Things I noticed and thought were interesting
Week ending 13th January 2019
1, Wireless Vehicle-to-Grid. Honda’s stand at the key Consumer Electronics Show (CES) featured a new technology that manages two way car charging/discharging. The electricity is transmitted wirelessly from plates on the bottom of the car to a pad on the ground. The charging capability is provided by Boston-based company WiTricity, which has a good claim to lead wireless vehicle-to-grid development. The automobile companies are gradually merging with the power industry; VW said this week it was entering the electricity supply business. Honda has also announced progress on a new battery chemistry for cars that may offer cheaper, more energy dense cells. (Thanks to Gage Williams).
2, Hydrogen at Valencia port. Hydrogen continues to creep into use as the source of power for mobility operations in unexpected places. The port of Valencia in Spain started a project that will see power being provided by hydrogen fuel cells for the machines that stack and move containers. The port will acquire a moveable hydrogen storage tank that will take the gas to the machinery.
3, Large scale building insulation. Britain’s housing stock is the oldest in the world. Over 20% was built before 1919, now a century ago. Homes are still built today to insulation standards well below the rest of northern Europe. Attempts to improve energy efficiency have largely failed and older houses are damp and cold. Probably the only technique which will work involves adding new exterior walls and roofs. This is far from cheap but can dramatically reduce energy needs. The Dutch EnergieSprong system produces good-looking houses with real improvements in comfort for the residents. It has been used on 15,000 houses in the Netherlands and is being tried in several other large countries. The approach is probably best suited to houses built from about 1930 to 1960 in estates with many identical properties. EnergieSprong in the UK is being piloted in Nottingham, a large city in the English Midlands, where energy cost reductions of around £600/$750 a year are achieved. But the expected long-term cost of typical conversions is over £60,000/$75,000, implying a rate of return of only 1%. But the benefits less easy to quantify, such as better health, less maintenance, good looking houses, householder pride and greater comfort should persuade authorities to devote resources to real improvements in Britain’s appalling housing stock.
4, PV and hydrogen. A new Swedish municipal housing project stores surplus PV as hydrogen. The developers claim that the scheme will make the buildings energy self-sufficient, including heating, over the course of the year. I don’t think the numbers come anywhere close to supporting this assertion. (The first block has 109 kW of PV which has to supply the energy for 30 flats. 109 kW in Sweden will have an average year-round output of less than 10 kW, or about 300 watts per house). Nevertheless, this is a fascinating experiment that will demonstrate whether fuel cells (using hydrogen) combined with PV can help match seasonal needs and supply.
5, EV sales Netherlands. Expiring tax breaks meant that EVs took 30% of the car market in the Netherlands in December, with sales of the most expensive models surging. Across the year, pure battery cars represented over 5% of sales, with volumes up to 200% over the year. World electric car sales rose to about 1.9 million vehicles, up about 80% on the year.
6, Hawai’i utilities and solar. Hawai’i said it would install a further 260 MW of solar, plus enough battery storage to hold four hours’ worth of peak production. This is an unusually high ratio of storage capacity to electricity generation, enabling nearly reliable 24 hour power. The price paid to developers for electricity of 8+ cents per kilowatt hour reflect the high storage element but were still described by enthusiasts as ‘mindblowing’. Hawai’ian power largely comes from diesel generators, which provide electricity at prices double this level.
7, Power-to-gas in Korea. The Korean government put forward a plan for the country’s first power-to-gas facility at a cost of around $45m, most of which will be public money. Germany alone has about 35 working power-to-gas sites, mostly experimental, but progress has been slower than I expected. Korea’s entry alongside several other countries in the last few months suggests it sees a vital role for power-to-gas in the energy transition.
8, Direct air capture of CO2 (DAC). Two important events in the last few weeks. Carbon Engineering in Canada announced an investment from two oil majors, Chevron and Occidental (no figures provided). Climeworks in Zurich said it would be supplying captured CO2 from a new facility to a Coca-Cola bottling plant for use in fizzy water. Much scepticism remains about the future of extracting CO2 directly from air with many commentators stating that it theoretically ought to be much easier, and cheaper, to capture it from flue gas. Most of the evidence today, however, suggests that DAC will end up cheaper than CCS from exhaust gases. Carbon Engineering says that its CO2 will cost less than $100 a tonne at scale and this figure uses what I think are very high figures for the crucial input: the price of the heat to drive off the CO2 from the absorbent chemicals. The company claims that it then produces a gasoline substitute from electrolysed hydrogen and captured CO2 for ‘about 20%’ more than from fossil fuels today. Hydrogen is the dominant cost of making a synthetic fuel and as electrolysis from renewables continues to fall in price, H2 will become cheaper, eventually making fossil fuels uncompetitive. This is early days but Carbon Engineering and Climeworks are probably the two most important global companies in the fight to get to zero emissions as fast as possible.
9. The geopolitics of the energy transition. Not enough thought has gone into how the spread of new energy technologies will impact geopolitics. An insightful new report helps us begin to understand how the relations between states will change as the huge energy flows from one part of the world to another start to decline, to be replaced by power production close to the point of need, using solar and wind. However I thought the report underestimated the future importance of a global trade in hydrogen, which may eventually replace oil as the single most important traded commodity. The USA, Russia and the countries of the Arabian peninsula control fossil fuels today, which will dominate hydrogen? A look at the wind and solar availability on this page from the report suggests Chile, Morocco, Australia (particularly the west) and the countries of the Horn of Africa may become as importantly geopolitically as the oil states today. These are the places with high solar and high wind availability, enabling near 24 hour production of renewable hydrogen.
10, Pumped hydro. Pumped hydro is still a vastly more important energy storage medium than batteries. But many think that moving water uphill is no longer cost competitive with lithium-ion. China suggested it still believes in the old technology with a new commitment to a total of 6 GW by 2026 at a cost of $5.7bn. (Total generating capacity is over 2,000 GW). This is about $1,000 per kilowatt. Difficult to compare with batteries at around $150 a kilowatt hour but it doesn't look cheap to me, particularly since pumped hydro is only about 70% efficient. However, total battery storage in China was only about 800 MW at the end of 2018, or less than the likely annual additions to storage capacity proposed in the new pumped hydro plans.