A Partial Meeting of Engineering Minds

So I met somebody last week, at their invitation, to talk a little bit about my research into Renewable Gas.

I can’t say who it was, as I didn’t get their permission to do so. I can probably (caveat emptor) safely say that they are a fairly significant player in the energy engineering sector.

I think they were trying to assess whether my work was a bankable asset yet, but I think they quickly realised that I am nowhere near a full proposal for a Renewable Gas system.

Although there were some technologies and options over which we had a meeting of minds, I was quite disappointed by their opinions in connection with a number of energy projects in the United Kingdom.

Nuclear Power

I asked this person if they thought that the Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant project would now go ahead, considering the legal challenge to the public subsidies launched by Austria. I could also have included a mention of the continuing problem with financing vehicles, the inclusion of foreign states, the clear distaste that the new Conservative Government has for excessive subsidies, engineering problems with similar new build nuclear energy projects in other countries, and the still unresolved issue of nuclear radioactive and fuel waste disposal, but I kept it down to one issue to keep it simple.

The other person’s attitude was that the nuclear dream was still very much alive. They also wanted me to understand that nuclear power can be operated flexibly. I said I knew. I said that 10% of the French fleet of nuclear power plants are operated with variable loads, but that this has implications for heat management and therefore efficiency. I said that nuclear power generally is inefficient in the use of heat, but I didn’t pursue this line of thought very far. I wanted to see if the other person was aware of the potential for using the world’s remaining nuclear reactors for the production of gas, rather than electricity. This technology option is often known as “nuclear hydrogen”, but it doesn’t refer to the radioactive hydrogen that is a by-product of fission processes in nuclear fuel rods and reactor coolant. Instead, the term “Nuclear Hydrogen” is used for a suite of technologies proposed for using nuclear reactor heat to split water into hydrogen and oxygen. And hydrogen gas can be stored, or it can be reacted to make methane, and this then is stored. But although my conversation partner did talk with me about the need for gas storage in a later part of the meeting, they seemed to be unaware of the potential for nuclear reactors being used to make gas.

The key thing about nuclear power plants is that it will become clear soon that it makes no sense to keep them generating power. As progressively more renewable electricity becomes available, and this is variable and sometimes with very low wholesale prices, it makes most sense to use this renewable power as much as possible. However, because the wind sometimes does not blow and sun sometimes does not shine, the power grids always need something else to fall back on, at times when renewable electricity is not available. It would not make any sense to ramp nuclear power plants up and down by quite significant percentages to follow the spiky renewable electricity generation profile. In addition, as time has gone by, nuclear power plants have become ever more unreliable. It would make much more sense to install the equipment to manufacture gas at nuclear power plants, and store it at an appropriately safe distance away, and use this gas to produce power on demand when renewable power is not meeting the grid’s needs.

Anyway, the person I was speaking with did not appear to know about the potential for nuclear hydrogen or nuclear methane, which was a shame, so what I was waiting to hear never came, and the conversation moved on.

Renewable Electricity & Renewable Gas

The person I was talking with was aware of some of the issues with renewable electricity generation, but seemed to be unaware that Germany will likely have something in the region of 50TWh annually of excess generation in around 5 to 10 years time. I explained that at the present time, Germany is exporting this excess power, but that if all countries around Germany ratchet up their renewable electricity generation as well, then pretty soon, Germany will have no market for this over-production – and this is where Renewable Gas comes in. I explained that Germany has a plan to use excess solar and wind power to make gas, around 2% of supply will be Renewable Hydrogen, and 8% Renewable Methane. They call this “power to gas” (or “Power-to-Gas”).

What we didn’t talk about is whether there will be other markets for Germany’s excess renewable generation, which will initially be sold at very low prices. Countries that don’t advance in renewable energy deployment, such as is likely for the United Kingdom under the Conservative Government, will want to enjoy the imports of cheap Germany solar and wind power in order to meet their European Union Renewable Energy Directive targets. However, it might be that Germany unilaterally sets a cross-border tariff to ensure that settlement is conducted in favour of German manufactured gas companies having priority access to German renewable power. That would scupper Osbornomics, good and proper ! Unless, of course, the British people elect to leave the European Union, and the Conservative UK Government drop the British obligations to meet EU Renewable Energy targets.

Biomass

Whilst the person I was exchanging with was as keen on the idea of manufacturing Renewable Methane as I am, they were doubtful about the potential for biomass to provide the carbon necessary for methanation. I took them through some of the options : wood, for example, from the management of Russian boreal forest (something that will need to be done increasingly as climate change begins to really take its toll). I mentioned grass – a highly uniform source of biomass, and plants that can be grown in dry land areas.

This person and I were agreed that it makes sense to install as much solar power as possible in desert areas of the world. We discussed briefly the various projects that have existed, for example in North Africa, and the future potential for transporting not only renewable power but also renewable gas from North Africa to Europe, which would increase the potential for reliable energy trade. The other person was keen to see Renewable Methane being imported into Europe from North Africa, but I pointed out that although it would be straightforward to manufacture Renewable Hydrogen from excess solar power for export from North Africa, that it would be hard to know where the carbon would come from to upgrade the Renewable Hydrogen to Renewable Methane.

I explained that I had written a descriptive account of what Iran could do in Renewable Gas for a forthcoming publication. I explained that I had covered the question of where Iran would get their carbon dioxide from to make Renewable Methane via the use of Renewable Hydrogen made from solar and wind power generated inside their borders. I was hoping the person I was talking to would point out that Iran has very large remaining resources of Natural Gas, and these are mostly untapped. Then I would have pointed out that quite a lot of Iran’s remaining Natural Gas resources could be very sour/acid with high levels of hydrogen sulphide and carbon dioxide, and from there I would have said that while Iran is building up its truly Renewable Gas manufacture facilities, it could make use of the carbon dioxide taken from its Natural Gas to make a kind of transitional gas – partly decarbonised… but we never reached this point of discussion.

Mediterranean Gas, Desert Solar, Desert Gas and Shale Gas

Whilst talking about “desert solar”, I listed some of the problems in North Africa that are preventing energy project development, and even destroying fossil fuel production in some places. We both agreed that political disturbances and conflict issues were detrimental to progress, and that several desert solar projects will probably be abandoned because the country situations are so dire. I then talked about the various countries lining up for marine gas from underneath the sea, particularly in the eastern part of the Mediterranean, and how there is a kind of race to exploit these resources, and accusations flying about how some countries are stealing other countries’ resources. I said that it seemed to me to be worrying that there was so much enthusiasm about this resource, as it would only last around 15 years, and I asked, what would happen after that ?

I was trying to fish for opinions about shale gas from the other person, as the public relations for shale gas in the United Kingdom are communicated at the same kind of fanzine mania pitch as the Mediterranean countries are promoting marine gas projects. And yet shale gas will almost certainly be a “one hit wonder”, just like subsea marine gas – gone in a puff of carbon dioxide 15 to 20 years after a region starts to produce significant volumes. I was trying to lead into a conversation about what comes after the shale gale has blown away, and question why there is so much store set by shale gas, when most serious opinion is that it will take so long to develop significant shale gas production, and that it will not last very long once it has got going. But my correspondent didn’t seem to be aware of the finite nature of shale gas, nor the geological reality of depletion rates and pressure drops in different mined resources.

Anyway, I hope I indicated I was quite scornful of people who continue to push the “shale gas will save us all” narrative, when it can do no such thing, as will become apparent for both shale gas and shale oil in the United States of America in a short while.

Diagrams

I showed my dialogue partner the diagrams of stages and choices in a transition from fossil fuelled energy systems to a hydrogen economy. One of the two final stages before a complete transition to a hydrogen-only energy system I had labelled as “carbon recycling”, where carbon dioxide is not only re-utilised in other applications (such as making aggregates, the other person suggested) but that the carbon dioxide is used to control the thermal processes in electricity generation and gas manufacture in some way. I said that there were a number of technologies in the “carbon recycling” space, such as the demonstrations and pilot projects for “pre-combustion” Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, where carbon dioxide is recycled directly without chemical modification in order to control reactor temperatures, or steer the chemistry of gasification or combustion towards a desired outcome.

Hydrogen

The other person and I talked quite a lot about hydrogen, and they wanted to know why there was such an obsession with hydrogen. I said that hydrogen is like a proper research and development project – sufficiently far enough into the future that we can justify spend money on it. I also said that there have been many IEA Tasks associated with hydrogen (and a raft of regional programmes such as those in Europe). Most of these have focused on transport, as the mobility sector has a very high dependency on refined crude petroleum oil products, and this is the carbon addiction that will probably be the most hard to break.

We both agreed that it is not likely that the UK will convert its gas grid to carry high levels of hydrogen (although we agreed at the end of the conversation that the Natural Gas grid can be responsible for the highest fugitive methane emissions in the economy).

We both agreed that in order to effect a low carbon transition, we are going to need gas, and gas storage, and that it is going to be more efficient to work with what we already have – namely the methane-carrying gas grid. I mentioned the plans for Germany to use Power-to-Gas to be producing 10% of their gas supply as Renewable Gas (2% Renewable Hydrogen and 8% Renewable Methane) by the mid-2020s.

Carbon Capture and Storage & Carbon Pricing, Carbon Taxation and Carbon Markets

I said that I doubted that there would be more than a couple of major Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) projects.

The other person thought that decisions at the Paris climate talks might change the price of carbon. I said that I doubted that carbon prices would ever reach the kind of levels required to “incentivise” or stimulate CCS. I also said that I’d been reading economists who said that carbon markets might be only capable of creaming off around 5% of global carbon emissions. The other person talked about the design of carbon markets, and how the European Union Emissions Trading Scheme (EU ETS) had issued too many credits. I said that large energy consumers are not paying their carbon dues, and even if the carbon market were make better, large industrial players would still get exemptions. I didn’t say that various estimates of the outcome of reform of the EU ETS could mean that carbon prices fall, instead of rise, and that this is exactly what the economists want, and makes carbon trading “cost-efficient”. Nor did I mention that carbon pricing is transactional, so an operational expenditure, and also charged to the consumer and not the producer, and will therefore have no impact at all on investment, which is captial expenditure on behalf of the producer.

The real problem with CCS is actually not the price of carbon. I was hoping that the other person would admit that CCS generally requires a significantly higher fuel consumption – because of the thermodynamic disadvantage of separating carbon dioxide from flue gases or chemically before combustion – and then compressing it and pumping it underground. I tried to open the discussion for them to cover this so that I could throw in questions about efficiency. I would have suggested that the efficiency of manufacturing gas (for example using renewable electricity to manufacture hydrogen, and then methanating with carbon dioxide to produce methane), even though some would consider the round trip poor, could compare favourably to CCS, and would in fact make new fuel, instead of burning more of the original fuel.

Commercial Viability or Infrastructural Utility ?

My conversation fellow and I discussed likely numbers for efficiency ratings for a Renewable Gas “peaker” or “peaking” power plant – one that operates all the time to manufacture gas, and then operates as a power plant when needed because renewable electricity supply is low. I gave my guesstimates of a couple of energy conversion efficiencies for various process stages, and said that I need to model it properly. I said that I am trying to get contacts in a particular London university to get access to computing time and computer software that has already been written. I said that I had been in contact with some Swiss guys about heat integration between the various process stages of Renewable Gas manufacture, and how this improved overall efficiency – for example, recycled heat from methanation can be used to dry biomass prior to gasification.

I said that I doubted that such a plant could be run as a commercial unit, but that it would make sense for National Grid to own a fleet of such plant as part of their balancing services. My conversation partner said that this would undermine a rationale for building such units. We mentioned that the current regulations bar National Grid from owning or operating electricity generating plant, but this seems too prescriptive, given the amount of variable renewable power that should become available. I said, OK, so this couldn’t be run at a profit by a private enterprise, but “think of the utility” of having Renewable Gas plant embedded in the power grid system – it would have a value far beyond questions of simple commercial turnover. National Grid started down the road of CCS by proposing a carbon dioxide “gathering” pipeline as part of its infrastructure assets, but this work had to be delegated to a separate company – because of the possibility of the carbon dioxide being reused for energy transformation or electricity generation. My outstanding question is : will National Grid continue to pay over the odds for backup generation for renewable power without owning and managing its own manufactured gas generation assets ?

My conversation partner talked about IGCC – Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle and syngas – and I said that Renewable Gas designs and the new “carbon recycling” technologies being explored are essentially “Sons of IGCC” and used the same syngas pathways.

I said Renewable Gas projects are already happening. I said that there are a couple of Renewable Methane projects in the Netherlands, several in Germany, and GoBiGas in Sweden, but I didn’t know if it was already operational yet. I said that were even Renewable Gas initiatives in the UK, such as a demonstration project that Royal Dahlmann will be doing.

The Future

I said that as a result of my research, I now had a burning desire to build fuel cells for some reason, but however, I realised I ought to focus on modelling the overall Renewable Gas concepts. The other person recommended I put together some numbers for the Renewable Gas plan, Sankey diagrams of energy flows and so on, and show how good an option it is. They said that I should do this instead of negatively critiquing other options. I didn’t say that my position is that you’ve got to know how weak the other options are before you push for the most pragmatic, practical and sensible one.

My correspondent said they wanted to see how my forthcoming book will be received; and that the problem with good ideas, like energy efficiency – is that they sound good, but turn out to be difficult to do, something with which I wholeheartedly agreed.

I think the most difficult thing is to overcome the tendency to plump for the most inefficient and costly options in energy – like nuclear power and CCS. It should be an easy pitch : carbon recycling and making Renewable Gas could be cheaper than CCS. And all gas systems are definitely cheaper than nuclear power, even without doing detailed modelling. How does that sound ?

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