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Industry news

Things I noticed and thought were interesting

Week ending 10th February 2019
1, Solar plus battery. Sunrun, the largest US domestic solar installer, won a share in the New England ‘capacity’ market in competition with mainstream power companies. (A participant contracts to have a certain number of guaranteed megawatts of generation capacity available at very short notice). The contract is very small - 20 MW – but I believe that this is the first time domestic batteries have successfully been bid into an open capacity auction. Sunrun will put 5,000 systems to fulfil this contract with each battery therefore providing an average of 4 kW. As with many other domestic installations seeking to participate in grid stabilisation projects, partial control over the battery will be retained by Sunrun.
2, Reluctance to cut air travel. Public awareness of the climate effects of air travel is surprisingly low in many countries. A survey in the UK – where the number of flights per person is as high as anywhere in the world – also showed a reluctance to change personal behaviour. Those taking more than 6 flights a year are more likely (74%) to say that they are ‘concerned’ about climate change than the average (70%). However only 42% of these heavy fliers were willing to reduce the amount of flying in order to protect the environment, compared to 50% overall. 67% of these frequent fliers also thought that people should be allowed to take as many flights as they want, compared to 47% of the whole population. (The climate change effect from 6 or more flights may well be greater than an individual’s other CO2 emissions added together).

3, Australian renewables growth. The pace of renewables growth in Australia exceeds any other large country, despite the coal-friendly policies of the central government. A study showed that Australia is currently installing 250 watts of PV or wind for each inhabitant per year. The EU and US are about one fifth of this. If this rate of growth continues, Australia will reach 50% renewables by 2024 and 100% of electricity demand by 2032. Costs of new large scale PV and wind are now around US35/MWh, lower than the running costs of older coal stations. The researchers estimate the costs of dealing with intermittency at no more than US$3/MWh in 2024, but probably five times this amount in 2032. This still leaves renewables as superior to coal and gas.
4, Green New Deal. New US congresswoman AOC put forward a target of complete decarbonisation of US electricity production. There are no specific suggestions in her document as to how this might be achieved and commentators were quick to ridicule the implausibility of the plan. But merely copying the current installations per person of renewables in Australia (see 7 above) would increase the percentage of low carbon electricity in the US at a rate of about 5% per year, meaning that US electricity supply (17% renewable in 2017) would rise to 67% in ten years’ time.
5, Offshore Wind. An energy analytics business predicted that offshore wind in UK waters will be cheaper than onshore within ten years. The crucial reason is that offshore is now achieving capacity factors of almost 60%, compared to slightly less than 40% for onshore. The UK’s restrictions on the height of onshore turbines are holding back improvements in performance while 12 megawatt offshore turbines promise even better capacity factors and lower costs.
6, Power to gas in Germany. Greenpeace Energy, an offshoot of the environmental NGO that supplies domestic consumers, announced it would commission an electrolyser to produce hydrogen for insertion into the north German gas grid. The I MW electrolyser will be used to take surplus wind power that would otherwise be at risk of curtailment, as well as being controllable by the grid operator to help reduce variations in grid frequency. Greenpeace Energy can, of course, rightly claim that its gas customers will receive low carbon fuel from the electrolyser. The current Storm Erik, blowing through Europe over this weekend, has produced German grid prices of around zero for the last days, meaning hydrogen would be cheaper than natural gas for the grid. 40 gigawatts of electricity from wind have provided most electricity supply with conventional sources, including nuclear, supplying as little as 15 gigawatts at night.
7, Concentrating solar power. Most emphasis over the last few years has been on solar towers onto which thousands of heliostats reflect the sun’s energy. A 100 MW plant using the older technology of parabolic troughs was inaugurated this week in South Africa. The Kathu plant has the capacity for 4.5 hours production of electricity from stored heat in tanks of molten salt.
8, Compressed air storage.  Canada’s Hydrostar announced that it has raised the money to construct one of the world’s first compressed air storage plants, to be located in a former underground zinc mine in South Australia. The 5 MW venture will compress air at times of grid surplus and store it deep in the mine. The heat from the compression will be collected and used to expand the air when it is needed for driving turbines to return power to the grid. The money raised - about US$6m, or $1200 per kilowatt – suggests that this project is considerably more expensive than a battery of similar capacity but costs will probably fall as the size of future projects increase. Compressed air storage of this type potentially also helps grid stability by providing what is known as ‘synchronous inertia’, a valuable characteristic not possessed by batteries. An article in Nature Energy looked at the potential for energy storage in aquifers underneath the North Sea, saying that they could hold around 80 TWh, or about as much as the UK’s electricity consumption in ten weeks of winter. But round-trip efficiency is low (not much more than 50%, compared to 90% for batteries) and costs would be a multiple of other storage technologies.
9, ‘Blue’ hydrogen. Large industrial companies and energy producers around the port of Rotterdam announced a programme of research aimed at building large scale hydrogen production infrastructure in the area. The intention is to use natural gas as the feedstock, with the resulting CO2 stored in depleted gas fields off the Netherlands coast. (This process is called ‘Blue’ hydrogen whereas hydrogen from electrolysis is fully ‘Green’). The participants argue that large-scale Blue hydrogen manufacture prepares the way for Green because it will use largely the same infrastructure. The hydrogen is planned to be used in chemicals manufacture but also possibly as a fuel for electricity generation at the Eemshaven power station, which may be converted from gas to hydrogen. This looks like a serious and well-thought through idea, with the potential for saving millions of tonnes of CO2. However, as always, the carbon capture and sequestration component seems weak and ill-defined.
10, Offshore wind. Rhode Island said that the price to be paid for offshore wind from the Revolution farm will be just over 7 cents per kilowatt hour. This is a low figure, very similar to the levels seen in Europe, even though the US has virtually no installed offshore wind today.
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