The Renewable Gas Ask : Part Q

In the continuing inquiry into which bodies and actors are likely to call for Renewable Gas, and why, I am going back to add extra comments to sectors I already discussed.

14.   Power Grid Operators (Continued)

An Embarrassment of Electrons

Stories regularly bubble away, and rise to the surface from time to time, about how renewable power is being wasted, as grids don’t need it or can’t handle it.

There appears to be a whole phalanx of media commentators, who might identify as right-wing, and therefore be fans of shareholding and markets, who complain about wind turbines being “shut down” (or more accurately “shut out”) because it’s too windy. Funny, though, increasingly more wind turbines are being planted, almost as if there’s a strong return on capital investment in these zero carbon assets. Plus, these opinion-formers don’t seem to change their story from year to year, which is a tad strange :-

2018 : Wind farms paid £100m to switch power off
2020 : “Wind farms paid up to £3 million per day to switch off turbines”

It’s a losing argument, lads. Actually, no, it’s lost. The National Grid knew what it was doing when it agreed to adopt renewable electricity sources. There’s the whole Balancing Mechanism, and soon, there will be heaps of extra electricity storage, and the storage of the power of electrons in other forms of energy.

As time goes by, and reams of solar panels and crowds of wind turbines are added to the standing army of power grids in the developed and developing countries, because neighbouring countries will all be producing too much electricity at the same time – for example in a strong storm system or a very sunny day – it will not be possible to export electrons along interconnectors.

Oops, an embarrassment of electrons. The infrastructure and grid distribution people will be looking for anything that can act as a load sink. Sure, for an anticipated storage time of a few hours, using grid-integrated solid state batteries are going to be a boon. Except the scale of the energy storage required might far outweigh original scoping.

Will the power companies turn to flow batteries and other kinds of chemical looping systems for energy storage on windy Wednesdays and sunny Sundays ? It all depends on how stable these turn out to be – how many cycles of a unit can be done before maintenance or chemical refilling is required. Also, the containment of chemical batteries is a fairly major construction cost, and for safety reasons, it might be better if they were built into the ground – also saving on build materials. If the power companies need to go to the extent of digging for battery provision, why not produce synthetic gas from excess renewable power, and store that underground instead ? It would require much less in terms of containment and build. Nature has provided a fine example of how gases can be stored safely for millions of years underground – why, we could even use the now-emptied Natural Gas caverns to store synthesised methane.

It is at this point in the logic that a wise reviewer of energy will reflect on how there is now a bit of a competition for the provision of sub-surface storage of gases. Large, traditionally leading oil and gas companies are selling the idea of CCS – Carbon Capture and Storage, where all vagrant carbon dioxide should be plucked from whichever process, or even from the air itself, to be compressed and pumped underground for eternity – but actually a good deal shorter, because of tectonics and the natural long period natural Carbon Cycle. Modern, more conscious energy companies want to use the sub-surface to store carbon-free hydrogen, despite the fact that hydrogen molecules are incredibly small and incorrigibly mobile, seeping through even metals.

Whilst it is true that the world needs Renewable Hydrogen – hydrogen liberated from water and biomass by the action of renewable power – the best gas for energy storage is definitely Renewable Methane – made from Renewable Hydrogen. There is a strong parallel with natural processes : Natural Gas, which has been resident in the sub-surface for millions of years, is primarily methane in content.

Fine. Capture and lock away a bit of carbon dioxide underground. Bury CO2. But there is no gain in locking away a source of carbon that has no intrinsic fuel value. What’s more important is energy storage – so temporarily burying hydrogen and methane – which are ideal fuels. Although, as previously noted, methane is more stable and containable, theoretically. Methane gas emissions from oil and gas industry operations have been bad in some places and at some times : due to liberating methane from its millions-years sub-surface storage : this failing will need to be deal with when applications of Renewable Methane expand.

10.   Industrial High Energy Consumers (Continued)

Developed and developing economies will continue to have industries with high levels of energy demand, causing high levels of carbon dioxide emissions : for products such as steel, glass, fuels, petrochemicals and cement. Processes in this sector are highly concentrated in terms of location, owing to the energy efficiency of highly centralised operation, and this would facilitate high volume carbon dioxide capture, and therefore lower-cost CCS – the underground, permanent sequestration of carbon dioxide.

However, in terms of capital expenditure barriers to new technologies, it would be less of a hurdle to implement low carbon synthetic gas production to meet energy demand; and in addition, provide energy-dense synthesised gases for storage which would have a future earnings potential. If syngas in high energy demand industries were to be made from renewable resources, so Renewable Gas, so Renewable Hydrogen, Renewable Methane and Renewable Carbon Monoxide, this would advance low carbon industry significantly.

Another question is that of speed-to-implementation : Renewable Gas for low carbon energy in energy-intensive industries is likely to be much faster to get going than industry-wide Carbon Capture and Storage.

In order for Renewable Gas to be called for in this sector, however, there would need to be a strong confidence that renewable electricity supplies were growing virtually exponentially, as cheap power will be essential. Renewable Gas will not only be a serious soak of excess renewable power load, it will also provide a way to capture and recycle process heat in energy-intensive industries – a matter of energy efficiency, which is highly important to make advances in.

FIT for Purpose

Image Credit : Marrickville Greens

Everywhere in the world that Renewable Energy subsidies, grants or guaranteed unit price contracts have been set, there has been a gradual, or sometimes even rapid, development of new Renewable Energy assets. Which seems like quite a good reason for the State to partly finance the development of Renewable Energy systems, if you take the long view. (Note : I’m using the word “asset” in its proper, original sense here – something that has value long after it has been created, and long after it has been paid for.)

By the end of the lifetime of German roof-top solar panels, or British wind turbines, the economic signal to assist the deployment of these technologies will have long since vapourised, leaving behind a functioning electricity supply that runs without the use of expensive fuel and doesn’t run the risk of major failures and huge drops in power output – unlike large centralised power stations.

The need to invest in long-term non-fuel widely-distrubuted generation assets plugged into the electricity network is essential for its future stability – the more reliable Renewable resources of all scales the National Grid can call on, the cheaper it will be to guarantee a solid supply for all.

The large energy companies most likely consider investment in small- and medium-scale Renewable Energy by individuals and communities as a threat to their monopoly on electrical generation. And so they should. It is time for big changes in the way energy is supplied and managed in this country.

New, large, centralised power plants that the large energy companies want to build will cost their customers dearly in the form of higher energy prices – and there have been continual battles over the planning for and the financing of large new energy plants.

This is why the Feed-in Tariff (FIT) scheme in the UK is so important to keep – a stimulus to create small-scale Low Carbon power resources that will still have value in 20 or even 30 years time with very low maintenance schedules.

The threshold level of the economic stimulus for small-scale Renewables is comparatively low when compared to other forms of investment. The incentive scheme to install principally solar resources can work with funds much lower than those required to underwrite a new fleet of Nuclear Power stations, for example, and yet create a resource that could rival the new reactors without all that cost of nasty radioactive clean-up at the end of a nuke plant’s life.

But, being Great Britain, the Government have had their heads turned by the large energy companies yet again, it seems, as there are rumours that the FIT will be scrapped :-

http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/339acf30-c757-11df-aeb1-00144feab49a.html

“Solar power subsidy under review : By Fiona Harvey, Environment Correspondents : Published: September 23 2010 : The recent mini-boom in solar power could be in jeopardy, as the government has privately indicated that new feed-in tariffs that have fuelled the industry could be slashed. If such cuts are adopted, renewable energy experts fear that it will scare off investors – with repercussions throughout the industry. “To change the subsidy system just when you can see the success it has had beggars belief,” said one. “Renewable energy investors . . . will lose faith in this government.” Industry insiders also accused the government of hypocrisy. They say that while Chris Huhne, the energy and climate change secretary, was promising the Liberal Democrat conference 250,000 green jobs as part of a “revolutionary” deal to cut emissions, government advisers were holding meetings in back rooms at which they flagged up potential cuts to the feed-in tariffs (FITs)…”

Don’t blame me or anybody in the Green Party or Greenpeace or Friends of the Earth or a number of other Non-Governmental Organisations or independents if in 15 years time there is still not a significant Renewable Energy resource in the United Kingdom. We have expended a lot of personal energy calling for sensible levels of sustainable funding for the renewables revolution. We can do without the limitations of a stop-start regime.

If you want new energy systems, you need to pay for them. It’s called investment, and we need to do it because our current energy systems are decrepit and high carbon. The large energy companies are not prepared to put their own capital into small-scale Renewables, so it falls to the taxpayer to fill the gap. Why not pay the least for the most by directly incentivising small-scale Renewable Energy with a long-term Feed In Tariff scheme ?