Category Archives: Energy

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


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: 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.

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.