Category Archives: Energy

Open Letter to Malcolm Turnbull PM

Highbury Quarry

Tilt renewables want to turn the old Highbury Quarry into a pumped storage facility.

The Australian power company AGL plans to close the huge Liddell coal fired power station by 2022, and replace it with renewables and storage. The Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull recently pleaded with them to keep it open saying “You can’t run an electricity system just on solar panels and wind farms. You can’t.” Well, Mr Turnbull, you are wrong, and you are holding back the Australian economy with your outdated understanding of emerging technologies. Let me explain.

Australia could use the power of the sun and wind for all its energy needs, for electricity, heating, cooling and transport, 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. There would be many advantages in doing so. Obviously there would be the environmental advantages of cleaner air and plummeting carbon emissions. What is less well understood is that now there would be enormous economic benefits. The costs of renewable energy and of storage technologies continue to fall as repairing old coal fired power stations rises. With renewables, once the equipment is up and running the ongoing costs are minimal, whereas with fossil fuels, as they are burnt, there is the ongoing cost of fuel. With every year that passes the balance tips further in favour of renewables and storage.

Understanding storage is of critical importance. Batteries are the best known form of storage, and in 2017 the number of home energy storage batteries in use in Australia tripled as their cost tumbled, and as costs are projected to keep falling people will keep buying them to back-up their rooftop solar photovoltaic panels. There is now a cumulative capacity of 170MWh in all these domestic scale batteries, and this is bound to keep rising rapidly.

A few months ago, with much fanfare, Tesla opened the world’s biggest battery adjacent to the Hornsdale wind farm in South Australia. It brings another 100MWh of storage onto the system. Many more batteries are planned, both domestic and industrial in scale. In Adelaide there are plans to install solar panels and batteries to 50,000 homes, which would in effect add a virtual power station with 250MWh of storage.

However it is not just batteries that will be used to store all the cheap, clean, wind and solar energy. Tilt renewables are planning a new pumped hydro storage facility in an old quarry in the Adelaide suburbs, with a capacity of 1350MWh storage. They are also planning on adding a 44MW solar array and a 26MWh battery to their 368MW Snowtown Wind Farm, which all taken together with their pumped storage, will greatly increase the usefulness of the wind farm.

Solar Reserve expect soon to start construction of the 150MW Aurora concentrating solar thermal power station, just north of Port Augusta, also in South Australia. This will have eight hours full load thermal storage, thus adding another 1200MWh of storage.

As transport systems switch to hydrogen fuel cells and battery electric vehicles they will soak up vast quantities of surplus solar and wind generated electricity. Hydrogen, methanol and other storage gases and liquids will be used as more ways of storing energy, to add to the batteries, pumped hydro and thermal methods of storage. A 100% renewable energy economy should be every bit as reliable as the existing infrastructure, as well as being less polluting and cheaper.

South Australia has elections coming up on 17th March 2018 and energy policy is a central issue. In 2012 I wrote a blog called ‘Repowering Port Augusta’, where I argued for building renewable energy facilities and then closing down the dirty and decrepit Northern and Playford B coal power stations. Unfortunately these obsolete power stations were closed before the renewables were rolled out, compounding mismanagement and leading to a shortage of electricity, chaos, blackouts and price hikes across South Australia. Jay Weatherill’s Labour Party and Nick Xenophon’s SA Best Party have both now come to understand the need to switch to a renewables based economy. Please Malcolm Turnbull and Steven Marshall get your Liberal Coalition Parties up to speed with what is now technically possible and what the advantages might be for the Australian economy. Please help roll out the whole raft of renewable and storage technologies as fast as possible, ideally before obsolete old Liddell closes in 2022!

Solar & Farming

solar & farming

Fraunhofer trial of solar panels over arable crops

The number of solar panels in use will keep growing for decades. Some will be on trains, ships, planes and integral with road surfaces. Probably most will be installed on rooftops and in deserts where they are not in competition with other land uses. A lot will be on farmland, where they can detract from agricultural production. Currently in the UK they tend to combine solar and livestock, often with the added goal of increasing biodiversity. Another possibility is to grow fruit, vegetables or arable crops in association with the panels. The Fraunhofer Institute have been running a trial on a third of a hectare plot at Heggelbach near Lake Constance, growing a variety of crops under the solar panels. The panels are more widely spaced than usual to allow sufficient light to reach the crops, and high enough for a combine harvester to work under them. The combined solar and agricultural productivity of the land should allow increased income for farmers. Other trials have taken place in USA, India and Japan. The Japanese project is growing 40 tons of cloud-ear mushrooms per year under a 4MW solar installation, which I would think must be one of the most productive dual uses of land anywhere and produce a good income for the farmer.

It seems to me that the best place to combine solar panels and agriculture is in the hot arid tropics where the shading is likely to help plant growth and reduce transpiration. The vegetation may also help keep the panels from overheating and so aid the efficiency of the solar panels. Doing a web search I’ve only come across a couple of small trial projects in India and USA. I’m sure other projects exist. They ought to. The potential benefits are huge. I would really like to see a large scale project doing both electricity and food production at a commercial scale, and doing proper scientific evaluation. The solar power might in part be used to drive irrigation, perhaps from solar desalinated seawater. The steel structure supporting the solar panels could also be used to hang shade netting, horticultural fleece or be integral to glass or plastic greenhouses, all of which could help increase crop production while reducing water use. Pioneering projects that I’ve blogged about in Somalia and Jordan could be expanded to incorporate solar panels directly over cropping areas. I think this may be one of the most beneficial technological combinations in the fight for food, energy and climate security. If anyone reading this blog knows of such projects perhaps they would send me a link. Thanks.

Renewables Rampant

UK elec

Coal Collapses and Renewables Rise. This graph of UK electricity; part of a global trend.

At this time each year on this blog I like to highlight something that has helped in the process to make a more ecologically sustainable, socially just and peaceful future possible. Sometimes I focus on a political leader who has made an outstanding contribution, sometimes on a particular innovative clean energy technology. This year I want to celebrate a whole global trend, the switch from fossil fuels to renewables, and especially the growth of North Sea wind.

Ever since I started blogging I’ve been saying humanity should switch to 100% renewables, for electricity, heating, cooling and transport. We can then simultaneously ditch fossil fuels and nuclear. The speed with which renewable technologies are progressing is staggering. Performance is improving while costs keep tumbling. The ecological case for moving from ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ to ‘The Solar Age’ always was strong, now it is the most economically sensible thing to do.

In 2017 the first contract has been signed which will see an offshore wind farm built without subsidies. The German electrical utility EnBW submitted a bid of Euro 0.00 in a competitive tendering process to build the 900 MW He Dreiht windfarm in the North Sea. As solar and wind energy get cheaper the case for greater international grid integration gets stronger. The Dutch grid operator TenneT has proposed building an artificial island on the Dogger Bank and linking all the electrical grids of the countries surrounding the North Sea together in a hub and spoke arrangement. Electricity could then be sent to wherever in Europe it was needed. I’ve blogged before about this, but now support seems to growing and it is projected to be in operation by about 2027. TenneT estimates that 30GW of windfarms might connect to the first hub, and that other hubs might also be built. This would be a huge step forward in reducing carbon emissions and pollution in general across much of Europe.

All over the world innumerable renewable energy projects are demonstrating that we can provide electricity, heating, cooling and transport to all 7.6 billion of us while tackling climate change and achieving all the other global goals. Over the coming year I’ll highlight more of the technologies and politicians that are showing the path to a better future.

Time for Big Solar?

TuNur's proposal to build 4.5 GW of csp solar energy in Tunisia

TuNur’s proposal to build 4.5 GW of csp solar energy in Tunisia

The technology of concentrated solar power (csp) has been around for a long time. Augustin Mouchot pioneered its use in the 1860’s and Frank Shuman built an impressive system in Maadi, Egypt in 1912. I’ve long been a strong advocate. However prices remained high as rates of deployment were low, and rates of deployment were low because prices were high. This is now changing fast as several countries and companies compete to bring forward the technology. Over the last few years there have been significant price reductions of projects in Chile, Dubai, Morocco and elsewhere as the technology improves. In February I blogged about China starting work on 20 demonstration projects, and as they establish a supply chain of mass produced components prices will continue to fall. Concentrating solar power has the advantage over solar pv and wind in that energy storage is typically built into the projects so they can guarantee to supply electricity 24 hours a day. As techniques of thermal energy storage improve the advantages of concentrating solar continue to improve. Some very big schemes are currently under construction or have been announced.

At Ouarzazate in Morocco a 580 MW plant is being built in four stages, the first of which is already in operation. In Dubai they are planning a 5 GW mix of solar pv and csp. In 2014 I blogged about TuNur’s proposal to build a system in Tunisia which recently took a step forward as they applied for a permit to build a 4.5 GW plant over three stages, the first exporting electricity to Malta, the next to Italy and the third to France. A couple of weeks ago the Northwest Electric Power Design Institute proposed to build a vast 7.4GW CSP facility in Akesai County, in China’s remote Xinjiang region.

The Paris Climate Agreement incorporated the ambitious goal of keeping global warming to less than 1.5 degrees Centigrade. In many ways governments are failing to implement the policies necessary to achieve this objective. Collectively we are failing to curb our wasteful and profligate lifestyles. However there is one area where the news is consistently very good and that is the speed with which renewable energy is progressing. As the costs of renewables continues to tumble coal, gas and nuclear are all failing to compete.

In UK the falling cost of offshore wind received a lot of media coverage, undermining the viability of the government’s commitment to Hinkley and further nuclear power projects. In India numerous coal projects are being abandoned as India embraces cheap solar pv. The falling cost of concentrating solar power has received less media coverage, but is of just as great significance. If these giant csp projects all go ahead they will displace a lot of fossil fuel usage which of course will be very good news from a climate change perspective. If they are done with the right social and economic policies in place they could also transform the lives of many people, especially in poorer countries like Tunisia.

Methanol Fuel Cells

Methanol fuel cell boat

MS Innogy, the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat

I’ve never mentioned methanol on this blog, yet it is important both as a fuel and in many aspects of the chemical industry. It has a huge range of uses and can be made in many ways, many of which are very polluting. However some new innovations, making methanol from renewables and using it in fuel cells, look very good and may play an important role in the evolving cleantech revolution.

Methanol use is expanding, and has mainly been based on methanol made from coal and shale gas. An alternative and very much better way of making methanol has been pioneered in Iceland by Carbon Recycling International. They use carbon dioxide from a geothermal power station and combine it with hydrogen, which they make by electrolysis, splitting water into oxygen and hydrogen, driven by surplus renewable electricity. Carbon Recycling International market geothermally made methanol as a fuel under the trade name Vulcanol.

In Denmark Anders Korsgaard and Mads Bang worked on developing methanol fuel cells while at the University of Aalborg and have since founded Serenergy to commercially develop the most sustainable path to a methanol based economy. They recently spent five months working with the German energy company Innogy to convert an old diesel powered boat into the world’s first methanol fuel cell powered boat. On 25th August they launched the MS Innogy at Lake Baldeney on the Rhur, where it will act as a passenger ferry carrying over 100 passengers. Innogy has also developed a small experimental unit making methanol from electricity at the local hydro electric dam at Lake Baldeney and carbon dioxide captured from the local air, to supplement the methanol they import from Iceland. Methanol fuel cells look like being a competitor to hydrogen fuel cells for a whole range of transport technologies from boats to cars, trains, trams and buses. They might possibly one day be important in the global shipping and aviation industries.

Serenergy are already selling their methanol fuel cells for a variety of uses, including for a few cars and to generate electricity for off-grid situations, or to help the grid in times of peak demand. One of the most interesting is for the telecommunications industry that requires very reliable power for phone masts, often at very remote locations.

Good luck to Carbon Recycling International, Innogy and to Serenergy, between them they are pioneering what might prove to be a key part of the transition to a post fossil fuel future.

Snowdonia & Hafod y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan

660KW hydro at Hafod Y Llan, with me peeking out from behind it.

Hafod y Llan is a farm covering over 2,600 acres of the south-eastern slopes of Snowdon. I’ve just got back from holidaying in the area and was very impressed by how the National Trust, who own the farm, are managing it. 60,000 people climb the Watkins path across the farm and up Snowdon each year. The National Trust run a lovely campsite on the farm and maintain the footpaths and in other ways welcome the many people coming to this magnificent scenery. They are also managing the land to increase its biodiversity by reducing sheep numbers, introducing Welsh Black cattle, and employing a couple of shepherds to focus the grazing animals onto those areas that need it and away from the sensitive ridges where grazing might be detrimental.

Three years ago I wrote about how the National Trust is working to produce half their energy needs by developing local on-site renewables, and also to reduce their energy needs by 20% by 2020. Then I wrote about the impressive marine source heat pump they had installed at Plas Newydd on Anglesey. Last week in Snowdonia we were very lucky to meet the very knowledgeable Wynn Owen who works at Hafod y Llan and who showed us two of their recently installed hydro electric systems. They had integrated the work into the landscape in a very sensitive way. One of the systems is a small 15KW turbine, the other, pictured above, is a 660KW system, which, as far as I’m aware, is the National Trust’s biggest renewable energy project to date. They also have a couple of other hydro systems, including the Gorsen 18KW at Hafod y Llan and a 45KW system on the neighbouring 2,100 acre Gelli Iago Estate, also owned and managed by the Trust.

The extensive farmhouse and buildings at Hafod y Llan house National Trust staff and volunteers, a holiday cottage and the campsite with its showers, washing machine and recharging point for an electric car. On site they have a range of other renewable energy projects, apart from the hydro systems, including a good sized photovoltaic array on a barn roof, ground source and air source heat pumps, 18KW wood pellet boiler and are hoping to develop a number of other projects in the future including an anaerobic digester.

So far most of the electricity that the National Trust generates has been sold to Good Energy, and as we are Good Energy customers it is nice to think that some of our energy is coming from them. Recently the National Trust has started selling some of its electricity directly to local people which is both more profitable for the Trust and cheaper for the local energy consumers as it cuts out the middle man.

The way the National Trust is managing Hafod Y Llan successfully combines tourism, biodiversity, renewable energy generation into a productive organic farm and has increased on-farm employment. It shows how land can be managed in ways that are good for ecology and for the economy at the same time.

Thanks to Keith Jones and Wynn Owen for providing useful information for this blog.

Tales from West Africa and South Carolina

BBOXX Staff in rural Rwanda (Photo Credit: Power Africa)

BBOXX Staff in rural Rwanda (Photo Credit: Power Africa)

In February I blogged about the exponential growth of solar pv and the disruptive effect this will have on existing power systems. A couple of stories have come my way that highlight the changing economics and technologies.

Togo, the small West African country, provides an interesting example of how the cleantech revolution is progressing. It is one of the least developed countries in the world. Only 7% of the rural population have access to electricity. This is about to change very quickly. A couple of weeks ago UK start-up BBOXX signed an agreement with the government of Togo to bring solar power to 300,000 people. BBOXX supply solar panels, batteries, smart appliances and remote monitoring. Most of the rural population of Togo do not have access to conventional banks. All manner of financial transactions are now done in Africa by mobile phone, including of course for BBOXX’s electricity. The combination of solar panels, batteries and mobile phones is replacing the need for both conventional power stations and banking systems. One of the priorities for the Togolese government in this project is to bring financial inclusion as well as electricity to rural populations. BBOXX expect to bring their solar electric system to 20 million people, mainly across rural Africa and South Asia, by 2020.

In South Carolina, USA, two partially built nuclear reactors have been abandoned at huge cost to the local people. Gains in energy efficiency, cheap gas and cheap renewables have pushed down demand and power prices. Westinghouse has gone bankrupt and the number of operating reactors in USA is falling as old ones are decommissioned and very few new ones are being built. The nuclear renaissance that some commentators were talking about a few years back looks unlikely. This has ominous implications for the viability of UK’s investment in Hinkley C.

South Carolina currently gets 55% of its electricity from nuclear and 40% from coal and gas, and remarkably little from renewables. I would expect this to change very quickly despite Trump. The combination of increases in energy efficiency and the falling costs of renewables look set to have a growing global impact, even in South Carolina. One example is the Tesla solar roof tile that I blogged about last November. I would expect it, and similar products, to grow extremely rapidly. The stock markets sense this direction of travel, so as Westinghouse collapses Tesla soars. Fracking has brought cheap gas to the American market, but at huge environmental cost, and even it is failing to compete with renewables on cost. In 2016 for the first year ever in American history solar added more new generating capacity than any other energy source, adding 14,626 MW. This marks an annual growth rate of 95%, similar to China and many other countries. Expect exponential global growth of solar to continue for some time yet. Good news for people everywhere, from rural Togo to Jenkinsville, South Carolina.

Can Companies Change?

Race Bank_ First Blades

The first wind turbine blades leave Siemens Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm

A few days ago I posted a blog about the Norwegian oil company Statoil developing and deploying the world’s first commercial scale floating wind turbines. Statoil is changing its business model. Climate change, ocean acidification, air and water pollution are all largely driven by humanity’s addiction to fossil fuels. Technological innovation and falling prices have made the case to switch from fossil fuels to renewables an economically smart move, as well as being a macro ecological imperative and an absolute necessity for humanity to continue to flourish. The cleantech revolution is happening and is being driven mainly by small start-up companies. What future do the big incumbents have? Will they change with the times or struggle to keep the old polluting economy going? Peabody and DONG provide the most extreme examples of this choice.

The name DONG stands for Danish Oil and Gas. In 1972 it was set up by the Danish government to develop North Sea oil and gas fields. It expanded into electricity supply and owned coal fired power stations. Fossil fuels were its core business. As it has grown it has transformed itself into a cleantech pioneer. It is now the world’s largest builder and owner of offshore wind farms. 80% of its capital is employed in the wind sector and just 4% in oil and gas, and it has said it will sell off this vestigial side of the business while investing heavily in more offshore wind. Last week the first wind turbine blades left Siemens new Hull factory for DONG’s Race Bank Offshore Wind Farm. DONG has also invested in the Cambeltown wind tower factory in western Scotland, owned by Korean company CS Wind. DONG is also now developing some interesting waste to energy projects such as the REnescience project at Northwich, Cheshire. It is creating lots of useful jobs helping develop the technologies that will help combat climate change.

Peabody is a much older company, founded in 1883 in Chicago, USA. It was and remains focused overwhelmingly on coal. To quote Wikipedia ‘Peabody has been an important actor in organized climate change denial.’ It has totally failed to make the transition to a cleantech future. It filed for Chapter 11 Bankruptcy in April 2016. The day after the election of Donald Trump its shares shot up by 50% and in April 2017 it emerged from bankruptcy. It still owns vast coal reserves. If this coal is ever going to be exploited then Peabody has economic value, but if, as climate change and the cleantech revolution show, these assets are just worthless liabilities then a return to bankruptcy seems inevitable.

Most of the world’s huge oil companies, such as Exxon, Chevron, BP and Shell, are still dominated by their oil interests. Most of them have dabbled in renewables but their main capital resources are still overwhelmingly in oil. Will they make the change and fully commit to the post fossil fuel future or will they cleave to the old polluting past? My hunch is that most of them have left it too late: cleantech start-ups will grow exponentially and squeeze them out of the energy market. Their stock market values are likely to plummet as the realization that the reserves they own and that underpin their stock market valuations are worthless. Oil and coal will follow flint from being key economic assets to interesting geological curiosities. When in 1991 the first offshore wind farm opened at Vindeby in Denmark many in the global energy industry thought offshore wind a ludicrous idea. Nobody would say that now. A lot has changed in the last 26 years: much more will do so in the next quarter century as the pace of change inevitably quickens.

Floating wind

Hywind

Two of the five floating wind turbines, in Norway, before being floated to Scotland

This summer marks a new era in wind power. The world’s first commercial scale floating offshore wind farm is taking shape off Peterhead in Scotland. The Hywind project is just 30MW, so small for a commercial wind farm, but groundbreaking in that the turbines are floating rather than standing on the seafloor. This is hugely significant. Offshore wind has so far been restricted to shallow continental shelf areas such as the North Sea. Many areas of the world wish to develop more diverse renewable energy portfolios but do not have much in the way of suitable shallow waters. Japan and Korea, California and Hawaii, France and many other countries look set to develop floating offshore wind systems over the next decade or so. Currently the cost is higher than for traditional offshore wind, but it is projected to fall as systems are scaled up.

Norwegian oil and gas company Statoil has designed and built the system, using five Siemens 6MW turbines, and a range of other companies for various parts of the supply chain. The towers will have a total height of 258 metres, 178 metres above water and 80 metres below. The base will be filled with iron ore to give ballast and be tethered to the seabed. The turbines are assembled on the Norwegian fjord of Stord and floated in their vertical state across the North Sea. This allows very fast deployment, about seven weeks for the whole wind farm. As things are scaled up this will become a very important area of cost saving. Compare this to the decade or so involved to build a typical nuclear power station. The Hywind project is 75% owned by Stadoil and 25% by Masdar. Stadoil refer to this as a pilot project. If it works well in the testing conditions off North East Scotland global orders will come in, which will trigger falling costs and more orders. I think it likely that very large floating windfarms in the deep water off Japan, Korea, California and the Breton coast of France will be built over the next decade. Will it be Stadoil who builds them or will rival firms emerge with better and cheaper designs?

Australian Solar (Again)

Baldivis

Baldivis: of 5,765 houses 3951 now have solar panels

In 2012 I wrote a blog entitled ‘Re-powering Port Augusta’, advocating large scale concentrating solar thermal power stations be built to replace Northern and Playford B ageing dirty brown coal fired power stations, which were due to close. Since I wrote that blog a number of coal fired power stations have closed and many parts of Australia have experienced power cuts. For many decades Australia has had excellent pioneer academic solar thermal researchers but still has no large scale solar thermal power stations with thermal storage. India, South Africa and Chile have all overtaken Australia on that front. Now, rather belatedly, there is a flurry of interest in building various types of solar power and energy storage systems in Australia, and especially in the Port Augusta region. Port Augusta in South Australia is ideally located for such projects with good grid connections, a very sunny climate and a workforce with relevant skills.

Sundrop Farms, with Aalborg CSP, have built the excellent system that I blogged about a few months ago (here and here). This however was relatively small scale and just for the tomato farm, not for feeding electricity into the grid, but does provide an excellent example of what can be done.

Australia’s adoption of solar power has been very unusual. The vast majority of its solar power, about 80%, is domestic rooftop arrays. (Solar farms only account for about 8%) Rising gas and electricity prices, recent power cuts, government policies that favoured small scale arrays, large numbers of detached owner occupied houses and falling prices of solar panels and batteries are all factors contributing to the rise in rooftop solar systems in Australia. Thirteen months ago Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg stated that 15% of Australian households had photovoltaic solar panels on their roofs. Renate Egan of the Australian Photovoltaic Institute claims this figure is now 26% (higher than any other country, except perhaps a few tiny island nations). In Baldivis, a suburb of nearly 6,000 houses to the south of Perth, the figure is 69% and rapidly increasing. Within a year or two it is likely that some such places will have solar panels on 90% or more of households.

Rooftop solar looks set to increase. So far this is mainly by adding solar panels to existing buildings, which are often not ideally suited due to their orientation and many having hipped roofs. If new houses were designed and orientated to maximize solar generation very much more power could be produced at very competitive prices. The next steps will be to increase energy storage and for people to switch to electric transportation systems. As I’ve said before, Australia could become a 100% solar powered economy. It is happening piecemeal, but could be very beneficially aided by clearer government goal setting and forward planning.