Category Archives: Energy

Scaling-up Solar & Wind Power

The above graph shows the fifteen countries that generate the greatest percentage of their electricity from wind and solar power. These figures are for 2020. Wind and solar have doubled over the last five years, from generating 5% (1,083TWh) of the global electricity supply in 2015 to 10% (2,435TWh) in 2020. (For more on this see Hannah Broadbent’s article)

These increases in solar and wind power have been an impressive achievement and it is a trend that will only increase over the next few years as solar and wind technology improves, prices continue to fall and integration with existing grids improves.

A dozen or so countries already get very close to 100% of their electricity from renewable sources. Most have excellent hydro-electricity resources, like Bhutan or Paraguay, and also substantial geothermal resources that are easily exploitable, such as Iceland or New Zealand. Most countries don’t have such good hydro or geothermal opportunities, but many more countries do have massive potential to develop solar power and wind power.

It will make sense for some of the countries with the best solar and wind resources to develop very much more electricity than they need and export the surplus either in the form of hydrogen or as electricity via cable to neighbouring countries. A couple of years ago I posted a blog in which I cited Alan Finkel, Australia’s Chief Scientist, saying that his country should rapidly aim to develop 700% of its electricity from solar and wind power, to allow for the electrification of transport, heating, cooling, industrial processes and energy exports.

Which country will be the first to reach 100% of their total electricity demand from solar and wind, and when will they achieve that goal? And which country will reach that 700% goal first, and when?

My guess it will be a small country without a massive population or industrial base that passes both these milestones. In April I posted a blog titled ‘Floating wind comes to Ireland’ in which I described a huge wind development, which on its own will substantially increase the percentage of Ireland’s electricity supply that comes from wind. Ireland is certainly a contender, and as an independent country Scotland would be too.

It seems highly likely to me that a number of countries from the global south will leapfrog the more heavily industrialised global north. Uruguay and Chile are both already in these top fifteen countries and Chile has one of the best renewable energy resource bases in the World. Several African countries could emerge as leaders, and ones to look out for may be Morocco, Mauritania and Kenya, but it could be almost anywhere.

Sun rich countries such as Algeria, Tunisia and Libya currently produce zero percent of their electricity from the sun and wind according to Ember’s interactive map. They are all well placed geographically to generate vast solar export earnings while helping develop their own economies and also help the whole world decarbonise.

As to a time when either the 100% or the 700% milestones might be reached, all I want to say is that it could happen very much more quickly than many people think.

A Bad Week for Big Oil

Climate activists campaign to get the East Africa Crude Oil Pipeline stopped

A matrix of crises is simultaneously unfolding. Species are going extinct, atmospheric carbon levels are increasing, new diseases are emerging, and inequality is getting worse. In many ways things look bleak. All these crises call for a radical change of direction. That change may be happening. The signs of change are many, some are subtle and slow, but sometimes change can be sudden.

This week has been a terrible week for big oil, and a good week for climate activists. A Dutch court has ordered Royal Dutch Shell to cut emissions by 45% by 2030. Climate activists have also been influential as shareholders, with successful coups against the management of both Chevron and Exxon. All this unfolded only a week or so after the International Energy Agency released it’s ‘Net Zero by 2050’ report, which essentially advised against any new fossil fuel projects.

The French oil multinational Total is currently constructing the East African Crude Oil Pipeline, or EACOP, across Uganda and Tanzania. It will have devastating impacts on the local ecology and lock us into higher carbon emissions. Local activists are trying to stop it. Today Total is having their AGM. The news from IEA, Shell, Chevron and Exxon will no doubt be on their minds. EACOP is a project that should be cancelled.

Shell is planning to appeal the Dutch court’s decision, and no doubt the management of Exxon, Chevron, Total and the others will try and keep their business as usual model going, with a token bit of greener investment in renewables to try and keep the activists quiet. Most of the oil majors have been involved in decades of systematic lying, backing climate denialism when their own research revealed the huge climate impacts of their industries. In my view most of them have left it too late to change. Probably most will go bankrupt. They have such vast assets which this week’s developments are making look increasingly like worthless stranded assets.

I just want to say a huge thank-you to climate activists everywhere. There are many more battles ahead, but let’s pause long enough to celebrate this week’s victories.

Floating wind comes to Ireland

Ireland electricity by fuel type

The graph above shows how the Republic of Ireland gets its electricity. From 2005 to 2018 demand rose slightly, wind power grew quite quickly and coal shrank slowly. Over the next decade coal use will cease, so too should the burning of peat, and gas use will plummet. The Irish electricity grid will be one of the first to run almost entirely on wind power. Here’s how.

The news this week is that the huge (915MW) Moneypoint power station, on the Shannon estuary is to close. It is, or was, Irelands only coal-fired power station, and has been used less and less over recent years as wind power has been built. The site will become a hub for an even larger (1,400MW) new floating offshore wind farm, and a centre for the production of green hydrogen. In a small country like Ireland a single big project like this will have a huge impact, and it is likely that other similar projects will follow. The Atlantic off the coast of Ireland, and Scotland, is the windiest part of Europe, and many more large scale floating wind farms are likely to be built there, helping the whole of Europe decarbonise its electricity sector. Ireland, like Scotland, is likely to become a major exporter of zero carbon energy.

In 2017 I wrote a blog about the opening in Scotland of Hywind, the world’s first floating offshore windfarm. It was a 30MW pilot project, designed to test the technology, and I speculated that if it proved successful other larger projects would follow. This new 1,400MW project in the Atlantic off the coasts of Kerry and Clare will link back to onshore facilities at Moneypoint on the Shannon. The existing power grid that served the old coal power station can be re-purposed for the wind powered electricity to be used across Ireland, in Dublin and on to the UK. In times of surplus wind power green hydrogen will be made, and stored in order to generate electricity at times of no wind, and for other industrial uses, or for export, shipping it from the Shannon, to countries like Germany.

Also in 2017 I posted a blog titled ‘Can Companies Change?’ In it I looked at DONG, (Danish Oil and Gas), which has transitioned from a fossil fuel company to become the world’s largest developer of offshore wind farms, and divested itself of its former fossil fuel assets, and in the process re-branded itself Orsted. Few companies have made such a dramatic 100% transformation. The Norwegian company Statoil has rebranded itself Equinor. It was the company behind Hywind, and now this project in Ireland. It is scaling up its commitment to offshore wind, and is the world leader in floating turbines, while still saying oil and gas will remain its core business. My view is that over time most of the oil majors will go bankrupt as fossil fuel reserves become worthless. Maybe in time Equinor will have to choose, fossil fuels or renewables? For now it is good that it is putting a lot of money and expertise into floating wind power. Floating wind power now is at an embryonic stage, but it will inevitably grow, hopefully helping to displace much fossil fuel use, and so eventually making those fossil fuel assets worthless.

Offshore wind and energy hubs

Denmark Greenlights North Sea Energy Island Hub
Denmark is planning to build an artificial island in the North Sea, to be used as an energy hub.

On this blog I’ve written about wind power numerous times, but not much over the last four years. During those last four years lots of interesting trends have continued with both individual wind turbines and windfarms getting bigger. Costs have continued to fall, and are predicted to continue to fall, especially as new materials are coming into use. More and more countries are developing offshore wind power. The usefulness of wind power is also increasing as wind to hydrogen technology and batteries are deployed and as more interconnector cables are laid between countries.

Way back in the 1980’s when I first started getting interested in renewable energy there was an assumption that not more than about 8 or 9% of the grid capacity could be made up from wind power: more would destabilize the grid. Like many such assumptions it was in the interests of the existing coal, gas, oil and nuclear industries that such things were believed. It is true that the wind is famously fickle, but relatively minor adaptations to the grid have allowed countries like Denmark to produce a lot of their electricity from the wind. At times of low demand and strong winds, back in 2015 they managed to get 140% of their demand from wind, and that has continued to climb so now it is several hundred percent, and this will keep growing. Surplus wind generated electricity will increasingly be sold to neighbouring countries, or stored in batteries, hydrogen or many other ways.

The news this week shows just how offshore wind power is ramping up. Denmark is proposing building an artificial island in the North Sea, 80kms off the Jutland coast, to act as hub for up to 10GW of offshore wind farms. Cables will connect to Germany, Belgium, and probably other countries, and also back to the Danish mainland. Over in the Baltic the Danes are planning to use the island of Bornholm in a similar way as a wind power hub, in this case linked to Germany, Poland and Sweden. Meanwhile South Korea has just announced a $43 billion investment in 8.2 GW offshore wind projects. USA is also now just beginning to get serious about large scale offshore wind.

In 2010 I wrote a blog about the increasing scale of wind power, both of individual turbines and of wind farms. At that time the largest wind turbine was 7MW. Now the largest wind turbine in production is the Haliade X at 14 MW, and Siemens Gamesa are planning something similar. These are double the size of the biggest ones from a decade ago.

In Sweden they are starting to build wind turbine towers made from cross laminated wood. These look like they will be lighter, cheaper, and stronger and also entail less carbon emissions than steel. They may also be the basis for taller towers. Wind turbines blades may also get lighter, stronger and cheaper by being made out of new composite materials, such as those being pioneered by Scottish start-up ACT blade.

Individual turbines, and offshore wind farms, will get very much bigger over the next decade. Solar power, hydrogen production and several other clean technologies are also ramping up quickly. This ramping up of cleantech is one crucial part of what we need to do in response to the climate and ecological emergency. There is of course so much more that we need to do.  

Energy Futures: Belgium

Graph from Federal Planning Bureau in Belgium: but is it correct in its prediction of rising fossil gas use to replace nuclear power?

Belgium has just formed a new government. It is a coalition of seven parties, including both the Belgian Green Parties Ecolo and Groen. One long term policy of most European Green Parties is to phase out nuclear power. The chart above has been produced by the Belgian Federal Planning Bureau and predicts a big rise in the use of fossil gas. This quite naturally is drawing considerable criticism as just when Belgium, like all countries, should be rapidly decarbonising, it threatens to increase emissions.

However I think the graph is wrong. It predicts solar increasing from 5% to 6% between 2015 and 2050, and wind from 8% to 32% over the same period. This to me seems a massive underestimate of both. Solar and wind have been getting steadily cheaper, more efficient and with higher capacity factors for many years, and this trend is predicted to continue. The chart, and much of the debate on Twitter and elsewhere assumes the choice is between nuclear and gas, both of which are already costly, each have environmental downsides and future costs look high.

Belgium is already ramping up its offshore wind farms and has plans for more. Better insulated buildings, more efficient appliances, more walking, cycling, home-working and public transport should all act to decrease overall energy demand. So too will the transition from a throwaway linear economy to a circular economy. Gradually pretty well all new buildings everywhere will have solar panels installed.

Two trends that do not appear on this chart are of significance. The first is distributed local energy storage. Many houses will have batteries, in electric cars and larger static ones. Green hydrogen will also be produced at scale. All these will facilitate the greater take up of wind and solar, so together they will make up more than the 38% predicted in the graph. They may make up 70%, possibly 90%, of Belgian electricity demand by 2050.

The second trend is long distance renewable energy trading. Belgium, like Germany, will probably be a net energy importer, being densely populated, quite highly industrialized and with relatively poor wind and solar resources. Denmark is already planning to export wind power to Holland, Germany and Poland to help them decarbonize. Scotland, Norway and Iceland all look well positioned to be net energy exporters, with their huge wind, hydro and geothermal resources and relatively low energy demand. However the biggest renewable energy exporters are likely to be from the sunniest countries.

North Africa is one huge area where solar will be developed at scale. Morocco’s Ouarzazate solar park is one of the most exciting energy infrastructure projects anywhere on Earth. Many more large solar parks will be built, utilizing both concentrating solar thermal and solar photo-voltaic systems, and will also have on site energy storage with batteries for very short duration of a few minutes to a few hours, solar thermal heat stores for up to 24 hours, and on-site electrolysis for hydrogen production and so energy storage over weeks, months or even years. Energy will be exported via high voltage direct-current cable and as hydrogen using tankers or pipelines.

Germany is investigating purchasing green hydrogen from Australia, and Australian entrepreneur Mike Cannon-Brookes is planning to connect a cable from Australia to Singapore to supply 20% of Singapore’s electricity. The long distance trade in renewable energy is a relatively new phenomenon, and consequently often overlooked by energy planners. It will be a huge global industry very quickly: the economics look good, and it will be vital for global decarbonisation.

So back to Belgium and their new coalition: my advice to them is hold fire on any new investments in fossil gas, even if that means a slower ramping down of existing older gas and nuclear power stations. Invest in demand reduction through changes to buildings, transport, work patterns, circular economy etc. Invest in renewables, energy storage, and interconnection and longer distance sourcing of green hydrogen.

Coal Collapses: Renewables Rise

UK electricity 1920 – 2020

Coal is collapsing. The above graph shows how coal use grew up until the 1980’s, then slowly and erratically declined until about 2012, and then plummeted over the last eight years. In 2019 it made up less than 2% of UK electricity supply: in 2020 it will be less than that, and soon it will dwindle to nothing. As of today, 13th May 2020, the UK has gone for 33 days without using any coal to generate electricity, for the first time since the 1880’s. Countries across Europe are permanently shutting down their last coal fired power stations. Belgium was the first to do so, in 2016, followed last month by Austria, then days later, Sweden. Over the next few years many countries, including UK, will permanently shut their last coal fired power stations.

A few years ago there was a lot of nonsense talked about Peak Oil and how demand would outstrip supply causing energy prices to skyrocket. Energy prices have been falling for years, and this process is made more acute by the Covid 19 pandemic further suppressing demand. Oil prices actually went negative recently, for the first time ever, with people being paid to take it from the overflowing oil field facilities.

As the above graph shows UK electricity demand has been falling for nearly two decades, as is the case in many mature economies. Low prices, coupled with the disinvestment campaign, have made it increasingly hard for coal companies to expand, even in Australia which historically had a very profitable coal sector. Most fossil fuel extraction is now unprofitable.

Renewables are on the rise. Prices are falling and performance is improving. Storage and interconnection technologies are making it ever cheaper and easier to rely on renewables for all our electricity needs. As heating and transportation systems are electrified electricity demand will rise, but this rise can be dealt with in a 100% renewables scenario.

As countries emerge from the Covid 19 pandemic they will need to make choices about the kind of future they want. Old coal, oil and other obsolete sectors of the economy will be lobbying for bailouts. We can have clean air, better health, less road accidents, more social justice and a whole raft of other benefits by opting for a Green New Deal. At the heart of any Green New Deal is the switch from fossil fuels to renewables. Of course we need huge other changes to create a more socially just and less polluting future, but let’s celebrate the progress that has been made. One indicator is our individual carbon emissions stemming from electricity use. In UK these have fallen from 2.6 tonnes per person in 2010 to below one tonne in 2019. This is very good news and has been due to the decline in coal, made possible by falling demand and the rise of renewables.

Climate: Action Required

Mark Carney, governor of the Bank of England, has said that capital markets are financing projects likely to fuel a catastrophic rise in global heating. This of course is exactly why Extinction Rebellion activists have been rebelling in the city of London this week. Carney also pointed out that companies with assets concentrated in the fossil fuel sector are likely to go bankrupt, just as others in the cleantech sector flourish.

The scale and speed of the energy transition required to avert catastrophe is way beyond what any politicians are advocating. Let’s take the energy debate in Australia where they currently generate about 20% of their electricity from renewables, and which the governing party energy minister thinks is too much, and is advocating for huge investments in coal. The opposition parties are advocating increasing renewables by 2030, the Labor party to 50% and the Green Party to 100%. Alan Finkel, Australia’s chief scientist, is calling for a goal of 700%, which to me seems a sensible way forward. Cheap wind and solar could easily meet all Australia’s electricity needs, and facilitate the energy transition in the transport and built environment sectors, and open up a huge new market in the form of clean energy exports. Already plans are afoot to lay an undersea cable to Singapore to directly export renewable electricity and for a huge growth in green hydrogen for export to Japan, Korea and China, helping them rapidly decarbonise. These are the sort of economic changes to which Mark Carney was referring. The question is where are the politicians needed to implement such profound and rapid changes?

Meanwhile Prince William is in Pakistan and has called for climate action after seeing for himself glacial retreat and consequent flooding and drought problems. He has called for greater cooperation between the UK and Pakistan on the issue. Pakistan, like Australia, has enormous solar potential. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis has published a detailed paper on ‘Pakistan’s Power Future’, where they point out that solar and wind are already the cheapest forms of new energy and are projected to only get cheaper. Currently solar provides only 0.5% and wind 1.5% of Pakistan’s electricity. Pakistan currently generates 61% of its electricity from largely imported and expensive oil and gas. It would be good for Pakistan’s balance of payments, for local communities currently struggling without electricity, and for the global climate if their politicians worked with the many people who could help them rapidly develop their renewable energy potential.

Here in UK Boris Johnson has just announced that he will chair a new government committee on climate change. It is right that the Prime Minister chairs such a committee, but hard to imagine anyone less qualified to do the job. If I was to chair the committee I’d want to invite Professor Peter Strachan from Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen and Jeremy Leggett from Solarcentury as my key advisors. Sadly Boris is unlikely to listen to such voices and unlikely to take any sensible action to avert climatic, ecological and financial collapse, which is why Extinction Rebellion, Fridays for Future, Greenpeace and others will keep up their protests for urgent and radical change.

Life After Fossil Fuels

Oil: do we need it to keep modern civilization running?

Oil: do we need it to keep modern civilization running?

A decade or so ago I started running evening classes called ‘Global Problems: Global Solutions’. We tried to envisage solving multiple mega problems simultaneously, from climate change to hunger and poverty. It still seems to me the possibilities of creating a better future are almost limitless.

One of the key concerns of people coming to these events was how life might look without fossil fuels. Some people were most worried from a resource scarcity angle. They saw Peak Oil as a big problem. Others were more worried from a planetary pollution perspective, and for them Climate Change was the biggest worry. Many people seemed to think that as oil is the basis of so much of our global economy we would have to do without many of the oil derived products, and much of the productivity and prosperity that oil has made possible. Many of these people thought that it would be the horse and cart that replaced the car, that global food supplies would massively decrease and that cities would collapse due to lack of food and energy.

I tended to put forward the case that the transition to virtually 100% renewable energy for all humanity’s electricity, transport, heating and cooling would be possible, and that recycling and resource substitution would be possible for most types of industrial production. We could at least in theory move to a circular economy where pollution was minimized and efficiency maximized, and for it all to be based on renewable forms of energy.

Looking back over the last decade it seems to me that the improved technology has led to falling costs of renewables to such an extent that this transition should be even easier than even I predicted. What we didn’t see coming a decade ago was the re-emergence of overt racism, ultra-nationalism and fascism. The likes of Trump, Orban and the Brexiteers care not a jot about climate change, the plight of the poor or any of the other problems we considered in our evening classes. They represent a denial of scientific reality, and simple human compassion, on a scale I’d never have envisaged seeing in any democratic state. They act to protect the ultra rich and the fossil fuel industries.

Now we have the rather bizarre situation of much of the global financial community understanding the risks associated with climate change and backing a lot of ideas put forward by Green activists and environmentalists, most of whom are quite critical of the concepts like capitalism and endless economic growth. Opposing them are a lot of right wing politicians who in theory support capitalism and growth, but who now endlessly have to intervene in the market to protect the economic interests of those who profit from the pollution.

Hydrogen: Trucks

J.B.S. Haldane. In 1923 he predicted that hydrogen would be the fuel of the future.

J.B.S. Haldane. In 1923 he predicted that hydrogen would be the fuel of the future.

A Nikola hydrogen powered truck. By 2023 a number of companies, including Nikola, Toyota and Riversimple, expect to have fleets of hydrogen vehicles on the road.

A Nikola hydrogen powered truck. By 2023 a number of companies, including Nikola, Toyota and Riversimple, expect to have fleets of hydrogen vehicles on the road.

From the 19th Century onwards people have been predicting switching from coal to hydrogen as the energy to drive industry. As cheap oil and gas were developed the prospect of making hydrogen from renewable energy was put on the back burner. Enthusiasts talked of ‘the hydrogen economy’ and lots of interesting experimental projects were developed. Over the last century fossil fuel usage has skyrocketed, destabilizing the global climate and creating urban smog. Now the need to switch to a cleaner basis for the global economy is more urgent than ever. Using solar and wind power to split water via electrolysis into oxygen and hydrogen means that cheap surplus clean energy can be conveniently stored and used to generate electricity when required, to directly drive industry or, and perhaps most importantly, in our transport infrastructure.

There is much debate about whether battery electric vehicles or hydrogen fuel cell ones will predominate. Both will have a role to play. Both are essentially forms of electric propulsion. Battery electric vehicles are currently more widely deployed, but they have three major disadvantages. The batteries are heavy, slow to charge and have end of life recyclability issues.

On this blog I’ve written several times about prototype cars, trucks, trains and ships using hydrogen fuel cells. Some cities have deployed fleets of a few dozen hydrogen fuel cell buses, but nowhere has yet seen the large scale transition from diesel to hydrogen. That may be about to change, and the change may be very rapid, in the key long distance trucking sector.

A race to bring the first mass produced hydrogen fuel cell trucks onto the market is opening up, with Toyota and Nikola Motors competing for the key North American market. California alone is expecting a thousand hydrogen refuelling stations and a million hydrogen fuel cell vehicles to be on the road by 2030. Many of those refuelling stations will have onsite hydrogen production from local renewables. For example Toyota are partnering with Shell to build a biomass based hydrogen facility at the port of Long Beach in California.

Compressed and liquefied hydrogen will also be transported by pipelines and tankers from where electricity can most cheaply be generated to where energy is most in demand. This might include utilizing Iceland’s geothermal, Norway’s hydro or Moroccan solar to supply the major cities of Europe. Japan and South Korea are power hungry and energy resource poor places and could in theory be supplied from Australia with solar used to produce cheap hydrogen. Western Australia has just established a Renewable Hydrogen Council to research just such opportunities.

In 1923 Haldane predicted a hydrogen economy. By 2023 we might have made a good but rather belated start.

California opts for Renewables

Kevin de Leon

Kevin de Leon, California Senate Leader and proposer of the 100% RE legislation

Yesterday California passed legislation to achieve 100% low carbon electricity by 2045, with 60% by 2030. This is a policy academics such as Mark Z Jacobson and many environmentalists have long advocated. The legislation was introduced by the Democratic Senate Leader Kevin de Leon and was passed with the support of climate conscious republicans such as Chad Mayes and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Meanwhile a few weeks ago Donald Trump scrapped Obama’s clean power plan and is attempting to promote greater use of coal. If successful this would of course be a disaster for public health and for the climate. However industry analysts think his legislation will have only marginal effects on keeping a few coal plants operating a bit longer, in a few States.

A huge division is opening up in America as a growing number of States, led by California, Hawaii and Vermont are pursuing 100% renewable electricity. Environmental considerations rightly play a part in their thinking, but so too does the falling costs of wind and solar power. Also renewables create many more jobs than coal, gas or nuclear. Trump makes much of trying to protect jobs in the coal industry, but his real motivation seems to be more about protecting the share price of his backers in the coal industry, and I think also his personal hatred of anything that smacks of care for the planet.

California has abundant renewable resources. By developing these resources intelligently it could create many social, economic and environmental benefits. It might well find it has got to 100% renewable electricity well before the 2045 deadline it has set itself.