Category Archives: Energy

Tidal Energy


Scotrenewables: Floating tidal energy device with retractable turbines being launched in Kirkwall

This week Scotrenewables announced the successful operation of their SR2000 floating tidal energy device, operating at full 2MW capacity. The SR2000 weighs 500 tonnes, has a floating main body with two 1MW turbines that fold up while in transit and fold down while in use. Because they can be easily built and deployed without expensive specialist support vessels the overall costs should be kept down. This is the largest tidal stream energy device currently operating anywhere in the World. The initial site is in Lashy Sound between Eday and Sanday in the Orkneys where there are very strong tidal currents, but Scotrenewables claim the same technology can be easily adapted to areas with slower tidal currents or used in rivers, so opening up many diverse potential markets. Scotrenewables are based in Kirkwall and have worked closely with the European Marine Energy Centre (EMEC) in Stromness. I’ve blogged before about tidal energy and EMEC in 2010 and 2013.

MeyGen with their seabed mounted tidal stream turbines still seem to be progressing with their project in the Pentland Firth. The Hendry Review into tidal lagoon technology came out strongly in favour a few months back, and work on the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon project is due to start in 2018. Perhaps at long last the tide is turning in favour of tidal energy.

These three pioneering tidal energy companies offer great possibilities for helping meet UK energy needs and also represent a huge potential for exporting the technology globally. At least two of the three companies have been helped by EMEC, and EMEC continue to work with other pioneering and innovative wave and tidal start-up companies. It is tragic to think that if Brexit does indeed go ahead the UK may lose many global centres of excellence such as EMEC that have come to the UK only because our membership of the EU and depend on EU funding and collaboration.

China: CSP


The Provinces of China. New CSP will mainly be in Qinghai, Gansu & Inner Mongolia.

Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) uses mirrors and lenses to focus the energy of the sun to make steam, drive turbines and so make electricity. This solar technology can be used to directly drive industrial processes, desalinate seawater, or to power air conditioning via absorption chillers. With CSP heat is usually stored in molten salt and this is then used to generate electricity in the evenings after the sun has set. This is a very important advantage over photovoltaic solar. I’ve long been a fan of this technology and have written about it frequently on this blog. In the first decade of this century Spain lead the world, before abandoning support under the Rajoy government in 2010. In February 2013 I posted a blog asking ‘where next for CSP?’ I’ve posted blogs about Morocco, Chile, South Africa and USA who have all built impressive examples of this technology.

Until recently China had not built any serious CSP power projects. A couple of months ago they simultaneously announced twenty projects, ranging in scale between 50MW and 135MW, all with thermal storage and all designed and built mainly by local companies. Various mirror configurations will be used: parabolic troughs, power towers and Fresnel systems. All the projects will have to be up and running before 2019 to get the agreed price of 1.15 yuan/kWh. This is a very tight time scale, but I’d expect all will be achieved on schedule. The Chinese government refers to these as demonstration projects. If they are successful, which I’m sure they will be, I would expect the next tranche of projects to be on a larger scale. The projects are all in the sunnier west of China: mainly in Qinghai, Gansu and in Inner Mongolia. High voltage direct current power-lines will connect them to the cities on China’s less sunny east coast.

Jeremy Williams wrote an interesting blog about China’s carbon emissions and the various viewpoints people have about their future emissions. On this issue I’m firmly on the side of the optimists. I’ve blogged before about how China’s carbon emissions skyrocketed in the decade 2002 to 2012. They’ve since declined a little. I both hope and expect they’ll plummet over the coming decade, 2017 to 2017. Urban air quality is a very serious health issue in China, and China is also very vulnerable to climate change. The government is very conscious of these threats and has the money and technological ability to take action on a heroic scale and by doing so it will become a leader in both the technological and political spheres, just as USA is abandoning any sense of political leadership, particularly on Climate Change. China is investing heavily in most forms of low carbon energy, including nuclear, wind, solar photovoltaics and hydro. All forms of energy generation have advantages and disadvantages, but CSP seems to me to be one of the best for the hot dry regions of the world. These initial twenty projects will probably be followed by many larger scale projects over the coming decade, and make a significant and worthwhile contribution to reducing carbon emissions and local air pollution.

Solar pv: Exponential Growth!

Freiburg, Germany. An early solar pioneer

Freiburg, Germany. An early solar pioneer

I’ve just finished reading ‘The Switch’ by Chris Goodall about how solar photovoltaics will become the dominant source of global electricity production. The key point Goodall stresses throughout the book is the effect of the learning curve and how this has been bringing down prices by about 20% every two years and how total installed capacity has doubled every two years. This exponential trend has been going on for decades, but back in the 1970s and 1980s the biannual doubling was from a few kilowatts to a few more kilowatts, then a few megawatts to a few more, so generally photovoltaics were considered insignificant by mainstream commentators. Solar enthusiasts were an easily dismissed fringe group.

This exponential rate of growth has continued. In the last few weeks the global installed capacity of photovoltaic panels passed the 300 GigaWatt milestone. A couple more doublings and we will pass the TeraWatt level. Of course exponential growth on a finite planet cannot go on forever. However it does look as if solar power will keep expanding extremely rapidly for the foreseeable future, whatever politicians like Trump and Putin might do to try and stop it. There are a number of technical innovations in the pipeline that make continuing falls in production costs inevitable, and then simple economics means that rates of deployment will continue to increase.

Over the last two years China and Japan have lead the world. Globally about 1.2 billion people are not connected to mains electricity and at least another billion experience frequent power cuts due to poor grid infrastructure. Most of these people live in Africa and South Asia and it is in these regions that I would expect solar to grow most quickly over the coming decade. For the rural off grid tropics solar plus batteries is already cheaper than either diesel generators or connecting up to distant electricity grids. They will leapfrog the need for grids.

This week I was talking to someone in Herefordshire who is renovating a cottage and putting sufficient solar panels to run his air source heat pump and all his family’s electricity needs for most of the year. Smart technology will determine when appliances operate and when to store electricity for later use. An electric car could easily be added to the mix. Although still connected to the grid he envisages buying and selling as little electricity as possible. If half hourly metering comes in it will become profitable for him and useful for the grid managers, for him to buy electricity at times of weak demand and sell it at times of peak demand. In his renovation insulation and air tightness have been improved to minimize winter heating requirements. Globally such possibilities are opening up as the technology evolves. Within a decade I think it probable that hundreds of millions, or indeed billions, of households will operate in this manner. In the process they will make coal, gas, oil and nuclear power obsolete.

In colder cloudier climates wind, tidal and geothermal energy will undoubtedly have a major role to play. Batteries will be important for short term energy storage. There are an increasing number of emergent technologies focusing on interseasonal energy storage, such as renewable liquid fuels and gases, many of which will be created with surplus summer solar energy.

Solar still has a long way to go to become the dominant energy source, but if exponential rates of growth continue this might become the reality far faster than most people expect. Last year China more than doubled its solar capacity in a single year. Many other countries will more than double their solar capacity over the next year or two, and I’ll write about the most exciting examples on this blog. The Solar Age is coming.

Xi Jinping, Trump & leadership

Xi Jinping at Davos

Xi Jinping at Davos

Donald Trump is now president of the United States. He has just issued ‘An America First Energy Plan’. It is a bizarre document. Absolutely no mention of renewables or energy storage, instead it focuses on oil and coal. It reads like something out of the 1970’s, assuming action to protect the environment is a cost to the economy rather than a net gain to the economy. What on earth all the companies involved in Cleantech research, development and deployment will make of it is hard to know. Will they move operations overseas? When in 2010 the Rajoy government was elected in Spain they very much slowed Cleantech innovation in that country and the companies that survived relied on foreign contracts. Will something similar happen in USA, or will California and a number of other states just develop energy policy totally at odds with what Washington wants? Scottish and UK policies on energy are on increasingly divergent paths.

As America retreats into a backward looking, insular, debt ridden shell of its former self, paradoxically communist China is rapidly emerging as the leader of the capitalist world. At Davos Xi Jinping argued in favour of free trade and open markets. He emerged as the dominant statesman of the gathering. He restated China’s commitment to the Paris agreement on climate change. One of Trump’s first actions was to delete all mention of climate change from the White House website. If the 196 countries who signed up in Paris are looking for leadership Xi Jinping will be one of the people to watch out for.

In the decade 2002 to 2012 Chinese carbon emissions skyrocketed, then levelled out for a few years and have been declining for the past couple of years. My prediction is that Chinese emissions will plummet over the decade 2017 to 2027. Over the coming few weeks I intend to do a number of blogs exploring the basis for this belief. There are lots of positive trends emerging: the closure of thousands of coal mines, the cancellation of coal fired power stations including ones under construction, increasing energy efficiency and flat energy demand, massive investment solar and wind power and in energy storage and transmission technologies. If the Twentieth Century was ‘the American Century’ and it was based on fossil fuels, the Twenty-First Century may be ‘the Chinese Century’ and it will feature the rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewables.

Cyprus: Hope for a better future

Cyprus: hope for a better future?

Cyprus: hope for a better future?

Talks are underway on the future of Cyprus. The island has been divided since the Greek inspired coup and Turkish invasion of 1974. The new UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres is hopeful of a solution. There is much pain, fear and insecurity to overcome. The slow process of finding and identifying bodies from the 1974 war is continuing. Lots of complex issues need to be resolved to the satisfaction of both the Greek Cypriot community and the Turkish Cypriot community and then both communities need to ratify the process by referendum.

It might be helpful to the peace process if both sides had some joint projects that were future orientated and which could provide a positive shared goal to work towards. Currently Cyprus gets most of its electricity from expensive to run old heavy fuel oil power stations such as those at Dhekelia, Moni and Vasilikos. Cyprus has a wonderful sunny climate and would be an ideal location to experiment with moving the entire energy system of the island to run on solar power, for electricity, heating, cooling and for transport. Local pollution and carbon emissions could be cut and new forms of employment created. It would provide a future vision that Greek and Turkish Cypriots could shape together. Grant funding might be available to get some projects up and running, but many projects would be cost effective from day one. Many of the innovative solar and energy storage technologies I write about on this blog could be developed in Cyprus.

Of course the future of Cyprus is up to the people who live on the island. I wish them well in these negotiations. Reconciliation will be slow and complex, but it can happen. They have much to share with the people of Northern Ireland, Columbia, South Africa, Bosnia and many other places. Coming to terms with past pain needs to be balanced with hope for a better, shared future.

This Blog’s Achievement Awards 2016


Philipp Saumweber

Philipp Saumweber, Chairman & CEO of Sundrop Farms

Reinier Wolterbeek

Reinier Wolterbeek, Chief Technology Officer at Sundrop Farms

It’s the time of year to select this blog’s achievement awards. I was tempted to choose Jo Cox, whose murder has highlighted the growing threats from intolerance, racism and demagogues. Her memory has become a rallying point for those seeking a gentler, more collegiate, more inclusive form of politics. She and these opposing world views are getting much coverage in the media. As is something of a tradition with this blog I will instead choose people who are not much in the headlines yet have helped open up new possibilities, showing how we might live more sustainably in the future.

In October I wrote about the official opening of Sundrop Farms Port Augusta facility in Australia. This is perhaps the greatest technological achievement of 2016, in a year that has seen many extraordinary breakthroughs. The key individuals behind it have been Chairman and CEO Philipp Saumweber and the Chief Technology Officer Reinier Wolterbeek. They share this blog’s accolade, ‘person of the year 2016’. Using solar power to desalinate seawater, generate electricity and to grow food in the world’s deserts unleashes extraordinary possibilities. New cities might grow in the world’s hot sunny deserts based on these technologies. I’ve followed this from when it was just a concept, through various precursor projects, and now at long last they have a full scale commercial project up and running. No small achievement!

Sundrop farms next two projects are to grow peppers in Portugal and berries in Tennessee, neither of which is a desert environment. It will be interesting to see what technology they use in each of these projects to demonstrate their aim of making intensive food production very much more ecologically sustainable. I’ll be waiting to see if they, or others, plan further food production projects in the world’s deserts, and how they learn from and build upon what has just been achieved at Port Augusta.

Locomore & Railway Renewables

Locomore: German Innovative Railway Start-up

Locomore: German Innovative Railway Start-up

Trains are inherently a better system than cars or buses for moving large numbers of people between cities. They tend to both faster and more energy efficient. Steel wheels on steel rails produce very much less friction than rubber wheels on tarmac, and being very long and narrow they need displace little air relative to the number of passengers they carry, again adding to their efficiency.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about municipalisation and contrasted this with the limitations of both privatized and nationalised industries. Allowing space for start-ups to try new ideas is part of this pluralistic provision. In banking, health care, energy infrastructure and much else Germany has a much more diverse provision of services. One exception is Deutsche Bahn which still runs 99% of the trains in Germany.

A couple of weeks ago a new Crowdfunded start-up company called Locomore started operating its first train which runs between Stuttgart and Berlin. They only have one train, an old 1970’s model, painted in retro orange and brown. It’s innovative in so many ways, offering very low fares, with trains using 100% renewable electricity and selling organic fair trade food and drink. Perhaps most innovative of all is a system where you can book a seat near people with similar interests, with the intention of sparking interesting conversation.

Ideally we’d like our railways to be powered by renewables. Five years ago I blogged about Deutsche Bahn’s plans to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Over the last five years the cost of most forms of renewable energy has come down dramatically and that timescale now looks hopelessly lacking in ambition. Locomore buys renewable electricity for its train, and is one of the first to do so. In Chile the metro system of Santiago gets 60% of its energy from renewables. Many train operators are installing on site renewables. One of my favourite buildings is Blackfriars Station in London, which has an impressive solar roof. Some train tracks are having solar canopies installed and these could in theory supply all the electricity needed to run a whole countries train network.

Mongolia & the Supergrid

Proposed Asian Supergrid

Proposed Asian Supergrid

Mongolia is a vast landlocked country sandwiched between Russia and China. It is a member of the Climate Vulnerable Forum who at the Marrakech climate conference signalled their intention to switch to 100% renewable energy. Mongolia has abundant resources of wind, solar and also of coal. In 2012 98% of its electricity came from coal. Its per capita carbon emissions shot up from 1.4 tonnes to 14 tonnes between 1960 and 2013, one of the fastest rates of growth of any country. With a population of only three million and huge solar and wind resources they may be able to reduce emissions impressively quickly. They may also be able to generate huge quantities of cheap renewable energy to export to Japan, Korea and China.

Masayoshi Son is a Korean-Japanese businessman, founder and chief executive of SoftBank. In the aftermath of Fukushima he threw himself into solar pv in Japan. Now he is developing a first 50 MW wind farm in Mongolia’s Gobi Desert, with plans to rapidly expand both wind and solar, potentially up to more than 100% of Mongolia’s power needs. The plan then would be to connect up a high voltage direct current (HVDC) grid to export cheap low carbon electricity to Japan, China, South Korea and possibly Russia. This could be the basis for Mongolia’s future prosperity while reducing their carbon emissions, and the emissions of their bigger neighbours. Japan, with its dense population, big industry, poor resource base and high energy prices will probably eventually be the main market, despite the difficulty of it being the most distant.

Masayoshi Son and the Japan Renewable Energy Foundation are proposing building a supergrid linking up most of Asia to develop the free flow of low carbon renewable energy from wherever it can be most cheaply produced to where it is most needed and where the prices are highest. I’ve written before about Grenatec and their similar plans, which also included Australia. Eventually the Asian and European grids might be linked up, meaning that for example solar electricity from Mongolia could be used in Europe before our sunrise. There are all sorts of new technologies, such as the elpipe, that look set to bring down the cost and ecological footprint of long distance electricity movements.

Technologically the possibilities are very encouraging. The difficulties are much more likely to be political. If political cooperation is achievable the economic and ecological rewards could be huge.

Queensland: Coal or Solar

fish on Great Barrier Reef

The future of the Great Barrier Reef, and the planet’s climate, will be greatly affected by plans to export vast quantities of coal from Queensland. There is an alternative.

Two worlds are colliding. The fossil fuel industry and its pet politicians plan ever greater acts of folly, piling more money into ever more reckless projects. Climate change, ocean acidification and air pollution all suggest it would be more sensible to quit all investment in fossil fuels and just leave them in the ground. There are better, less polluting and increasingly cheaper alternatives. Take what is happening in Queensland, Australia, as an example of the choice humanity must make.

The Great Barrier Reef is dying mainly due to the warming ocean. The Queensland government, led by climate change denying Pauline Hanson has approved several massive new ports to export vast quantities of coal. Huge swathes of sea will need to be dredged further damaging the reef. Avaaz, WWF and Greenpeace all have campaigns and petitions opposing the development. (Do please sign their petitions)

In remote northern Queensland a couple of small rays of hope suggest a better alternative. The Kidston Energy Park is just about to start building a 50MW first phase solar photovoltaic project, which it is planned, will then be expanded to 270 MW. What makes this project especially interesting is that a 250MW pumped storage hydro system is planned to be co-located on the site, meaning that excess solar energy from the middle of the day can be turned into more valuable evening electricity, or be stored for use on the occasional cloudy days. The whole project is located at an old gold mine at Georgetown with the pumped hydro system located in the old gold mine workings. This will be a world first, co-locating solar with pumped storage hydro.

Another pioneering cleantech project is planned for Hughenden, Queensland. The Kennedy Energy Park is due to start construction in early 2017, with a first phase to be 30MW of wind, 20 MW of solar pv and 2 MW of Lithium Ion batteries all co-located and grid connected. Further expansion of the site would only be possible with improvements to the grid.

As I wrote in a blog last August, Australia could be a world leader in solar power. It has the perfect climate. Sadly is does not have the politicians able to take a lead. Last week I blogged about Mauritania, a country with a similar vast solar potential as Australia. Australia has much greater technical and financial clout, and is doing a number of useful projects, but I’d put money on Mauritania getting to a solar powered economy long before Australia, given the strength of Australia’s coal lobby and their political puppets.

Solar Revolution goes Global

T'au solar

The Pacific Island of T’au goes solar

I’ve written before about Germany’s Energiewende, or energy transition. Germany seeks to become an economy driven by renewable energy, but this is difficult as it is so densely populated, heavily industrialized and has a relatively poor renewable energy potential, being neither very sunny nor very windy. It continues to make impressive progress, but it will be a slow process to achieve 100% renewables energy use for electricity, heating and transport.

Some places can make the transition, at least in their electricity sectors, very quickly. The tiny island of T’au, part of American Samoa, has a population of just 600 and was dependent on expensive diesel generators for electricity. A couple of weeks ago they switched on a 1.4 MW microgrid, powered just by solar panels with Tesla batteries to give three days storage. Given their remote location and sunny climate this will prove much cheaper and more reliable than the old diesel generators. Their conversion from diesel to solar took only a few months.

Mauritania is a country not much in the news and seldom seen as a leader in technology matters. However in 2015 it spent a greater proportion of its GDP on renewable energy infrastructure than any other country on Earth. Admittedly its GDP is tiny, but this is still impressive. Like T’au it has been largely dependent on diesel generators. Many people had no access to electricity and those that did experienced frequent power cuts. In a way it is the polar opposite of Germany; sparsely populated, with little industry and a truly vast renewable energy potential, including a windy coast and huge areas of hot sunny desert and semi desert. They have just opened a 30MW wind farm and a 15MW solar photovoltaic farm, both in the capital, Nouakchott. Mauritania’s total grid capacity only seems to be about 150MW, so another dozen or so of these scale projects would see them attain 100% renewable electricity. For remote communities in the interior, solar plus batteries will be the way to bring them electricity. It could all happen very cheaply and very quickly.