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Industry news

Things I noticed and thought were interesting

Week ending 25th March 2018
1, Consumer interest in electric cars. In a survey for consumer group the American Automobile Association, 20% of respondents indicated that their next purchase will be an electric car, up from 15% a year ago. ‘Concern for the environment’ is the most important reason. Far more women than men said that this what was pushing them towards an EV. Worries over driving range have declined (68% to 58%), as has concerns over finding a place to charge (69% to 63%). But many respondents were said to have unrealistic expectations of charging time with 68% believing that a 30 minute stop should be all that is necessary. (Fully charging a 300km range car from an empty battery would take an hour at a roadside 50kW charger).
2, Oil companies and car charging. As China increases the push towards electric vehicles, the market for motor fuels will eventually shrink. BP said it had signed a partnership agreement with a local fund manager. It will develop fast vehicle charging infrastructure as well as ‘playing a leading role’ in other parts of the electric vehicle industry, including batteries.
3, Municipal waste to aviation fuel. Fulcrum, a company in which BP has invested, started to construct its first commercial scale jet fuel plant in Nevada. This will use gasification followed by conversion to hydrocarbons using the standard Fischer Tropsch process. The yearly output of the plant is equal to about a tenth of the daily US need for aviation fuel but plans exist to roll out rapidly to other cities. Oil prices above $75 a barrel are making the economics of waste to energy plants look attractive.

4, Shift from diesel to electricity. Cummins Engine, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of diesel engines said that it would be producing the electric motors and batteries for commercial vehicles. It bought two battery makers last year and will be launching an electric bus in 2019. The head of electrification at Cummins said ‘the capability and technology today is suitable, and also the cost of the technology… works’ for urban buses and for certain other markets, such as forklifts. But she also suggested that long-distance trucks were not yet commercially viable. However Volvo and Daf both announced urban vehicles. Volvo’s is for waste collection and Daf’s for short range deliveries.
5, Concentrating solar. The US Energy Department put $72m into projects to improve the efficiency of CSP. The primary aim of the funding is to work out how to safely operate plants at 700 degrees, up from the 500 degrees possible today. This will improve the efficiency of conversion of heat into electricity. The Department said it was looking to the research to reduce the cost of CSP to about 8 cents a kilowatt hour on the way to 5 cents by 2030. Concentrating solar plants collect the sun’s energy and then store it in molten salts, meaning that they can produce electricity for the full 24 hours. 5 cents a kilowatt hour would certainly match today’s costs of PV plus battery storage.
6, Hydrogen trains. Alstom, the French manufacturer of railway equipment said it was developing hydrogen fuel cell trains for use in the UK and elsewhere. These will replace highly polluting diesel locomotives (though trains only represent 2% of the UK’s surface transport emissions). The UK government has recently scaled back plans for electrification saying that hydrogen could represent a cheaper alternative. In Austria, a short railway line will move to using 5 hydrogen-fuelled trains from 2020. Full electrification here had been opposed on visual grounds by local authorities.
7, Carbon reuse. Another scientific paper identifying important improvements in using waste CO2 and electricity to make industrial chemicals. University of Toronto scientists turned CO2 into ethylene, a precursor to plastics. Once again, the improvements arise from manipulation of catalysts to deliver a single type of molecule with growing efficiency. Usual caveat: most forms of CO2 reuse are some way from commercialisation but the range and quality of science that we are seeing demonstrates how renewable electricity and catalysts will deliver synthetic fuels and industrial chemicals.
8, Wind+solar hybrid. India published a policy paper formally encouraging the development of hybrid wind and solar farms. A 2 GW solar+wind hybrid tender was launched. News reports pointed to the logic of encouraging joint location because Indian winds tend to be strongest in the afternoon and evening. PV is strongest at midday. Combined with a battery, a wind and solar site will be able to utilise grid capacity much more effectively than those farms using just one technology. Expansion of renewables capacity becomes cheaper and easier. (The time of maximum wind speeds varies around the globe; the UK sees little pattern but, like India, California has higher winds in the second half of the day). However, Indian solar businesses are increasingly concerned by the prospect of high import duties on PV cells and are pessimistic about achieving the government’s targets for growth.
9, Demand response. It is small compared to the 100 MW Tesla pack in South Australia, but demand response specialist REstore opened a battery farm capable of delivering 18 MW in Belgium. REstore specialises in managing the power loads of industrial companies, such as steel plants, to capture revenue from turning electricity demand up or down as required by grid operators. The battery in Belgium will be pooled with other electricity loads, operating as one single entity to respond to electricity shortages or surpluses. REstore also said it would be announcing a similar battery farm in the UK in the next few weeks.
10, Oil company planning. Repsol, the Spanish oil company, produces just under 1% of world oil. It indicated that it will no longer seek to expand its production and will limit its reserves to no more than 8 years of current production rates to protect against ‘stranded assets’. (Exxon and BP have reserves of about twice this amount). Perhaps as importantly, the first part of the company’s presentation at the Annual General Meeting was devoted to an extensive discussion of the energy transition. Repsol thinks that wind and solar are now as cheap as other forms of electricity generation and that carbon capture and use has ‘great potential’.  As far as I know, no other large oil company has so explicitly stated the view that its long-term future will not be in fossil fuels.

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