Category Archives: Energy

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.

Big Solar in Egypt & Dubai

Dubai solar

Concentrating Solar Power Tower, one of several types of solar being built in Dubai

One of the themes I write about most often on this blog is the shift from fossil fuels to renewables. Today I will write about two very big solar projects that are currently being built, one in Egypt and the other in Dubai.

The Benban Solar Park is a huge development in southern Egypt, where they are building a 1,650 MW power station entirely with photovoltaic panels. Interestingly the project is made up of 41 varying sized units, each being built by different companies from all around the World. The first unit started feeding electricity into the grid in March 2018, and the others will rapidly follow over the next couple of years. There are 10,000 people currently working on the site, and for many of these people it is the first period of continuous work they have ever had, having previously been day labourers. This helps lift them out of poverty and also get more skills and training. (Also see IFC on Benban)

One of the interesting aspects of Benban is that, as far as I can see, it has no on-site energy storage. However it is not very far from the Aswan Dam. The two projects could be used in tandem, with water held back in the day time while Benban is producing solar electricity, then the hydro turbines could be opened to full in the evenings to match demand. In the longer term, as Egypt develops lots more solar energy the Aswan Dam could also be converted into a pumped storage hydro facility.

In Dubai the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Solar Park is currently being built in phases, the first of which came on stream in 2013, a small first step with just 13 MW of solar photovoltaics. Subsequent stages are each much bigger, and by 2030 they anticipate the whole planned 5,000MW plant will be operational. The fourth phase contracts have just been signed for 700MW of concentrating solar thermal power, made up of three 200 MW parabolic troughs and a 100MW central power tower. The whole system will have up to 15 hours of thermal energy storage, probably in the form of molten salt. This will mean that this solar park will be able to supply reliable electricity night and day to Dubai. Each successive phase of this solar project has seen the price of power come down as the technology continues to improve.

Many countries are now rapidly ramping up their use of solar power. The global transition from ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ to ‘The Solar Age’ is underway. Whether humanity makes this transition fast enough to escape the worst ravages of climate change will be one of the prime determinants of our collective future as a species. Bring on ‘The Solar Age’!

 

Azelio

Azelio is a Swedish engineering company who are developing concentrating solar power. Their technology is unusual for two reasons. Firstly, as far as I know, they are unique in that they are utilizing an aluminium alloy as a heat storage medium. Secondly, they plan to use a Stirling Engine rather than a steam turbine to actually generate the electricity. They are now working with the Moroccan solar agency, MASEN, to bring these technologies together and test them at MASEN’s Ouarzazate Solar Park. This is an excellent example of international cooperation, bringing together Swedish engineering expertise with Moroccan political commitment to developing their immense solar resource.

Azelio aim to commercialize this technology aimed in large part at mid scale off grid locations in the sunny tropics. This is where most of the 1.2 billion people without access to electricity live. For individual isolated households and hamlets solar photovoltaic panels plus batteries would be the appropriate technology. Azelio are aiming at the 0.5 to 20MW scale, so the village to town scale of infrastructure. These communities currently often have dirty and expensive diesel generators, with many people having no access to electricity at all. Conventional power stations and electricity grids never will reach them. Local solar plus storage is now a cheaper and more reliable alternative. Azelio is just one of a number of companies developing various forms of solar power which will further accelerate this aspect of humanity’s shift from ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’ to ‘The Solar Age’.

We all know the names of companies of ‘The Fossil Fuel Age’: BP, Shell, Exxon, Total, Gazprom, Ford, BMW and Volkswagen and of course, many more. How many of these companies will reinvent themselves as cleantech companies? My guess is that most of the biggest firms of The Solar Age’ will not be these, but rather the small innovative companies who are currently developing the best solar technologies. Perhaps Azelio will be a globally well known name in years to come. Their technology looks promising to me.

Three inspirational events

Almere

Almere, pioneering community self building on land reclaimed from the sea.

Apologies, it’s now nearly a month since I last posted a blog. I usually try and write one every week or so. It’s been a busy month. One annoyance has been the General Data Protection Regulation regulations that I couldn’t fathom, which meant that I’ve cancelled the Mailchimp automated newsletter, and I’ll have to work out how to delete the sign-up form from this webpage! Sorry to those of you who enjoyed getting the blogs via the newsletter format.

Over the last week or so I’ve been to three events that each in their own way were inspiring and indicated positive trends. All could do with strong government support to really grow to their full potential.

The first event was the AGM of Ledbury Solar Coop. The coop is doing well and the directors are doing an outstanding job. This is one of the Sharenergy renewable energy coops of which I’m a member, and which I’ve frequently mentioned in previous blogs. To me they seemed to have massive potential to meet many social and environmental challenges. Unfortunately government support has been weak, confused and generally unhelpful, which has certainly slowed the spread of such coops.

The next event was Riversimple’s launch of the Rasa in Abergavenny. It is looking increasingly likely that our car club will be part of their trials for this hydrogen fuel cell car. The Riversimple car and our car club are things I’ve blogged about before. Together they indicate a way of moving beyond the era of individual ownership of wasteful and highly polluting petrol and diesel cars. We could free up a lot of urban space, cut traffic congestion and pollution by moving toward more flexible patterns of mobility.

The third event I’d like to flag up was the launch of Hereford Community Land Trust’s Building Momentum project. They had two outside speakers who I thought were excellent and showed how the UK’s housing crisis might best be addressed. Keith Cowling spoke about the achievements of Bristol Community Land Trust while Ted Stevens gave an inspiring talk setting UK community self build in context with the extraordinary projects being built in many other countries. (eg Berlin)

Together these three events show how energy, transport and housing outcomes could all be improved.

 

India: Coal or Solar?

India has built a lot of coal power stations, but will they become stranded assets, displaced by cheaper, cleaner solar?

India has built a lot of coal power stations, but will they become stranded assets, displaced by cheaper, cleaner solar?

Last month atmospheric Co2 levels passed 410 parts per million. To avert climatic catastrophe humanity needs to shift away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. India presents us with both the scale of the challenge and the scope of possibility. The government of India wants to bring electricity to all its 1.3 billion people, the population is still rising and the country is rapidly industrializing. Energy demand is increasing, and so too carbon emissions. Many new coal fired power stations were built in the decade 2007 to 2017, more than doubling coal capacity. This all bodes ill for local air quality, and for the global climate. At the Paris climate summit a couple of years back the Indian government was rather dragging its feet, only promising to decrease the carbon intensity of its economy, while planning for rapid economic growth and emissions still rising for years to come.

However things could change for the better very rapidly. The price of solar, both photovoltaic and concentrating solar thermal, is falling fast, and India has a very good solar resource. In 2017 for the first time India added more new renewable capacity than new coal. Many coal plants are proving economically unviable: they simply cannot match solar on price and are shutting down. As solar prices are predicted to keep falling this should only accelerate this process. Currently the government are still trying to protect coal from these market forces. They are also beginning to grasp the new opportunities that solar can bring. For isolated rural communities across India local solar plus storage will be key to their development. At the other extreme are new solar based megacities.

The Dholera Special Investment Region, located near the head of the Gulf of Khambhat in the Indian state of Gujarat, is a huge area earmarked for a new city and cleantech industrial hub. A 5 GW solar pv plant is planned, with local manufacture of solar cells and panels and other ancillary industries. This will further decrease the price of solar electricity, hastening the demise of coal. A project like Dholera opens up many new opportunities to create new forms of prosperity not based on ever more pollution but on new and ecologically sustainable technologies. It would be a perfect place to invest heavily in solar desalination and new forms of super productive hydroponic agriculture, on many forms of energy storage and on electric and hydrogen fuel cell transportation systems. India could lead the world with the speed to its energy transition. Technologically India has lagged behind Europe, USA or China, but it has probably the best solar resource of these four. It could leapfrog them, and be the first solar powered superpower. Essentially it is a political choice, which path India will follow, coal based or solar based development? The economics of going all out for solar are looking increasingly good, which is good news for India, and for the rest of us.

Costa Rica

Costa Rica is providing leadership in so many inspiring ways. Following a short civil war in 1948 it abolished its army and has for these last seventy years put the money saved into improving education, health and welfare systems. It now has longer life expectancy than USA. It is by far the most peaceful country in Central America and has very much lower crime levels than any of its neighbours. It has done much to protect and enhance its biodiversity. It has long been a beacon of good democratic government, and last month elected Carlos Alvarado as president.

The new president arrived at his inauguration ceremony in a hydrogen fuel cell bus, the first one in Central America. Costa Rica has for some years got about 99% of its electricity from renewables and has famously gone for 300 days without needing to burn any fossil fuels to generate electricity. It seeks to be a world leader by being the first country to fully decarbonise all its energy use. Transport is the big challenge. Carlos Alvarado has announced the incredibly ambitious goal of replacing all petrol and diesel use with battery electric and hydrogen fuel cell cars and buses by 2021. That would be a global first. It may not be fully achievable within these four years, but it is a goal worth pursuing. President Alvarado has described the full energy transition as a ’titanic and beautiful task’.

In order to make the transport sector fossil fuel free they will need to expand their renewable energy systems. So far most comes from hydro, with geothermal expanding quickly. Solar, wind and biomass are all still relatively underdeveloped. There is lots of scope for expansion. It will be very interesting to see what they can achieve in these next few years.

All the indexes and polls measuring happiness and wellbeing put Costa Rica up near the top, along with the five Nordic countries of Finland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Iceland. Low military spending, low levels of economic inequality, strong commitment to ecological sustainability and well functioning democracy seem to be unifying themes which help build a strong sense of social solidarity, wellbeing and happiness in all these countries: surely a recipe for others to follow?