What’s developing in renewables?

windmills-984137_19202015 was an exciting year for renewables. The Guardian announced that the Renewables Global Status report found, ” Overall, more than twice as much money was spent on renewables than on coal and gas-fired power generation ($130bn in 20150).”

Lots of progress is happening in renewables—much of it is expansion of wind and solar farms, but there are more far-reaching developments going on. Batteries are getting better and cheaper, solar panels are more efficient, and new storage methods are being investigated. Here are some recent developments.

Solar

Sunflare has developed a thin-fim solar technology. Here’s what it offers:

  • much lighter weight—65 percent less than conventional panels
  • simpler installation—no mounting rack necessary
  • increased energy generation—produce up to 10 percent more energy
  • fexible—can be applied to any shape

Sunflare’s founder, Len Gao states that, “the panels can be secured to any surface with a special double-sided tape.” While the cells themselves are more expensive than conventional solar panels, you don’t need a mounting rack so the total price should remain about the same. The amazing thing about these cells is the variety of mounting possibilities.

Wind

A white paper from Mita-Teknik describes an Advanced Blade Pitch System: New blade pitch technology uses electricity instead of hydraulics, which is more reliable because of the absence of hydraulic fluid leaks. The pitch systems have also been improved, which means that the systems are more responsive to changing wind conditions. This is especially important in machines that are designed for extreme weather and for offshore wind farms. This control lets the turbines operate in higher wind speeds, permits longer blades, and reduces wear on the turbine components.

Geothermal

For Canada with a record of no geothermal projects something is finally happening—in Hinton, Alberta. According to the Hinton Voice, this project that brings Epoch Energy and the town together, is currently at what they refer to as, “the pre-feasibility stage.” The plan is to look at whether existing capped oil wells could be used to heat some public buildings in the town. Although, it’s not electricity generation, this is a first for Canada to investigate the use of actual geothermal energy, not geo-exchange, directly as a heat source.

The Financial Post on August 9 of this year reported that a provincial legislator had requested, “the Alberta government to allow an old well to be converted to geothermal energy to heat an 8,000 square-foot greenhouse.” He proposed this for a former oilfield water disposal well in Leduc. Additionally, DeSmog described what the Alberta government needs to do to seriously develop geothermal energy in the province.

Smart Electrical grids

A smart electrical grid provides two-way information and power exchange between providers and consumers so that all of the devices on the grid can be managed to maximize conservation, efficiency, and continuity of electricity. The addition of renewables with variable power output increases the need for a smart grid that can ensure that power is available where and when it’s needed. Data that tracks electrical energy in real time is essential to operate a smart gird. Smart meters can provide this data. Ontario installed them several years ago and the U.S. currently has 65 million of them.

Greentech Media announced that several companies are currently designing and building devices for the grid that can “actively manage voltage and power at the distribution circuit level.”

Good news

In a year that should have shown lower investments in renewables because of  low oil prices, the reverse happened. This is a good indication that renewables are here to stay.

Can renewables save us from climate change?

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Not a Wind Turbine in sight!

No matter the source of renewable energy, there are always objections. Some are legitimate, but many seem questionable. I’ve noticed, when renewables are compared to the existing energy sources, people downplay the negatives of the current sources and build up those of the renewables. I’m sure much of this is our comfort with the familiar—the tested and the true even though we often test nothing and unquestioningly embrace “the true”. We humans have always been dragged, kicking and screaming, into the next century.

 And climate change in the 21st?

It seems different this time. We’re beginning to feel the effects of climate change, but we have the most powerful accesses to knowledge so why do we resist the next step? We’re eager to accept—in fact we can’t seem to wait for—the latest version of smart phone technology, but we’re content to use basic 19th century technologies for transportation and electricity!

 Can renewables be dangerous?

A stock answer to the threat of climate change is that, science and technology will save us. Within this answer, few consider that maybe—just maybe—science and technology will save us with renewables such as solar, geothermal, or wind power! The renewable technologies (results of science) seldom receive attention.

I just read an article, “The Environmentalist Case Against 100% Renewable Energy Plans“. The article warns against going 100% renewable because solar and wind even with storage can’t replace all of the fossil fuel supply. Then, with absolutely no mention of geothermal and with a questionable use of the term “monoculture” applied to renewable energy rather than ecology, the author pushes nuclear power. Maybe the author is right about nuclear, but I question his motives about not mentioning geothermal although it was included in a chart showing capacity factors for select fuels and technologies. The chart shows geothermal’s capacity factor to be second only to nuclear. But he doesn’t reference geothermal in his text—not once! What is his agenda?

Wind turbines—birds number-one enemy?

Here’s one example of how we selectively obsess on the so-called weaknesses of a renewable. Inevitably, any discussion about wind power will get around to the thousands of birds killed by wind turbines, usually from people that have never shown any previous interest in birds. No one seems to look at any updated information regarding bird deaths. Some of the earlier wind turbine placements contributed to stories of huge bird kills were mistakenly in migration paths, higher turbine towers place the blades above the birds’ flight paths, and the slower-moving blades give the birds a chance to evade them. A study from the University of Singapore found that wind turbines kill the least amount of birds compared to other methods of power generation. Wind turbines account for about 0.3 birds per GWh (about 7,000 for the U.S. in 2006) while nuclear plants kill 0.4 per GWh and fossil-fuelled power plants kill 5.2, which is more than 10 times the amount for wind turbines.

Other bird killers

Bird deaths due to some non-power producing facilities are even higher. The fatality total from collision with windows for the 10 states with the most wind power in 2006 was between 97 to 976 million. Pesticides kill 72 million, and cats, another 10 million. On top of that communication towers and power pylons kill millions. How much discussion is there about those hazards? As I said before, we underestimate the danger of things we are familiar with and demonize the unknown.

Rush to judgement

This is just one of the many objections to wind turbines. Others include health concerns mainly from people who seem oblivious tot the health hazards of burning fossil fuels, aesthetic concerns that don’t seem to apply to power pylons and cell phone towers, and concerns about land use for an industry that leaves 95 percent of the surrounding land for other compatible uses compared to blowing the tops off mountains for coal in Appalachia.

After Paris?

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I have mixed feelings about the Paris Agreement from the United Nations climate conference (COP21). As David Suzuki notes in his blog, Science Matters, an agreement among nations that are responsible for over 95 percent of the global emissions is significant. Also, the provision to improve the targets every five years is encouraging. The funding for vulnerable, developing nations is a first.

Downside?

However, I see the following flaws:

  • The agreement is not binding.
  • The current goals are already inadequate.
Canadian pride

As a Canadian I am proud that my country took a cooperative approach this time, instead of acting as a spoiler like our previous government. Canada has to make up lost ground, but its reputation is on the mend.

Nice goals, but?

With the agreement in Paris, how are the countries going to achieve their goals? I don’t want to sound discouraging about this milestone agreement: But, we still face heavy slogging to keep the temperature change at 2 degrees Celsius—not to mention 1.51!

The good news from EcoWatch was that fossil fuels stock dropped after the agreement and renewables saw an increase on the first day after the agreement. Let’s hope that any divestment from the fossil fuel industries transfers to renewables. According to Robert A. Manning in the Nikkei Asian Review, the theme of the climate conference was the transition to renewables.

And renewables?

The Atlantic Council, states that currently more than 75 percent of all the World energy needs (electrical, industrial, and transportation) are supplied by fossil fuels. How quickly will renewables be able to replace these to reduce the world’s temperature change? Let’s look at the two most common renewables and their possibilities.

Wind and solar on top

The European Union (EU) has a goal of getting 20 percent of its energy from renewables by 2020 while in that same year the US wants 20 percent of its electricity from renewables. Currently the US gets just 3 percent of its energy from wind and solar. The hope is for 80 percent by 20556. Solar and wind power are the fastest growing renewables. However, because of their intermittence, vastly improved storage and smart girds are critical if they have any chance of replacing fossil fuels in electricity generation.

Solar becoming competitive

The good news is that the cost of solar photo voltaic (PV[1]) cells has plummeted. This plunge should continue because two new generations of solar cells are in the offing with exciting new technologies such as flexible film, solar absorbing inks, and quantum dots. Solar power is already competitive with coal in Southern California.

Wind power, not hot air?

The amount of installed wind power is ten times larger than for solar. Currently wind power supplies about five percent of the electricity in the US. By contrast, 39 percent of Denmark’s electricity is produced by wind power. Wind power has a huge potential.

Like solar, wind power costs are decreasing. This is because of increased rotor diameters and rotor hub heights. These changes enable wind farms in areas that previously were considered unsuitable.

One reason for the EU’s success with wind is the development of considerable offshore wind farms, which bypass many of the current objections to wind farms. Some are planned in the US, but none exist yet. According to the Globe and Mail, there are no offshore wind farms in Canada. Apparently, two are planned but they are far from producing any electricity.

Storage and smart grid

Because both solar and wind energy are intermittent, the development of storage and smart grids is critical to the success of these two renewables. Both of these factors would make more effective use of the generated electricity.

Storage

Storage allows the energy to be available when sun and wind aren’t there. Go to my blog posting CO21 and renewables for more information about storage.

Smart grid

A smart gird could move electricity from areas with wind and sun to the sunless and becalmed areas. In a smart grid, computers can control real time shifts to maximize the energy supply, transmission, distribution, and consumption. From a central location, they could adjust power flows in the grid to handle power spikes and troughs.

 

 

[1] PV—conversion of solar energy directly to electricity with solar cells

Paris Climate Conference and renewables?

Underwater compressed air storage

Underwater compressed air storage

The 2015 Paris Climate Conference (CO21) is underway this week.

Global warming fight

According to the Associated Press, one of the ways that governments and business leaders see to fight global warming is using renewable energy. Currently, the most rapidly growing renewables are wind and solar. The biggest problem for these two is that they are intermittent.

Intermittent renewables

Until recently, most of the solutions to the intermittence problem have involved backup power plants that use natural gas or coal. Unfortunately, these are fossil fuels. Natural gas has been singled out as a transition fuel for backing up renewables. However, as well as being a fossil fuel that produces CO2, natural gas (methane) is also a greenhouse gas. Additionally, the threats to water supplies from fracking are becoming more of a concern. Any increase in coal use should be a nonstarter.

Intermittent solution?

Fortunately, another way of backing up renewables is emerging. This way is energy storage. With storage, you can save the energy produced during optimal conditions for wind or solar. This stored energy can be retrieved when these sources are unavailable. In the past, any discussion of storage has automatically meant batteries, but now other methods are emerging and should be investigated. Francesca Cava discusses some of these methods in an article for ARES News:

  • Batteries
  • Pumped storage hydro
  • Flywheels
  • Advanced Rail Energy Storage
  • Compressed Air
  • Heat
Batteries

Lithium ion batteries are the norm right now, but they are expensive and limited in their storage capacity. Ongoing research and development is critical for developing a battery that is cheaper and offers more storage capacity. One example is research being conducted by Professor Guoxiu Wang at the UTS Centre for Clean Energy Technology. He is investigating a lithium-air battery that can store 10 times the energy of lithium ion ones.

Pumped storage hydro (PSH)

Electrical motors pump water from a lower reservoir to a higher one. When the operator reverses this flow the water, generates electricity. It has the positive effect of instant energy production.  Unfortunately, most of the suitable sites for reservoirs of this type are already in use. Also, the process depends on an adequate supply of water.

Flywheels

This system uses electric motors to spin massive metal rotors. These rotors then serve as electrical generators when the system is reversed to retrieve the energy. This system is very expensive. Luckily, the flywheels don’t experience the same wear and tear as batteries do in the charge-discharge cycling. A bonus is that they are most cost effective for fast response. This is because they are a short duration, high power resource.

Advanced Rail Energy Storage

The Advanced Rail Energy Storage (ARES) seems strange.  Basically, it’s similar to PSH except rail cars take the place of water and an inclined track replaces the elevated watercourse. Electrical motors push the cars up the incline and the downward return generates electricity. This method shouldn’t be dismissed. I suppose any system of weights on wheels could be substituted for rail cars. It’s a simple use of gravity. The advantage is that this energy could be stored indefinitely.

Compressed Air Energy Storage

In two sites in Germany and Alabama, Compressed Air Energy Storage (CAES) uses energy to compress air into underground salt caverns. Then the air is released to run generators as needed. This idea hasn’t really caught on. One site has been used since 1978 and the other since 1991. The main limitation is geology, which means this method is site-dependent.

However, Toronto hydro has an exciting project, which expands the availability of suitable sites. Toronto Hydro uses the electricity to drive air into underwater, flexible-wall air accumulators (large balloons like the ones used to raise sunken ships). When the energy is required, they reverse the process. It is currently undergoing a two-year feasibility study.

Thermal Energy Storage (TES)

This is a thermal storage method that stores the energy as heat. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), there are three types of TES:

  • Sensible—The energy heats or cools a liquid or solid storage medium.
  • Latent—The energy is used or released with a phase change in a liquid or solid material.
  • Thermo-chemical storage (TCS)—The energy triggers a chemical reaction to store and release thermal energy.

The sensible type is commercially available. The other two systems are still in development. Sensible TES requires considerable material with a high specific heat.

Future of energy storage and renewables

The possibilities exist although each method adds to the cost of developing any renewable facilities. This creates a dilemma because the fossil fuel backups usually exist already. We can’t escape making decisions about which costs are necessary including the hidden costs of the fossil fuels.