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  1. New material releases hydrogen from water at near-perfect efficiency Only works at UV wavelengths, but it might point the way toward general approach. Enlarge NASA/Dimitri Gerondidakis 52 with 27 posters participating Solar energy is currently dominated by photovoltaic devices, which have ridden massive economies of scale to price dominance. But these devices are not necessarily the best choice in all circumstances. Unless battery technology improves, it's quite expensive to add significant storage to solar production. And there are types of transportation—long-distance rail, air—where batteries aren't a great solution. These limitations have made researchers maintain interest in alternate ways of using solar energy. One alternative option is to use the energy to produce a portable fuel, like a hydrocarbon or hydrogen itself. This is possible to do with the electrons produced by photovoltaic systems, but the added steps can reduce efficiency. However, systems that convert sunlight more directly to fuel have suffered from even worse efficiencies. But a Japanese group has decided to tackle this efficiency problem. The team started with a material that's not great—it only absorbs in the UV—but is well understood. And the researchers figured out how to optimize it so that its efficiency at splitting water to release hydrogen runs right up against the theoretical maximum. While it's not going to be useful on its own, it may point the way toward how to develop better materials. Inefficiencies abound Why are materials terrible at using the energy in sunlight to split water? Consider everything they have to do. For starters, they need to be decent photovoltaic materials, efficiently converting photons into free electrons and the corresponding hole with a positive charge. The materials have to somehow keep those two charges from recombining as they make their way to the surface, where they can interact with water. Once the charges are at the surface, the material has to also act as a catalyst, breaking open water and releasing hydrogen and oxygen. This last piece isn't simple, as the formation of oxygen is driven by holes while hydrogen production requires electrons, meaning the two processes have to be physically separated. Finding a single material that fits all of these requirements is not a simple task. The basic material that's being used here, strontium-titanium oxide, has been used for this process for decades and has never reached much more than 60 percent of its theoretical maximum. The Japanese team's approach was to tackle each of these inefficiencies, although it's not entirely clear from the paper whether each of their solutions was entirely intentional. To start with, their choice of material—SrTiO3—handles the efficiency of converting photons to electrons and holes. It's extremely good at it, seemingly capable of doing so at nearly the maximum efficiency predicted by theoretical calculations. And due to its history, people had identified ways of improving the transport of charges within the material. For this work, the researchers doped the material with aluminum. The aluminum atoms tend to settle into the defects that slow down the transport of charges, allowing electrons and holes to recombine. When aluminum atoms are present, they sort of paper over these defects, allowing the charges to move freely throughout the material. At the surface Where the SrTiO3 tends to fall short is in the catalysis. Critically, the paper shows how the authors managed to make significant improvements. A number of developed catalysts are good at driving the splitting of water. But the researchers still had to keep the electrons and holes separated as they made their way to the catalysts. It turns out that the material did the work for the researchers. Through the course of their work, the researchers discovered that the electrons and holes show up on different areas of the surface of the SrTiO3. While the surface of the material looks even and smooth to the eye, different areas will expose different faces of the underlying crystal structure at the atomic level. And as it turns out, the electrons and holes go to different surfaces because of these differences. Amazingly, the researchers seemed to figure this out by depositing an additional catalyst on top of the SrTiO3. They used a process called photodeposition, in which high-energy photons are used to help chemically link a substance to an underlying surface. In this case, the underlying surface is the SrTiO3 material, and the wavelengths used were the same ones that produce electrons and holes. As a result, the appropriate catalysts ended up linked to the same areas where the charges they needed were delivered. For the hydrogen-producing portion of the reaction, the researchers used a rhodium-based catalyst that will work for either oxygen or hydrogen production. But it was combined with a chromium oxide that physically blocked oxygen from interacting with the catalyst. This ensured that the electrons ended up where the catalyst for the hydrogen reacted. These chemicals were deposited through a reduction reaction, ensuring they ended up where there was a supply of electrons. Meanwhile, a cobalt-oxygen catalyst was deposited through an oxidation reaction, ensuring it was linked to the areas supplied with holes. As a result, this catalyst for oxygen production ended up deposited only where the holes it needed were supplied. Summing the process up, the structure of the underlying materials delivers electrons and holes to different areas of the SrTiO3 material. The researchers figured out how to use that fact to link the appropriate catalysts specifically to those sites. At the edge of theory It's impossible to tell how efficient each individual step is in terms of converting incoming photons to the end products, hydrogen and oxygen. The system can only be examined as a whole, and from this perspective, it's extremely impressive: the overall efficiency is 96 percent of the maximum possible efficiency derived from theoretical calculations. Thus, each individual step of the process is likely to be operating nearly at the theoretical efficiency. This news is fantastic—other than the part where UV photons are required for the process to work. The Sun produces much of its energy at non-UV wavelengths, and a lot of the UV light is filtered out by our atmosphere. So this particular material isn't going to drive the hydrogen revolution. The key thing about this research is that it has identified the principle by which we might create the catalyst that could drive such a revolution. There is a wide variety of materials that can use light, including at visible wavelengths, to catalyze hydrogen production poorly. There is a much larger collection of photovoltaic materials that might do the same if combined with the right catalysts. The work described here provides a recipe that might convert some of them to useful materials. Get rid of the defects. Find a material where electrons and holes take different routes through the material. use the presence of electrons and holes to link the right catalysts to where they are supplied with charges. If that works with a better starting material, we could be producing hydrogen through an extremely simple system. Nature, 2020. DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2278-9 (About DOIs). Source: New material releases hydrogen from water at near-perfect efficiency (Ars Technica)
  2. US government sees renewables passing natural gas in 20 years But renewables' prices seem to make the report's projections obsolete already. Enlarge / The United States' first offshore wind farm. University of Rhode Island Each year, the US Energy Information Agency is required to track trends in the nation's energy markets and project those trends forward. Projections based on 2019's trends were released this week, and for the first time, the EIA's default projection places renewables as the largest single source of electricity generation, with renewables surpassing natural gas somewhere around 2040. These reports are very conservative due to some of the assumptions that are included in the projections, and they've done a terrible job projecting the rapid growth of renewable power. And despite the current report showing steady growth of renewables, there are indications it may still be underestimating renewables' potential. But the report is still worth looking at, as it can help to understand how more realistic assumptions could change the future direction of the United States' energy mix. How to project Some of the issues with the EIA's projections are baked into the system. For example, the reports are required to assume existing government policies are the only ones that apply. So while there is some talk of extending tax credits for renewable energy facilities, which has happened in the past, the report assumes that these policies will terminate in the near future as planned. The issues are more pronounced when you consider the radical changes in policies that have occurred over the last few presidential administrations. Following a Bush administration that did nothing regarding climate change, the Obama EPA attempted to limit carbon emissions. The Trump administration has now reversed course and made attempts to increase the country's carbon emissions. All of the Democratic candidates hoping to run against Trump are promising to reverse course again. The growing public awareness of the impacts of climate change suggest that some sort of emissions policy is inevitable—but the report has to assume none will be put in place before 2050. That said, this year's projections also appear to be based on some odd assumptions. For one, the report includes a scenario, termed "high renewable prices," that assumes the ongoing reductions in renewable energy's cost will simply stop tomorrow. This seems less "high" and more "completely unrealistic." Even the midline scenario uses projections of renewable prices that start with wind power at roughly 25 percent higher than that of efficient natural gas plants, with the two seeing parallel price drops over the study period. Even in the "low renewable cost" scenario, wind doesn't reach parity until nearly 2040. What about subsidies? But elsewhere in the report, an analysis of the levelized cost of electricity (meant to remove the impact of subsidies) shows both photovoltaics and onshore wind will be price-competitive with the most efficient natural gas plants by 2025. This is in keeping with estimates from other sources, many of which indicate that the two have already reached price parity. The reason for this discrepancy isn't clear, although it may have to do with building turbines at sites where the wind resources are lower. That situation can arise when state renewable mandates drive installations. But the report indicates that we're installing more than double the amount of renewable generation than is required by state mandates, and that gap is expected to be maintained for the entire duration of the 2020-2050 period. Seeing the future Given that potential limitation, what does the report see as likely to drive the future of the US energy economy? One of the major factors is fracking. By 2050, the EIA expects that 90 percent of the natural gas produced in the US will come from fracking. The growth in the production of fracked gas will outpace demand for it, helping to maintain the US as a net exporter of energy. The slow demand will come in part because US electricity demand grows extremely slowly. Due to increased efficiency, demand has been growing at under 1 percent for over a decade. The report expects that demand will only ramp up slowly over the course of the next few decades. One consequence is that less economic forms of electricity production will be squeezed out of the market by the growth of natural gas and renewables. All but the largest and most efficient coal and nuclear plants are expected to be shut by 2030. From there, however, the report projects that the remaining plants will continue to operate through 2050. This would see the United States' nuclear capacity drop from 98GW to 79GW. Production from coal remains slightly higher after seeing a drop of 25 percent over the next five years. Meanwhile, past regulations that boosted the fuel economy of passenger vehicles will continue to pay dividends in terms of reducing the amount of petroleum consumed in the US. That drop is also in part because the Trump administration's attempts to loosen automobile fuel economy standards haven't been formalized yet. As a result, the report projects that automobile fuel economy improves over the period. This is also driven by the EIA projecting that cars sales will end up passing those of light trucks and SUVs in the middle of the 2020-2050 period, reversing a long-standing trend. Also in the "possibly unrealistic" category is the fact that electric vehicles are projected to occupy a small niche that doesn't really expand out to 2050. Hybrids gain market share, but most of that change is swallowed up by the growth in the total number of cars on the road. Air travel and biofuel The net result is that the total consumption of energy for transport drops slightly out to 2040 before picking up again due to growth in the total number of vehicle miles traveled. Another contributor is the rise of air travel, with the total amount of fuel consumed going up by 30 percent and the rise in miles traveled offsetting increased engine efficiency. The report does see some of the emissions from transportation being offset by increased biofuel production, with the total share of biofuels increasing. But the amount of the increase—along with just about everything else to do with the transportation sector—is heavily dependent on the price of oil, which remains volatile. Anything that raises the price will reduce miles traveled and increase the economic viability of biofuels. A couple of other factors are projected to play large roles in future energy uses. The ultimate dominance of the LED, already in progress, will make domestic and commercial buildings significantly more efficient. And the low cost of electricity and chemical feedstocks based on fossil fuels will help contribute to a steady growth in industrial energy use. Carbon issues Overall, the report projects that US carbon emissions will remain stable at about five gigatonnes over the entire period, with a slight drop coming primarily in the next few years. The change, however, is somewhat sensitive to economic growth, with the difference between high- and low-growth scenarios being about a gigatonne. Low-cost renewables will also allow emissions to drop during this period. But that apparent stability hides some significant changes. Within the last five years, transportation passed electric power as the largest source of carbon emissions in the US. The rise of industrial emissions and continued drop of electrical power emissions will combine to leave them roughly equal in impact by 2050. And the drop in carbon intensity per energy consumed has left us at the point where electrical generation is now the lowest major segment in this measure, dropping below transportation, industrial, residential, and commercial uses. As we said up top, it's not clear that these projections are reasonable; in most cases, major ongoing trends are projected to end within a decade and be replaced by stasis or the opposite trend. While none of these trends can continue indefinitely—manufacturers are never going to be paying you to take solar panels—some are likely to last longer than a decade. And the report does make clear that the ultimate state of the energy economy is very sensitive to some of these trends. A faster drop in renewable prices or volatility in the fossil fuel markets could easily drive US carbon emissions faster than any existing policy, much like the low cost of renewables is currently outpacing state mandates. Significant public policies, such as a carbon tax, could also drive or accelerate these changes. By highlighting these sensitivities, the report can help identify effective climate policies regardless of the accuracy of its specific projections. Source: US government sees renewables passing natural gas in 20 years (Ars Technica)
  3. Renewables are not making electricity any more expensive Wholesale prices are dropping, though mostly due to natural gas. Enlarge / Long Island Solar Farm. US DOE One of the arguments that's consistently been raised against doing anything about climate change is that it will be expensive. On the more extreme end of the spectrum, there have been dire warnings about plunging standards of living due to skyrocketing electricity prices. The plunging cost of renewables has largely silenced these warnings, but a new report from the Department of Energy suggests that, even earlier, renewables were actually lowering the price of electricity in the United States. Plunging prices The report focuses on wholesale electricity prices in the US. Note that these are distinct from the prices consumers actually pay, which includes taxes, fees, payments to support the grid that delivers the electricity, and so on. It's entirely possible for wholesale electricity prices to drop even as consumers end up paying more. That said, large changes in the wholesale price should ultimately be passed on to consumers to one degree or another. The Department of Energy analysis focuses on the decade between 2008 and 2017, and it includes an overall analysis of the US market, as well as large individual grids like PJM and ERCOT and, finally, local prices. The decade saw a couple of important trends: low natural gas prices that fostered a rapid expansion of gas-fired generators and the rapid expansion of renewable generation that occurred concurrently with a tremendous drop in price of wind and solar power. Much of the electricity generated by renewables in this time period would be more expensive than that generated by wind and solar installed today. Not only have prices for the hardware dropped, but the hardware has improved in ways that provide higher capacity factors, meaning that they generate a greater percentage of the maximum capacity. (These changes include things like larger blades on wind turbines and tracking systems for solar panels.) At the same time, operating wind and solar is essentially free once they're installed, so they can always offer a lower price than competing fossil fuel plants. With those caveats laid out, what does the analysis show? Almost all of the factors influencing the wholesale electricity price considered in this analysis are essentially neutral. Only three factors have pushed the prices higher: the retirement of some plants, the rising price of coal, and prices put on carbon, which only affect some of the regional grids. In contrast, the drop in the price of natural gas has had a very large effect on the wholesale power price. Depending on the regional grid, it's driven a drop of anywhere from $7 to $53 per megawatt-hour. It's far and away the largest influence on prices over the past decade. Regional variation and negative prices But renewables have had an influence as well. That influence has ranged from roughly neutral to a cost reduction of $2.2 per MWh in California, largely driven by solar. While the impact of renewables was relatively minor, it is the second-largest influence after natural gas prices, and the data shows that wind and solar are reducing prices rather than increasing them. The reports note that renewables are influencing wholesale prices in other ways, however. The growth of wind and solar caused the pattern of seasonal price changes to shift in areas of high wind and solar, since daylight hours and wind patterns shift with the seasons. Similarly, renewables have a time-of-day effect for similar reasons, which also influences the daily timing price changes, something that's not an issue with fossil fuel power. Enlarge / A map showing the areas where wholesale electricity prices have gone negative, with darker colors indicating increased frequency. US DOE One striking feature of areas where renewable power is prevalent is that there are occasional cases in which an oversupply of renewable energy produces a negative wholesale price of electricity. (In the least-surprising statement in the report, it concludes that "negative prices in high-wind and high-solar regions occurred most frequently in hours with high wind and solar output.") In most areas, these negative prices are rare enough that they don't have a significant influence on the wholesale price. That's not true everywhere, however. Areas on the Great Plains see fairly frequent negative prices, and they're growing in prevalence in areas like California, the Southwest, and the northern areas of New York and New England. In these areas, negative wholesale prices near solar plants have dropped the overall price by 3%. Near wind plants, that figure is 6%. None of this is meant to indicate that there are no scenarios where expanded renewable energy could eventually cause wholesale prices to rise. At sufficient levels, the need for storage, backup plants, and grid management could potentially offset their low costs. But it's clear we have not yet reached that point. And if the prices of renewables continue to drop, then that point could potentially recede fast enough not to matter. Source: Renewables are not making electricity any more expensive (Ars Technica)
  4. The UK Just Got More Power From Renewables Than Fossil Fuels, a First Since 1882 Photo: Getty It’s been an eventful year for carbon-free energy in the UK. First, Great Britain went a week without coal for the first time since the Industrial Revolution. Then the country fired (wound?) up the world’s largest offshore wind farm. And on Monday, a new analysis claims that renewables generated more power in the UK than fossil fuels for three months, the first time that’s happened since 1882. While the news comes with an important caveat, it’s a sign of the radical change happening in the country that birthed the fossil fuel era. Carbon Brief, a UK-based climate news and analysis site, published the striking new analysis. It shows that from July through September, UK renewables generated 29.5 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity while fossil fuels generated 29.1 TWh. The crossover was driven by a few factors, including shrinking demand as the grid becomes more efficient as well as the growth of renewable capacity and falling costs. Coal has suffered the same fate in the UK as it has in other developed countries, with high costs making it an unattractive option to utilities. In a metaphor that’s a bit too on-the-nose in light of the Carbon Brief report, the cooling towers of what was once Europe’s most powerful coal plant came down in a controlled explosion over the weekend. The plant, known as Ferrybridge, has been shuttered since 2016 because its operator no longer saw it as economically feasible in the face of cheap renewables and natural gas. While a 0.4 TWh difference between renewable- and fossil fuel-generated electricity may not seem that impressive, it represents the electricity needs of hundreds of thousands of customers. And the context of where the UK electric generating system was just 10 years ago makes the transition all the more amazing. In the third quarter of 2009, the country generated 60.4 TWh of electricity from fossil fuels and only 5.7 TWh from renewables. The Carbon Brief analysis shows that, overall, 40 percent of electricity in the UK in the third quarter of this year came from renewables. The biggest chunk was from wind, clocking in at 20 percent, in part due to the aforementioned hugenormous (technical term, I believe) Hornsea One wind farm that came online this summer. In addition, another 6 percent came from solar. But here’s the rub: 12 percent came from burning biomass and wood pellets. While the UK classifies biomass as renewable because the trees the pellets are made from can be replanted and suck up carbon dioxide from burning said pellets, there are a number of issues, includes whether forests are actually planted and allowed to regrow. Research suggests the timeframe to reap any benefits of wood pellets as “renewables” can be decades, according to an in-depth report from Climate Central. Nuclear power also generated 19 percent of the total electricity in the UK and is an actual zero-carbon source of electricity. So even if we bump the wood pellets over the carbon-emitting side of the ledger, the UK still generated more carbon-free power from July through September than carbon-polluting power. As Carbon Brief notes, it’s “now a question of when—rather than if” the UK will go a whole year where renewables generate more electricity than fossil fuels. Not to be a dour climate journalist, but there are a few other caveats to just how big a deal this milestone is. The UK is responsible for just a shade over 1 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions. And like the U.S., the biggest source of those emissions in transportation. So yes, the Carbon Brief analysis is Very Good News, especially coming from the country where the Industrial Revolution began. But it’s not the end of the road. Far from it, in fact, since there’s also a ton of work to be done to decarbonize the UK (and the rest of the world for that matter). Source: The UK Just Got More Power From Renewables Than Fossil Fuels, a First Since 1882
  5. Does renewables pioneer Germany risk running out of power? FRANKFURT (Reuters) - Germany, a poster child for responsible energy, is renouncing nuclear and coal. The problem is, say many power producers and grid operators, it may struggle to keep the lights on. FILE PHOTO: Water vapour rises from the cooling towers of the Jaenschwalde lignite-fired power plant of Lausitz Energie Bergbau AG (LEAG) in Jaenschwalde, Germany, January 24, 2019. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke/File Photo The country, the biggest electricity market in the European Union, is abandoning nuclear power by 2022 due to safety concerns compounded by the Fukushima disaster and phasing out coal plants over the next 19 years to combat climate change. In the next three years alone conventional energy capacity is expected to fall by a fifth, leaving it short of the country’s peak power demand. There is disagreement over whether there will be sufficient reliable capacity to preclude the possibility of outages, which could hammer the operations of industrial companies. The Berlin government, in a report issued this month, said the situation was secure, and shortfalls could be offset by better energy efficiency, a steadily rising supply of solar and wind power as well as electricity imports. Others are not as confident, including many utilities, network operators, manufacturing companies and analysts. Katharina Reiche, chief executive of the VKU association of local utilities, many of which face falling profitability as plants close, said the government’s strategy was risky because it had not stress-tested all scenarios. She characterized the plan as “walking a tightrope without a safety net”. Utilities and grid firms say if the weather is unfavorable for lengthy periods, green power supply can be negligible, while storage is still largely non-existent. Capacity aside, the network to transport renewable power from north to south is also years and thousands of kilometers behind schedule, they add. Stefan Kapferer, head of Germany’s energy industry group BDEW, said it would be risky to rely on imports. “Conventional power capacity is falling nearly everywhere in Europe and more volatile capacity is being built up,” he told Reuters. The government rejected such concerns, saying the likelihood of plant crashes or identical weather conditions across Europe was remote. Regardless of reliability, however, Germany becoming a net power importer would have major consequences for the whole continent, whose power markets are interlinked under EU single market rules - and are dominated by exports from Germany. The shift comes at a time when nuclear plants in France, another major exporter to the rest of Europe, are ageing fast - meaning it is also increasingly likely to rely on imports. Searing summer temperatures rising to record levels in parts of Europe highlight a quandary facing the continent: how to phase out the fossil fuels driving global warming, while avoiding power shortfalls in an era when there could be increasing spikes in demand from cooling systems and expanding data centers. COMPANIES ON EDGE Germany, Europe’s economic powerhouse, should lose 12.5 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity by 2022 and its final 10 GW of nuclear power, leaving below 80 GW of conventional capacity, according to recommendations from a government-commissioned panel in January. There will still be nearly enough reliable capacity to meet the country’s peak demand of around 82 GW, with rising green capacity and the option of imports providing a comfortable cushion, economy minister Peter Altmaier said this month. He was speaking upon the release of a separate government safety monitoring report which said a one-for-one match of supply and demand is unnecessary because overcapacities of 80 to 90 GW in the wider European region provided some leeway for imports into Germany. However Germany’s four transmission system operators (TSO) estimate there could be a shortfall of 5.5 gigawatts between peak power demand and reliable capacity in 2021, which equates to the supply of electricity to 13-14 million people, and that’s before factoring in the bulk of coal plant closures. Altmaier’s position is supported by environmental campaigners who say some energy producers were playing up the threat of blackouts to protect their own interests. “Their motive is obvious,” said Green lawmaker and energy expert Oliver Krischer. “They want to build up pressure to receive payments for capacities which otherwise would have no chance to come to play in the market.” Some utilities have asked for compensation for the coal exit plan, with RWE, Germany’s largest electricity producer, wanting up to 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) per GW to soften the financial hit of plant closures. Regardless of who may be right or wrong, German manufacturers say they are worried about the prospect of black-outs or even short outages. They say they can’t afford to lose secure flows of electricity, nor can they survive higher network handling costs that could accompany more unreliable renewables. “The early exit from coal-to-power generation fills us with great concern,” Philipp Schlueter, chairman of Trimet, operator of three aluminum plants in North Rhine-Westphalia state, told Reuters. “Our aluminum plants need non-stop supply of power at competitive prices and a stable power grid at all times.” Aluminum maker Hydro Aluminum Rolled Products in Grevenbroich, in the same western German state, said that plants should only be closed once alternatives were in place. “As an energy-intensive industry, we can only go without conventional energy once renewables are in a position to offer reliable supply,” managing director Volker Backs told Reuters. North Rhine-Westphalia, also home to other big corporates like E.ON, RWE, Thyssenkrupp and Bayer, accounts for a third of German gross domestic product. Grid operator Amprion, which operates high voltage lines mainly in that state, says the region will have to rely on power imports from the early 2020s at the latest. “Secure capacity goes down continuously until 2020 and there could be a deficit even before all nuclear reactors leave the grid,” CEO Klaus Kleinekorte told Reuters. Steelmaker and chemicals industry lobbies also voiced concerns. Wacker Chemie’s CEO has signaled the company could shift some operations overseas, saying he saw more favorable conditions in the United States. BIG QUESTION FOR EUROPE The problem takes on a European dimension as much of the bloc is following a trend of reducing reliance on thermal plants and switching to renewables. Over the next 10 years, coal-fired and nuclear power plants with a total capacity of around 100 GW will be shut down in Europe, equivalent to Germany’s thermal power capacity alone, according to grid operator data. To counter this, hundreds of gigawatts of offshore wind are planned to line European coastlines by the end of next decade, according to the EU’s green expansion plans. Most industry experts agree the transition is needed to combat climate change, and that within 10 or 15 years there will be substantial renewable generation to provide reliable cover for the continent, on the road to carbon neutrality by 2050. However, they say, a big question remains: how will Europe struggle through until this happens, keeping the lights on and its businesses competitive? Countries in similar positions can’t all import from each other. Germany’s rapid and radical shift makes the scenario more precarious. German output accounts for around 20% of the European Union’s electricity, with France another 17%, according to figures from Eurostat, the EU statistics office. Germany is a net exporter to Austria, Switzerland and Poland and also the Netherlands, which sends some of the power onwards to Britain and Belgium. Thus, if Germany alone was to stop reliably producing surpluses, several parts of the continent could see power shortfalls - and outages - as a consequence. There have already been warning signs this year as Germany’s net exports in the first half of 2019 fell by 14%. The situation has been exacerbated by a European heatwave that drove demand in France to near record levels in June, curbing its export availability. Fabian Joas, energy expert at Berlin think-tank Agora, said it would be a difficult road for most of Europe to meet its goal of abandoning conventional energy in coming decades. “But we will be able in the long run to operate a power system based nearly fully on renewables,” he added. “Everyone who understands the matter agrees on that.” Source: Does renewables pioneer Germany risk running out of power?
  6. The amount of renewable energy needed to clean up the chemical industry is dramatic. Enlarge / Huntsman Olefins petrochemical industry, manufacturer of ethylene and propylene, Wilton, Teesside, UK. Photo by Photofusion/Universal Images Group via Getty Images When we think about climate change, we most often think about emissions from two sectors: energy and transportation. But industry makes a big contribution to climate change, too. Industrial emissions come from a lot of different things, including the manufacture of common chemicals. Often, these chemicals are made by reforming fossil fuels using heat that's also provided by burning fossil fuels. Overall, the chemical industry consumes about 10 percent of global final energy, according to the International Energy Agency. In a recent PNAS paper, researchers from universities in Germany and California tried to estimate how effectively the chemical industry could decarbonize and whether such a decarbonization is likely. The result? If we develop certain technologies, "greening" the chemical manufacture industry can reduce CO2 emissions significantly. But the transition would require so much renewable energy that it's far more efficient to focus on decarbonizing transportation and even residential heating first. Captured carbon as feedstock The researchers looked at 20 large-volume chemicals made from fossil-fuel-based hydrocarbons, including paraxylene (a feedstock in the creation of polymers and polyester), toluene (which is found in paint thinner, contact cement, and some types of glue), propylene (which is found in film, fibre, packaging, and clothing), and methane (which is refined to make rocket fuel as well as hydrogen for industrial ammonia synthesis). They then looked at how those industrial chemicals could be formed without the direct use of fossil fuels. Generally, this requires some combination of capturing CO2 and using renewable electricity to reform that CO2 to a synthetic hydrocarbon. The researchers divided potential methods of captured-carbon chemical creation into "technology readiness levels" (TRLs). High-TRL methods can be implemented in the near future but generally have less of an impact on carbon emissions, while low-TRL methods require more investment and study before they can be deployed, but they make chemical creation nearly climate-neutral. What the researchers found is that there is a clear technical path to reducing the chemical industry's emissions with carbon capture, but real-world economics limited the actual deployment of these technologies. Need more power! The limiting factor? Electricity. Creating synthetic, "green" hydrocarbons from captured CO2 would require enormous amounts of renewable (or nuclear) energy. Carbon capture in the chemical industry "could only reduce GHG emissions on the large scale with the joint massive expansion of electricity production capacities," the paper notes. "As a result, the carbon footprint of electricity from the technologies used to expand the electricity production capacities will determine the climate benefits" of creating a low-carbon chemical industry. If all of the electricity needed to reduce and eliminate fossil fuels from the chemical industry came from renewable electricity, we would require the addition of 126 percent (in the high-TRL scenario) or 222 percent (in the low-TRL scenario) of the renewable energy capacity that's currently targeted to come online by 2030. The researchers conclude that pursuing carbon capture and utilization to green the chemical industry could be an avenue for growth if they're carefully located near sources of CO2 in areas where off-grid wind and solar can be added nearby. "Many of these areas are located in Africa, Australia, and South America, where the amount of available renewable energy resources is more than 50 times higher than the current total primary energy demand," the paper notes. So there seems to be a good match there. But if a chemical refinery is getting electricity from a wider grid, especially in a dense urban area, it makes more sense to focus our limited low-carbon electricity on efforts to decarbonize transportation and heating. "[E]ven the installation of electric boilers to substitute natural gas boilers reduces the climate impact more than all hydrogen-based CCU [carbon capture and utilization] technologies except the CO2-based production of paraxylene and styrene," the paper says. Ultimately, a one-size-fits-all approach to decarbonizing the chemical industry might not meet the carbon-reducing priorities that our world needs. PNAS, 2019. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1821029116 (About DOIs). [Full paper paywalled] Source: Making industrial chemicals “green” requires a lot of renewable electricity (Ars Technica)
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