If you engage in a lot of conversations about electric vehicles on social media, you start to see common themes emerging. The national grid can’t cope; they catch fire spontaneously; they can only drive 50 miles, particularly in winter; they’re built using rare minerals mined by children in the Congo; all the electricity required to charge them comes from coal anyway – and so on. Rather than rebuffing each one of these in turn (perhaps a future article), there’s a deeper underlying reason for all this hate. It’s not the (admittedly high) price that is why people aren’t running with arms open and buying EVs in droves yet; there appears to be a concerted hate campaign against them. But why, and where is it coming from?
The high price is something that can’t be denied. Most EVs are still at least £10,000 ($13,000) more expensive than equivalent internal combustion engine (ICE) models. That is a major disincentive for purchase, despite the grants in lots of countries, particularly France. But the resistance you see online, which is rather reminiscent of social media-fuelled political arguments, isn’t usually about the price – it seems to be driven by a fundamental dislike for change, and the lack of EV options for different vehicular needs. There are lots of luxury EV SUVs, but surprisingly no estate cars / station wagons at all, for example.
WM Motor is a promising EV startup in China, that is yet to break out of the local market.
© 2018 Bloomberg Finance LP
“The reason there is not so much choice in the EV market is because existing manufacturers don’t want to sell electric cars,” says Rupert Mitchell, Chief Strategy Officer at Chinese EV manufacturer WM Motor. Mitchell argues that it’s no surprise that the major players in the EV space are not incumbent manufacturers, but disruptive newcomers like his company and Tesla TSLA . Although EV sales are growing fast – up 175% year-on-year in the UK by July 2020, for example – they’re still less than 5% of overall car sales in Britain. For most incumbents, that means at least 95% of their sales are still ICE, so there are only limited incentives for creating electric platforms.
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With 95% of your cars still being ICE, you’re going to continue to focus heavily on developing that platform, rather than putting major funds towards upstart new electric ones. There are also issues with automotive industry workers and their powerful unions being worried about losing their jobs. The workers can be retrained, but EV manufacturing requires fewer people. China is less affected by this, because its ICE car industry was rather poor compared to the US or Europe’s, and therefore it has lots of promising EVs that are mostly still for domestic consumption. But a lot of China’s automotive industry is based on joint ventures, many of which are with VW. So even in China the EV focus is on entrepreneurial startups rather than incumbents.
A further reluctance comes from the dealerships. A recent UK blind buyer survey revealed that most manufacturers with EVs available had very poor online purchasing systems, and constantly tried to funnel buyers to their showrooms instead. There, salespeople had very little knowledge of EVs, making it genuinely hard to actually buy one. Anecdotal accounts of showrooms in the US allege salespeople there try to actively discourage EV sales, instead directing customers back to ICE. This is likely because car sales margins are traditionally low, and they make their money selling aftermarket service packages – which are almost not needed with EVs, particularly when they are fully connected, allowing remote management and diagnostics. EV manufacturers therefore don’t just have to change the technology itself but fight the incumbent sales model that simply doesn’t fit the low-maintenance nature of EVs.
Tesla’s shares have enjoyed a nearly six-fold increase in value over the last year.
However, it’s clear that the reluctance of incumbent manufacturers to address the EV market with gusto has left the door wide open for Tesla in particular, as well as other newcomers, who don’t have that baggage to contend with. When Tesla became the most valuable car company in June, it felt like it could be a blip. But Tesla’s shares had increased in value nearly six-fold year-on-year by August 12th, and the company is now clearly ahead of its next biggest competitor Toyota – in fact 38% more valuable. It’s ironic that Toyota doesn’t have a battery electric vehicle strategy at all, instead focusing on hybrids and fuel cell electric vehicles, which show no signs whatsoever of being popular in the consumer vehicle space. Tesla has not only built innovative vehicles on brand new EV-only platforms, but also its own refuelling network and a sales model that eschews traditional showrooms, with a very slick online experience.
Tesla is now 38% more valuable than its nearest competitor, Toyota.
However, EVs aren’t all about taking all your fossil fuel cars and making them electric. There’s also a significant shift in the way we transport ourselves, which has been further accentuated by the Covid pandemic. In the UK, electric scooters have been fast-tracked with government funding to provide a potential green solution to personal city transportation. Companies like IRP Systems are focusing on drivetrains for this emerging market. “There’s a separation between urban mobility versus long-distance,” says Moran Price, CEO of IRP Systems. “We’re seeing a shift to personal commuting, and a jump towards electric two-wheel platforms.” This also opens up a possible door for countries where two-wheel transport is more the norm, like India. Take a look at the electric motorcycles available in India already, and you will be surprised by how many options there are as well as their low price. These could be very promising imports. Without incumbents, this market faces much less resistance because it’s entirely new, rather than fighting against powerful existing players that want to protect their lucrative corporate models.
For cars, however, there will be years of struggle against the hate campaigns. It’s clear that the uphill struggle for EVs isn’t about whether they are any good, or specifically tackling the negative arguments against them cited at the beginning of this article. If you’ve driven an EV, with an open mind, you will have realised how effortless and smooth it is. EVs are not perfect, and they do cost more, but in many ways EVs are now just better than their fossil fuel forebears – cleaner, requiring less maintenance, faster, more reliable, even more spacious. That’s not going to be enough for EVs to succeed, however. There are a lot of vested interests in fossil fuel vehicles – not just the fuel industry itself, or even the manufacturers, but also the showroom networks and service centres. This is what needs to be addressed for EVs to succeed, and it will take quite a bit of effort to do so.
- Wind and solar were the only power sources to show growth year on year, despite a 3% drop in demand.
- Six former US EPA administrators are calling for a “reset” at the agency.
- Siemens to test measuring EV charging consumption in New York with a Meter Integrated Charger.
- Arcadia Power is committed to making clean energy work for the planet and your bank account — all without changing your utility company. Sign up to receive your $20 Amazon Gift Card.
Wind and solar growth
Wind and solar reached a record-high market share of 10% of global electricity in the first half of 2020, up by 14% compared to the same period in 2019, according to a new report from think tank Ember, which focuses on accelerating the global energy transition. This is despite a 3% drop in power demand globally due to the impact of COVID-19. Wind and solar have doubled their market share since the Paris Agreement was signed in 2015.
Many key countries now generate around a tenth of their electricity from wind and solar: China (10%), the US (12%), India (10%), Japan (10%), Brazil (10%), and Turkey (13%). The EU and UK were substantially higher with 21% and 33%, respectively; Germany rose to 42%. (Russia is the largest country to so far shun wind and solar, with just 0.2% of its electricity coming from them.)
This year, for the first time, the world’s coal fleet ran at less than half of its capacity. Coal dropped by 8.3% in the global electricity mix from the first half of 2019 to the first half of 2020. The drop was led by major falls in the US (-31%) and the Europe Union (-32%). For the first time ever, the existing global coal fleet ran at less than half capacity. In the US, existing coal plants ran at less than a third of their capacity (32%). In contrast, China’s coal fell only 2%, meaning its share of global coal generation rose to 54% so far this year, up from 50% in 2019 and 44% in 2015.
But here’s the important part: The global electricity transition is off track for 1.5 degrees.
Coal needs to fall by 13% every year this decade, and even in the face of a global pandemic, coal generation has only reduced 8% in the first half of 2020. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 1.5 degree scenarios shows coal needs to fall to just 6% of global generation by 2030, from 33% in the first half of 2020. The IPCC shows in all scenarios that most of coal’s replacement is with wind and solar.
Six former US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrators from both Democratic and Republican administrations joined a prominent group of former EPA officials to raise a bipartisan call for a new forward-looking direction at the EPA in an open letter.
Administrators Lee M. Thomas, William K. Reilly, Carol M. Browner, Christine Todd Whitman, Lisa P. Jackson, and Gina McCarthy discuss their concerns about the far-reaching impacts of climate change, new toxic hazards and other emerging health risks, and the disproportionate burdens that pollution and global warming place on lower-wealth communities, communities of color, and indigenous people. They write:
As EPA approaches its 50th anniversary this December, we believe the time has come to reset the future course for EPA in a new, forward-looking direction to address the environmental challenges we face today and those that lie ahead.
They cite a new report, “Resetting the Course of EPA,” from the Environmental Protection Network, a bipartisan group of more than 500 former EPA senior managers and employees. It provides a comprehensive set of recommendations to guide the EPA in addressing the most significant and emerging threats to public health and the environment.
It covers 10 action areas, from reducing emissions from vehicles, to safeguarding drinking water, to restoring science as the backbone of agency decision-making, to elevating environmental justice in all aspects of EPA’s work.
Siemens eMobility solutions announced this week that it will field test new EV charging technology, a Meter Integrated Charger (MIC), in New York. The MICs measure the quantity of electricity needed to charge EVs so that drivers, utilities, and others can track and manage consumption. The standard utility meter can be used to record the energy usage, and the meter will send the data back to the utility, which can then be shared with the customer. The data could be used to bill the EV on a separate rate in the future.
German multinational conglomerate Siemens is partnering with New York utility Con Edison to recruit up to 20 residential customers in New York with smart meters to participate in the project.
John DeBoer, head of Siemens eMobility solutions and Future Grid Business in North America, said:
Currently, for most customers who own EVs, EV energy consumption is mixed in with all other usage in the owner’s electricity bill, making it impossible to identify the energy costs from charging the EV versus the home’s air conditioning or lighting. With the MIC, the power used for the EV will show up separately. Siemens is working to promote EV adoption with our full range of charging equipment and solutions, and this could be a game-changer for EV drivers in understanding their fuel savings when they switch to EVs.
Con Edison will collect information on the charging habits of the participating customers and share it with Siemens. The project is supported by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority.
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The smart brick. Image: D’Arcy Laboratory, Department of Chemistry, Washington University in St. Louis
Bricks are about as basic as architectural materials can get, yet these simple building blocks have hidden powers that can be leveraged to provide electricity, according to a new study.
Scientists modified a common red brick—the same kind you’ll find on sale for under a dollar at your local hardware store—so that it could power a green LED light. This proof-of-concept for a “smart brick” reveals that brick technology, which dates back thousands of years, can be tweaked to have futuristic applications, including electrical conductivity and sensing capabilities. The results were published on Tuesday in Nature Communications.
“We have created a new brick that can be incorporated into your house that has the functionality of storing electrical energy,” said study co-author Julio D’Arcy, assistant professor of chemistry at Washington University in St. Louis, in a call.
“We are thinking that sensing applications is a low-hanging fruit for these bricks,” he added.
For years, D’Arcy and his colleagues have experimented with rust, the ubiquitous reddish film that forms on any structure that contains iron. Rust is normally seen as a corrosive nuisance, but D’Arcy’s team has shown that rusty iron oxides have useful properties for material science.
“We discovered that if you actually treat rust chemically, it actually becomes reactive,” D’Arcy explained. “So something that we typically think of as waste turns out to be a useful chemical for producing materials that can be used for storing energy.”
The pigment in red bricks is partially derived from rust, which inspired the researchers to take a closer look at the structural properties of bricks to see if they could be converted to an energy-storing device called a supercapacitor.
The intricate porous interiors of bricks turned out to be an ideal space to introduce sophisticated polymer coatings, which react with rust to increase the surface area and conductivity of bricks.
As a result of the modifications, the team was able to engineer a prototype smart brick that stored enough energy to power the green light. The team is currently building on its findings by manufacturing specialized bricks with various metal oxides and polymer coatings.
In addition to tinkering with conductivities and storage capacity, the researchers hope to demonstrate that air sensors or water purification systems could be integrated into the bricks.
“When the water runs down your rooftop and it goes through the brick, what if the water gets purified when it comes down and you finally collect it?” D’Arcy speculated. “We always think about purifying water on a filter. But what if the house was a filter?”
In the near-term, however, D’Arcy and his colleagues are focused on boosting the efficiency of these bricks so that they could be incorporated as a back-up power source in regular homes, such as an emergency lighting system.
“If we can increase the amount of energy that can be stored in one brick,” D’Arcy said, “we can scale up and use even less bricks.”
Access to clean, safe drinking water is a necessity that’s worryingly not being met in many parts of the world. A new study has used a material called a metal-organic framework (MOF) to filter pollutants out of seawater, generating large amounts of fresh water per day while using much less energy than other methods.
MOFs are extremely porous materials with high surface areas – theoretically, if one teaspoon of the stuff was unpacked it could cover a football field. That much surface area makes it great for grabbing hold of molecules and particles.
In this case, the team developed a new type of MOF dubbed PSP-MIL-53, and put it to work trapping salt and impurities in brackish water and seawater. When the material is placed in the water, it selectively pulls ions out of the liquid and holds them on its surface. Within 30 minutes, the MOF was able to reduce the total dissolved solids (TDS) in the water from 2,233 parts per million (ppm) to under 500 ppm. That’s well below the threshold of 600 ppm that the World Health Organization recommends for safe drinking water.
Using this technique, the material was able to produce as much as 139.5 L (36.9 gal) of fresh water per kg of MOF per day. And once the MOF is “full” of particles, it can be quickly and easily cleaned for reuse. To do so, it’s placed in sunlight, which causes it to release the captured salts in as little as four minutes.
While there’s no shortage of desalination systems in use or development, the team says that this new MOF is faster-acting than other techniques, and requires much less energy throughout the cycle.
“Thermal desalination processes by evaporation are energy-intensive, and other technologies, such as reverse osmosis, has a number of drawbacks, including high energy consumption and chemical usage in membrane cleaning and dechlorination,” says Huanting Wang, lead author of the study. “Sunlight is the most abundant and renewable source of energy on Earth. Our development of a new adsorbent-based desalination process through the use of sunlight for regeneration provides an energy-efficient and environmentally-sustainable solution for desalination.”
The research was published in the journal Nature Sustainability.
Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
In the near future, solar power collected in space and beamed down to Earth could power military and civilian installations, vehicles and devices in remote places across the globe.
The foundational technology is already in hand, and the first small-scale demonstration project will be ready for launch in 2023, thanks to a broad collaboration between the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Space Vehicles Directorate at Kirtland Air Force Base, the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, and private industry partners here and elsewhere.
Apart from providing around-the-clock power on demand beamed from space, the new solar cells, panels and production processes being developed through the program could revolutionize space-based power systems in general and terrestrial photovoltaic installations by offering higher-efficiency systems at much lower cost than is available today.
The potentially “game-changing” technology could become widely available over the next decade, said Col. Eric Felt, head of the Space Vehicles Directorate.
“The technology has reached a point where we believe we can do it,” Felt told the Journal. “We’re in the final maturation phase for the key technologies, and we’ve got a road map for it … We’ve laid out the whole program, and we’re now on a path to build a 2-meter solar system for launch on a satellite in 2023 to prove the technology.”
Old tech, new use
The “spider” project – Space Solar Power Incremental Demonstrations and Research, or SSPIDR – is actually building on technology created decades ago. Photovoltaic beaming, or wireless power transfer, was demonstrated in the 1970s, said SSPIDR project manager James Winter. It’s based on gathering solar energy with photovoltaic cells and then converting it to radio frequency for beaming from antennas to receivers.
That process is used for satellite TV, whereby solar energy is used to propagate radio frequency that’s then sent to the ground for communications. In the case of wireless power transfer, the radio frequency is received by a “rectifying antenna” that converts the frequency back to electricity, Winter said.
“The concept has been around a while,” Winter said. “With normal solar systems, you collect solar energy and convert it to direct current to charge up batteries on a satellite. … With a solar-to-radio-frequency module, there is no storage – you convert the solar energy to direct current and then to radio frequency with integrated circuits for transfer to a rectifying antenna that converts it back to direct current.”
Space-based solar beaming hasn’t been done before because building the components and integrated systems and then flying them to space is very expensive. But through the DOD’s collaborative program, it’s now working to immensely lower the costs for building, integrating, transporting and operating a system.
That includes development of new, cheaper manufacturing processes for the high-efficiency solar cells needed to operate in space, plus automation of the assembly process for solar panels and systems to replace today’s labor-intensive methods.
Unlike the silicon-based solar cells used in terrestrial applications, photovoltaic for space requires more robust materials that can withstand harsh conditions, and which can produce more electricity from the sun to power spacecraft over long periods of time. Those materials, gallium arsenide and gallium indium, cost a lot more than silicon. And cell manufacturing is based on a very slow process called metal organic vapor phase epitaxy, or MOVPE, which deposits the pre-engineered chemicals onto a semiconductor wafer one layer at a time. Building those robust cells can push user end costs up to $300 a watt, compared with below $1 per watt for silicon cells.
NREL, the DOE’s lab in Colorado, has created a faster, cheaper manufacturing process for those robust cells. It’s also successfully replaced the expensive organic metal compounds with materials that contain aluminum, or pure metal compounds, which are much less expensive, said Space Vehicles Directorate senior physicist David Wilt.
The new manufacturing process is actually a modification of an old process called hydride vapor phase epitaxy, or HVPE, which MOVPE replaced in the 1970s because the latter better managed the delicate layer-by-layer buildup of materials on a semiconductor wafer.
Both processes work one layer at a time. But with MOVPE, the system stops after each layer is deposited to change out the gas mixture, thereby creating different compositions of stacked thin films for each solar cell. In contrast, the old HVPE system completely removed the wafer before changing the gas mixture, and then reinserted it to continue depositing the next compound.
NREL has modified the HVPE process by setting up different chambers side by side so that, rather than removing and reinserting wafers, the wafers move in a continual stream from one chamber to the next as different gas mixes are deposited. The new system, called “dynamic” HVPE, speeds manufacturing significantly, allowing NREL to make multilayered cells up to 20 times faster, Wilt said.
“By moving from chamber to chamber, it puts down materials at up to 500 microns per hour, compared with five to 10 microns per hour with MOVPE,” Wilt said.
The system can be scaled up by adding more chambers.
“Eventually, it will be a linear system where a bare wafer goes in one end and runs through multiple chambers with a full solar cell structure coming out the other end,” Wilt said.
That could massively lower production costs for high-efficiency cells for space applications.
Private sector use?
In addition, NREL hopes to eventually transition the new technology to the private sector, making the manufacturing process available for both defense and commercial purposes, said NREL lead researcher Kelsey Horowitz.
“If we are successful in reducing all the high-cost solar cell fabrication processes, we may enable the use of these high-efficiency cells in broader civilian and commercial applications,” Horowitz said in a statement. “These include applications that require higher power per area and value flexibility, like on ships, electric vehicles or portable devices.”
The Space Vehicles Directorate is also working with SolAero Technologies in Albuquerque to lower the costs for making full solar panels and modules. SolAero, which makes robust solar systems for space, won a $4.5 million contract to develop automated processes for building modules, said Michael Riley, deputy program manager for the Space Vehicles Directorate advanced space power group.
“It’s a very labor-intensive process now aimed at one-off designs for satellites,” Riley said. “We want to automate assembly design for faster, high-volume production of modules for a variety of satellite applications.”
The AFRL is also working on the antenna technology for solar-beaming to create robust metrology to steer precision radio frequency beams wherever needed, said SSPIDR program manager Winter.
“It will offer a continuous power supply, unlike terrestrial systems where darkness and rain interfere,” Winter said. “All you need is a rectifying antenna to receive power from space anywhere on the globe.”
- In 2019, US motorists drove equivalent of 337 round trips from Earth to Pluto.
- Lockdown meant a 64% drop in car usage, according to a KPMG report.
- 14 million fewer cars may be needed if working and shopping trends continue.
As many as 14 million cars could disappear from American roads in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
That’s one of the findings of a KPMG report that estimates almost 40% of all jobs in the United States could be done from home, drastically reducing reliance on the private motor vehicle.
The percentage of jobs that can be done remotely.
In 2019, US motorists collectively covered a distance equivalent to 337 round trips from Earth to Pluto – around 4.8 trillion kilometres. But as much of the country, and indeed the rest of the world, went into various forms of lockdown, there was a 64% drop in car usage, KPMG found. That decline refers specifically to something called vehicle miles travelled (VMT), an industry measure of cumulative car journeys.
If that trend continues, Americans will drive 435 billion fewer kilometres per year. That’s a drop of just over 9%.
The first global pandemic in more than 100 years, COVID-19 has spread throughout the world at an unprecedented speed. At the time of writing, 4.5 million cases have been confirmed and more than 300,000 people have died due to the virus.
As countries seek to recover, some of the more long-term economic, business, environmental, societal and technological challenges and opportunities are just beginning to become visible.
To help all stakeholders – communities, governments, businesses and individuals understand the emerging risks and follow-on effects generated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, the World Economic Forum, in collaboration with Marsh and McLennan and Zurich Insurance Group, has launched its COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications – a companion for decision-makers, building on the Forum’s annual Global Risks Report.
The report reveals that the economic impact of COVID-19 is dominating companies’ risks perceptions.
Companies are invited to join the Forum’s work to help manage the identified emerging risks of COVID-19 across industries to shape a better future. Read the full COVID-19 Risks Outlook: A Preliminary Mapping and its Implications report here, and our impact story with further information.
Three scenarios for how falling VMT could affect vehicle ownership.
KPMG refers to the most common reasons or ‘missions’ Americans have for car ownership. For around 40% of the country’s motorists, those missions are shopping and commuting.
The retail sector has been in a state of flux since the advent of ecommerce. For a growing number of shoppers, the convenience offered by online shopping has become increasingly important. Many brick-and-mortar retailers and large shopping destinations have closed in recent years, citing ecommerce as the cause for their decline.
For many shoppers, the lockdowns that accompanied the coronavirus pandemic were the impetus to increase their online spend. That may have been because physical stores were shut, or to maintain social distancing. But the effect, according to KPMG, was that footfall for non-essential retail fell by 80%. Some 60% of Americans said they were doing more shopping online than offline now, up from 44% pre-pandemic.
That is a trend that KPMG expects to see maintained over the longer term.
The other mission KPMG referred to was commuting. Unsurprisingly, there was a major fall in commuting due to many businesses shutting their offices and sending staff home to work remotely.
Before the advent of lockdowns and shutdowns, just 3.4% of US workers were full-time home-workers. That shot up to 62% in early April. And while many have now begun to return to work, not all of them will.
Some businesses are adopting a steady-as-she-goes approach, continuing work-from-home procedures while evaluating changes to the economy and the spread of the infection. Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce and others are extending remote-working through to the end of 2020. Facebook, Slack and Twitter, have said staff who want to work from home permanently will be allowed to do so.
The total number likely to stay at home is still only an estimate. But KPMG thinks it could be between 13 million and 27 million staff – or 10% to 20% of the US workforce.
In March, 74% of respondents to a Gartner survey of more than 300 CFOs and heads-of-finance said they were shifting at least 5% of office staff to remote working.
There were around 273.6 million vehicles registered in the US in 2018. KPMG says that’s an average of 1.97 cars per household, which it anticipates could drop to 1.87 if its forecasts are correct. The cumulative effect of people driving less is that the equivalent of 14 million fewer cars will be needed. But this won’t automatically lead to the disappearance of that many automobiles from US highways. Instead, KPMG thinks there may be a gradual phasing out of second-car households, as the need for more than one vehicle becomes less pressing, which may in turn impact the vehicle sales sector and the wider automotive industry.
Researchers at the US Dept of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory, working with Northern Illinois University, have discovered a new catalyst that can convert carbon dioxide and water into ethanol with “very high energy efficiency, high selectivity for the desired final product and low cost.”
The catalyst is made of atomically dispersed copper on a carbon-powder support, and acts as an electrocatalyst, sitting in a low voltage electric field as water and carbon dioxide are passed over it. The reaction breaks down these molecules, then selectively rearranges them into ethanol with an electrocatalytic selectivity, or “Faradaic efficiency” higher than 90%. The team says this is “much higher than any other reported process.”
Once the ethanol is created, it can be used as a fuel additive, or as an intermediate product in the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries. Using it as a fuel would be an example of a “circular carbon economy,” in which CO2 recaptured from the atmosphere is effectively put back in as it’s burned.
If the process is powered by renewable energy, which the researchers say it can be due to its low-temperature, low-pressure operation and easy responsiveness to intermittent power, then great; all you’re losing is fresh water, which is its own issue.
Realistically, you’re still a lot better off running an EV than a car fueled with gasoline using this ethanol as an additive. While its Faradaic efficiency might be excellent, its overall electrical efficiency won’t be; putting the same amount of energy into a battery will get more power to the wheels at the end of the day, because combustion engines are horribly inefficient in comparison to electric powertrains, and there will be additional significant power losses at this catalysis stage, as well as the industrial carbon capture and transport stages.
There’s no way of telling at this stage what the costs might be, either. There are already a number of synthetic fuels using catalytically captured carbon dioxide; Carbon Engineering is one firm that pulls CO2 from the air to create a synthetic crude that can be refined into high-purity aviation fuel, for example.
Such synthetic fuels need to compete with regular fossil gasoline on price, so without knowing how the Argonne team’s carbon-capture ethanol competes with bioethanol and other sources there, it’s hard to place this on the spectrum between “neat result that won’t see wide scale use” and “environmentally significant discovery.”
The paper is published in Nature Energy.
Source: Argonne National Laboratory
The world is increasingly banking on green hydrogen fuel to fill some of the critical missing pieces in the clean-energy puzzle.
US presidential candidate Joe Biden’s climate plan calls for a research program to produce a clean form of the gas that’s cheap enough to fuel power plants within a decade. Likewise, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, and the European Union have all published hydrogen roadmaps that rely on it to accelerate greenhouse gas reductions in the power, transportation, or industrial sectors. Meanwhile, a growing number of companies around the world are building ever larger green hydrogen plants, or exploring its potential to produce steel, create carbon-neutral aviation fuel, or provide a backup power source for server farms.
The attraction is obvious: hydrogen, the most abundant element in the universe, could fuel our vehicles, power our electricity plants, and provide a way to store renewable energy without pumping out the carbon dioxide driving climate change or other pollutants (its only byproduct from cars and trucks is water). But while researchers have trumpeted the promise of a “hydrogen economy” for decades, it’s barely made a dent in fossil fuel demand, and nearly all of it is still produced through a carbon polluting process involving natural gas.
The grand vision of the hydrogen economy has been held back by the high costs of creating a clean version, the massive investments into vehicles, machines and pipes that could be required to put it to use, and progress in competing energy storage alternatives like batteries.
So what’s driving the renewed interest?
For one thing, the economics are rapidly changing. We can produce hydrogen directly by simply splitting water, in a process known as electrolysis, but it’s been prohibitively expensive in large part because it requires a lot of electricity. As the price of solar and wind power continues to rapidly decline, however, it will begin to look far more feasible.
At the same time, as more nations do the hard math on how to achieve their aggressive emissions targets in the coming decades, a green form of hydrogen increasingly seems crucial, says Joan Ogden, director of the sustainable transportation energy pathway program at the University of California, Davis. It’s a flexible tool that could help to clean up an array of sectors where we still don’t have affordable and ready solutions, like aviation, shipping, fertilizer production, and long-duration energy storage for the electricity grid.
Falling renewables costs
For now, however, clean hydrogen is far too expensive in most situations. A recent paper found that relying on solar power to run the electrolyzers that split water can run six times higher than the natural gas process, known as steam methane reforming.
There are plenty of energy experts who maintain that the added costs and complexities of producing, storing and using a clean version means it will never really take off beyond marginal use cases.
But the good news is that electricity itself makes up a huge share of the cost—upwards of 60% or more—and, again, the costs of renewables are falling fast. Meanwhile, the costs of electrolyzers themselves are projected to decline steeply as manufacturers scale up production, and various research groups develop advanced versions of the technology.
A Nature Energy paper early last year found that if market trends continue, green hydrogen could be economically competitive on an industrial scale within a decade. Similarly, the International Energy Agency projects that the cost of clean hydrogen will fall 30% by 2030.
Voestalpine’s H2FUTURE green hydrogen plant in Linz, Austria.
Green hydrogen may already be nearly affordable in some places where periods of excess renewable generation drive down the costs of electricity to nearly zero. In a research note last month, Morgan Stanley analysts wrote that locating green hydrogen facilities next to major wind farms in the US Midwest and Texas could make the fuel cost competitive within two years.
A June study from the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory found it may be closer to the middle of the century before hydrogen is the most affordable technology for long duration storage on the grid. But as fluctuating renewables like solar and wind become the dominant source of electricity, utilities will need to store up enough energy to keep the grid reliably working not just for a few hours, but for days and even weeks during certain months when those resources flag.
Hydrogen shines in that scenario compared to other storage technologies, because adding capacity is relatively cheap, says Joshua Eichman, a senior research engineer at the lab and co-author of the study. To increase the length of time that batteries can reliably provide electricity, you need to stack up more and more of them, multiplying the cost of every pricey component within them. With hydrogen, you just need to build a bigger tank, or use a deeper underground cavern, he says.
Putting hydrogen to use
For hydrogen to fully replace carbon-emitting fuels, we’d need to overhaul our infrastructure to distribute, store, and use it. We’d have to produce vehicles and ships with fuel cells that convert hydrogen into electricity, as well as fueling stations along ports and roads. And we’d need to stack up fuel cells or build or retrofit power plants to use the fuel to power the grid directly.
All of which will take a lot of time and money.
But there’s another scenario that sidesteps, or delays, much of this infrastructure overhaul. Once you have hydrogen, it’s relatively simple to combine it with carbon monoxide to produce synthetic versions of the fuels that already power our cars, trucks, ships, and planes. The industrial process to do so is a century old and has been used at various times by petroleum-strapped nations to make fuels from coal or natural gas.
Carbon Engineering’s pilot plant in Squamish, British Columbia.
Carbon Engineering, based in Squamish, British Columbia, is developing facilities that capture carbon dioxide from the air. The company plans to combine it with carbon-free hydrogen to make synthetic fuels. The idea is that the fuel will be carbon neutral, emitting no more carbon dioxide than was removed or produced in the process.
In a presentation at a Codex conference late last year, Carbon Engineering founder and Harvard professor David Keith said that falling solar prices should enable them to bring “air-to-fuels” to market for about $1 a liter (around $4 per gallon) in the mid-2020s–and that the price will continue to fall from there.
“The big news here is that this could be done with commodity hardware starting soon,” he said. “You could get to something like a million barrels a day of air-to-fuels synthetic hydrocarbon capacity, I think, soon after 2030, and after that there’s no obvious scaling limit.”
In effect, the process provides a way to convert fleeting, fluctuating solar power into permanently storable fuels that can fill the tanks of any of our machines. “This is about an energy pathway to … deal with the intermittency problem and deal with it in a way that allows you to power high-energy density needs around the world; allows you to fly airplanes across the North Atlantic,” Keith said.
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- In New Zealand, the government is sponsoring a wireless electricity startup‘s work and testing.
- The system involves shaped microwave beams that pass through relays, like repeaters.
- Nikola Tesla did the first air-power experiments 12o years ago, but copper wire superseded everything else.
An energy startup named Emrod says it’s bringing wireless electricity to New Zealand, more than a century after Nikola Tesla first demonstrated it was possible. Like the best-performing satellite internet connections, Emrod’s link only needs a clear line of sight.
In a statement, Emrod founder Greg Kushnir says he was motivated by New Zealand’s particular set of skills, à la Liam Neeson in Taken.
“We have an abundance of clean hydro, solar, and wind energy available around the world but there are costly challenges that come with delivering that energy using traditional methods, for example, offshore wind farms or the Cook Strait here in New Zealand requiring underwater cables which are expensive to install and maintain.”
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By eliminating the need for long stretches of traditional copper wiring, Emrod says it can bring power to more difficult terrain and places that just can’t afford a certain level of physical infrastructure. There could be environmental ramifications as well, since many places that are off the grid end up using diesel generators, for example.
Right now, Emrod is testing over a “tiny” long distance—sending “a few watts” back and forth about 130 feet, Kushnir tells New Atlas. Line of sight is important because the technology relies on a clear, contained beam from one point to the next.
“Energy is transmitted through electromagnetic waves over long distances using Emrod’s proprietary beam shaping, metamaterials and rectenna technology,” Emrod explains.
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The “rectenna” turns magnetic waves into electricity. A square element mounted on a pole acts as the pass-through point that keeps electricity beaming along, and a broader surface area catches the entire wave, so to speak. The beam is surrounded by a low-power laser fence so it won’t zap passing birds or passenger vehicles. If there’s ever an outage, Emrod says it can drive out a truck-mounted rectenna to make up for any missing relay legs.
Typically, technology like this would seem implausible because of issues like the loss of signal fidelity over the transmission through the air then through a series of mediating technologies. But Emrod’s relay technology, which it says “refocuses the beam,” doesn’t use any power, and loses almost none.
Kushnir tells New Atlas:
“The efficiency of all the components we’ve developed are pretty good, close to 100 percent. Most of the loss is on the transmitting side. We’re using solid state for the transmitting side, and that’s essentially the same electronic elements you can find in any radar system, or even your microwave at home. Those are at the moment limited to around 70-percent efficiency. But there’s a lot of development going into it, mainly driven by communications, 5G and so on.”
The project is helped by New Zealand’s electric utilities and the government.
“The prototype received some government funding and was designed and built in Auckland in cooperation with Callaghan Innovation,” Emrod says on its site, referring to the New Zealand government’s “innovation agency.” “It has received a Royal Society Award nomination, and New Zealand’s second largest electricity distribution company, Powerco, will be the first to test Emrod technology. “
Kushnir says the distance and power load will, at first, be fairly low—sending a few kilowatts over shorter distances within New Zealand. But, he says, the hypothetical limit for distance and power load will scale up to almost unfathomable amounts. All Emrod has to do is make bigger rectennas.
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