au)
8, Urban food. A study from the UK’s University of Sheffield showed that utilising urban green spaces could, at least in theory, produce enough fruit and vegetables to provide ‘5 a day’ for the entire population. The researchers looked at their home city and demonstrated that parks, roadside verges, gardens, flat roofs and allotments (public space rented to families to grow their own produce) amounted to about 100 square metres per head, or four times the amount of space currently given over to horticulture in the UK, which imports a very large fraction of its fruit and vegetables. Even using 10% of the available space could provide 15% of local horticultural products. This is a theme I’m sure we are going to hear more about, particularly in the UK: how will urban populations improve the resilience and quality of their food supplies?
9, EV market share. As expected, the market share of EVs in Europe has risen as manufacturers are threatened by large EU fines if they fail to meet emissions standards. Norway remains the biggest market in percentage terms. Sales of EVs, including plug-in hybrids, are now over 2/3 of the Norwegian market, and before the crisis arrived, March was likely to have been the first month in which battery-only vehicles exceeded half of all car sales. But the arrival of the VW iD3, which would be the next major step forward towards similar success for EVs in other European countries, looks as though it will seriously delayed beyond this summer as the company struggles with software problems.
10, Electric concrete trucks. Another part of the transport fleet began its transition to electric power. Leibherr announced the first fully electric concrete truck with a capacity of up to 12 cubic metres. Deliveries are usually a short distance away from the production plant and the vehicle always returns to its base at night, making electrification relatively easy. Although the continuous rotation of the mixer has been powered by electricity on earlier models, I believe that this is the first time the vehicle itself has been powered by the same motor.
Profile Books and I have had very welcome inquiries from community and commercial groups seeking to discuss What We Need To Do Now in online video meetings. We thought non-commercial organisations would benefit if we reduced the price of the digital book to make these discussions inexpensive for all. So the ebook is now on sale for about £1 via Apple, Amazon and other suppliers.
Subject to availability, I’d be delighted to participate in these forums via Zoom or other media. For example, I can lead off with a short presentation which looks at the main themes in the book. Please do get in contact if you would be interested.
Separately, if your commercial organisation would like a longer presentation about how the low-carbon transition is likely to play out over the next decade or so, do write to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. My standard presentation is intended to help start discussions on how companies can plan for the contingency of a very rapid switch away from carbon fuels and from conventional agriculture.