July Open Thread

Anything goes. Suggested topic: if energy storage prices come down far enough, is carbon-fueled electricity a dead business model?

Comments:

  1. if energy storage prices come down far enough, is carbon-fueled electricity a dead business model?

    Mostly. Probably some gas generators would still be required as a reserve but these would be off most of the time.

  2. "If energy storage prices come down far enough, is carbon-fueled electricity a dead business model?"

    One would hope, but it will be a quite a long time dying if that's the only breakthrough. Replacing 14 terawatts (I think it is, too lazy... er.... busy to look it up) will not be done overnight.

  3. Scientists fight dirty in the trenches!

    Mr. Holdren is not reluctant to defend himself. At a hearing in February, Senator Jeff Sessions, Republican of Alabama, confronted him with earlier testimony by Roger Pielke Jr., a political scientist, that Mr. Holdren had issued misleading statements about the link between climate change and Western droughts. Mr. Holdren responded that Mr. Pielke’s comments “were not representative of mainstream views,” and a few days later went further, issuing a rare point-by-point rebuttal that accused Mr. Pielke of being the misleading one.

    "not representative of mainstream views"? Why, of all the scurrilous accusations! "the misleading one"? He might as well have said "denier" ;^)!

  4. if energy storage prices come down far enough, is carbon-fueled electricity a dead business model?

    1. Good sites for wind farms would be snapped up overnight.
    2. We would see a lot more off-grid PV powered buildings, but solar power generation costs would still be too high for most utilities.
    3. If storage were really really cheap, nuclear operators might start using it (bank energy at night to sell during high demand)
    4. If storage gets cheap enough to smooth out the demand/supply mismatch some industrial users (EAF steel mills) will get screwed by higher nighttime energy prices.

    What's the nature of the hypothetical breakthrough technology? Does it only work in Gw scales or can we put one in every house? Is it a neighborhood scale solution? Does it work in cars?

  5. Energy storage will help of course, but the costs are still too high for most applications. For example, the best utility scale battery claimed to be forthcoming, with a link towards the end of
    http://bravenewclimate.proboards.com/thread/386/utility-scale-batteries
    is about US$250/kWh. For comparison, the Mid-Columbia Hub price for firm, high demand power is around US$0.03/kWh. Therefore batteries are not yet viable on a large scale and it is not clear batteries ever will be.

    • Those numbers appear to be in the same units but they aren't. A battery which can deliver a kWh is not commensurate with the kWh it delivers.

      • No, not quite. The first figure is for the purchase price of a unit, which if cycled once a day, last for 30 years. Also knowing a round trip efficiency factor of about 80--85% one is immediately supposed to see that the levelized cost will greatly exceed the Mid-Columbia Hub clearing price. My apologies.

      • Right. That's sort of like refusing to buy a fridge, because it costs more than the beer or OJ you could fit in it.

        I agree that storage prices are high, but you have to work out the economics more thoroughly than that.

    • Clarification from
      http://www.eosenergystorage.com/technology-and-products/
      With a 30-year life, Eos is can provide peak electricity at a levelized cost of $0.12-0.17 per kWh
      which is much more reasonable, although still rather high, suitable only for peak shaving.

      I opine that a further factor of 4 to 5 improvement seems unlikely, but I could well be wrong. I wasn't expecting the already obtained factor of 10+ improvement in utility scale batteries.

      • I haven't seen an argument from fundamentals as to why your pessimism is warranted.

        This doesn't mean that there isn't one in principle or even in practice.

        But from where I sit, it seems an undecided question for the time being.

        Also see Arty's post - you can store heat or "coolth" as well, and this is a big part of demand.

      • That US$50/MWh is low enough to be competitive for on demand, prime time power at the Mid-Columbia Hub which typically has some of the lowest prices of any power hub in the US. If Isentropic can actually do that the power storage problem is essentially solved.

    • I haven't the energy to work through the various unit conversions and equivalences, but The Economist seems to have written favourably about Isentropic, which uses gravel filled silos and argon filled pipes to store electricity as a heat pump, apparently at about $50 per megawatt hour, which compares to approximately $65 for hydro. If it can genuinely compete with hydro that would seem to suggest it is plenty cheap enough to be a viable storage and presumably can be sited anywhere.

  6. Framing of the storage argument has so far been captured by those who simply don't want renewables to succeed. The basic strategy is to assume business-as-usual in the consumption of electrical energy, both technologically and economically, and ignore existing technology.

    Consider some simple examples:

    1) Plug-in hybrids come 'batteries included'. If you use the Chevy Volt model, something like 80% of fuel consumption can be replaced by electricity. If we assume that a car is parked something like 18-20 hours a day, a 'smart' charging system combined with contractual obligations for owners and generators would allow all of that to be sourced by renewables.

    2) Space heating/cooling and refrigeration do not require that electrical energy be converted and stored in order to (re)generate electricity. It's already established practice to store *thermal* energy (hot and cold) when electricity is cheaper for later direct use. This practice could be broadly expanded; the hardware is already there, so it's just a matter of incentives.

    3) Many applications can use renewables to charge batteries, whether integral or external, again through smart charging. For example, you can light a house from relatively cheap conventional batteries, using dedicated low-voltage DC wiring and LEDs. And then there are all those iPads the kids have...

    The point of course is that what's standing in the way is the historical utility monopoly model; it isn't a technology problem. We have to think in terms of integrating/matching generation and consumption-- there are optimal couplings that can significantly reduce FF consumption. If you want to run steel mills day and night, then sure, build a gas or coal or nuclear plant, matching the power requirement, and consider that part of the cost. But we never see, in these claims that "storage is the problem", any numbers on how much (or how little) of our consumption really requires being beholden to large-scale thermal plants.

      • Seconded.

        --------------
        But well. Give me a "plugin" car where one can exchange the batteries for a freshly charged pack of industry-normed batteries.
        Alas, we have to wait, breath held, for the implementation of such a straight-forward super-quick mobile-electric charging system. (Uncle Surjit could need such mobile electricity in his 3rd world off grid village. Uncle Sam would have a whole pile of such batteries in the garage, doing some energy trading on the grid.)

  7. This just passed through my twitter climate hose: "A collapse of the sea ice would go hand on hand with dramatic loss of snow and ice cover on land in the Arctic. The albedo change resulting from the snowline retreat on land is similarly large as the retreat of sea ice, so the combined impact could be well over 2 W/sq m. To put this in context, albedo changes in the Arctic alone could more than double the net radiative forcing resulting from the emissions caused by all people of the world, estimated by the IPCC to be 1.6 W/sq m in 2007 and 2.29 W/sq m in 2013. " (Emphasis added)

  8. OPatrick, July 9, 3:42 am

    Curious as to why the folks you link are using argon as a working fluid? Could someone flesh out the "DuuuuH "explanation for me?

    And I’m yet to be convinced that conversion to thermal is the way to go. Entropy never sleeps. With an operating ΔT of 750 ºC there’s a fairly steep thermal gradient for entropy to seriously degrade storage over a short time. I’d be very interested in an energy recovery over time plot for their concept.

    From what I’ve seen, discussion of the electricity storage issue generally lacks an adequate integration of storage time. It’s not just the 24 hr demand cycle, but how to cover supply interruptions that are weather related and lasting up to a fortnight or so. And then those that are seasonal. I’d think there would be much utility in a adopting an approach that addresses all of the time dependent issues as they all have to be factored in providing a parsimonious answer for FF replacement.

    Not one to exclusively carp about how inadequate others ideas are, I’m intrigued, at least conceptually, by electrolysis hydrogen storage. The trade offs in process stage losses being more than countered by completeness of a solution to the more general problem. Though H2 storage is by no means trivial, it is really time insensitive.

    • There doesn't seem to be a huge amount of detailed information available to answer those questions, though I did find some comments here from James Macnaghten, the Isentropic CEO, including this comment:

      I am not sure what heat leakage you mean, but we would expect less than 1% per day, although this varies with store size.

      Is there a reason why they wouldn't use argon?

      • OPatrick, AA,

        Thanks.

        The Greentech article at Paddy's link, from early 2010, mentions that three prototypes having been built and the company is seeking funding for a demonstrator system. (The “proof of ignorance” description of the 3rd prototype built for testing operating reliability brings a smile, though the “innovations include using aircraft engineering techniques” reeks of rocket science puffery.)

        Apparently the UK government, through its “Energy Technologies Institute (ETI) has provided project funding and an equity investment, together totaling £14m ($22m)” to Isentropic, the company with the storage system. This to, among other things, build a “1.5MW/6MWh electricity storage unit on a UK primary substation” per a June, 2012 company press release.

        All in all I’d say the scheme seems pretty creditable and actually fairly close to roll out. It’s even applicable to many isolated settlements of 100 - 1000 pop. in the bush relatively near where I am with diesel generators (no wood to burn), fuel at $8-10 gallon delivered, good wind to harvest, and likely a consumer tolerance for juice not always at the flip of a switch. That’s a much smaller economic area than the company’s focusing on, though.

        Still I’m leery of storing energy as a difference in temperatures. I note the table in the Greentech piece shows projected cost for 8 hour storage. The ice in ones picnic beverage chest always melts, and the delivered pizza is never piping hot.

        I was not my usual sardonic self in asking “why Argon”, though I did embellish my ignorance a bit. It was a straight question. And thanks again for the informed speculation.

        I have to own to making an error in using the operating ΔT of 750 ºC as it’s really the +475 and -175 deviations from standard ambient that are the end points of the temperature gradients subject to “leakage”. 1%/day likely is down in the operating slop noise but starts “entering the picture” after a few days.

    • Whitebeard,

      Behind my earlier comment there are a couple of basic concepts that need to be internalized if we are going to solve this, and I think they may help with your longer-term integration concerns.

      -

      1) In engineering (perhaps more so than science, since there's more money involved), the first step is to answer the question: What's the question?

      The focus from you and most people is on the question: How can I feed the existing electricity consumption infrastructure (physical and economic) so that nothing changes except the amount of CO2 emitted?

      Well, that's not my question. Mine is: How can I be warm in the winter and cool in the summer while minimizing CO2 emissions? (And a whole list of other very specific questions about transportation, manufacturing, and all the other utilitarian goals we try to achieve by converting energy from one form to another.)

      2) The existing system has evolved around a model of crude energy extraction (mining). A system that uses renewables is more appropriately modeled on *farming*-- how we end up with food on our tables. (The obvious analogy is with how we use geographical distribution to ensure a steady supply of one crop or another; long enough transmission lines solve much of the intermittency problem.)

      -

      So, as an exercise, I would just ask you to give some examples of tasks that we need performed that can only be accomplished by having a coal or nuclear plant running day and night every day of the year. I think we can solve it; perhaps a third concept is that simplicity is not the same as elegance, and parsimony is not the same as perfection.

    • Hydrolysis is definitely one way forward, particularly for transportation of bulk goods by rail or sea, where the relative mass of safe storage of H has less impact and less associated risk than in private vehicles (so far). There is at least one platinum mine in South Africa where this tech is already used, since diesel trains tend to make employees ill, a mile underground.
      But this only really help if the energy used to run the process comes from a renewable source, otherwise the gains don't justify the costs. OTOH, using a freestanding island wind farm to hydrolyse and store H in tenders, rather than export energy to the distribution network, creates considerable advantages in efficiency and reduces project costs (and therefore cost per unit) substantially.
      I haven't really looked into it, but I see no reason why ships couldn't generate electricity onboard (as private yachts do already), to hydrolyse wate and then burn the Hydrogen in their engines...

    • why argon?
      I do not know exactly why but I have a few guesses. They need something non-reactive that remains a gas across all the temps and pressures they're working with. They need a lot of it (needs to be cheap. low/no toxicity also a plus). That narrows down the options to start with.

      Argon has a couple of other nice attributes, one is it's heavy. The attribute I suspect is more useful though is its low thermal conductivity, which helps preserve the thermal gradient in the gravel.

      I don't know entirely what to say to your other points. It's hard to imagine storing more than a few days worth of electricity. Hopefully transmission/demand response will help with week scale shortages. Seasonal shortages are harder. This past brutal winter all kinds of horrible coal burners were going full tilt to keep up with suckers like me who use electricity for heat.

      For long term storage of energy, I'm more interested in synthetic methane than hydrogen. Hydrogen is a beast to store and move around. It's hard on metals and seals, among other reasons. Synthetic methane is harder to produce, but could take advantage of existing natural gas infrastructure. Right now there's 2 trillion cubic feet of natural gas stored in the US.

      • AA - While I'd agree the preferability of storage capacity via RE-methane over RE-hydrogen - not least due to the infrastucture being available for it to serve both electicity demand and heat demand, there is also the option of RE-methanol. A demonstration plant powered by geothermal has been running in Iceland since 2011, using a novel low-temp & low pressure technology to process electrolytic hydrogen and carbon from airborne CO2, to provide 2.5% of the national liquid fuel requirement cut with petrol.

        An article on it (sadly poorly written) can be seen at: http://www.chemicals-technology.com/projects/george-olah-renewable-methanol-plant-iceland/

        This offers potential advantages in not requiring pressurized storage and explosion-risk control, as well as in being an excellent fuel for normal CCGT power production on-demand, as well as in addressing the looming scarcity of transport fuels via its use in both IC engines and in Direct Methanol Fuel Cells.

        Its adoption as a common energy storage medium would also offer a significant consequential benefit, in that the most viable option for large-scale Carbon Recovery, via native coppice afforestation for biochar, would produce very large volumes of waste hydrocarbon gasses that would at best be converted to methanol. Having an existing large-scale usage of RE-methanol could substantially assist confidence in the early agreement and launch of that essential Carbon Recovery program.

        Regards,

        Lewis

      • Lewis,

        I haven't looked into the methanol economy stuff too much. I know some smart people have been talking about it. The fuel cell potential is interesting. The biggest problem I see is that alcohol can't move in either the gas or oil infrastructure, so we're talking about new storage and distribution.

        [Methanol has a really nasty safety issue: you can't see it burning. I don't know if there's a practical way to "spike" it so it burns visibly (the way natural gas is spiked with a chemical so people smell leaks).]

        To be entirely honest, I don't know much about renewable methane either. I'm mostly just recalling the Audi "E Gas" proposal. The inputs should be similar to a methanol economy: CO2 and hydrogen. Some handy biological pathways to methane of course... not sure about methanol, there must be some.

        Right now fossil natural gas is so cheap you have to twist arms just to keep people from dumping it -uncombusted- into the air.

      • Hmm, this is all news to me, but I will say that liquids are the easiest thing to move around.

      • AA - the storage of methanol could potentially be in re-lined surplus fossil-oil tanks, but replacing their pipework might well tip the decision towards building new storage capacity. However, the distribution question is affected by the production technology reportedly being a very compact low-pressure and low-temp system. This may imply the feasibility of using an HVDC grid to power distributed methanol production and storage units beside reserve CCGT generators, as an alternative to investing in a new grid of pipelines to carry methanol from centralized production & storage units.

        The energy and financial efficiency of such an option are well beyond me, but I'd be very interested to hear others' evaluation of them.

        Methanol is indeed produced in nature, in fact it is ubiquitous, albeit in small quantities. For example, the first commercial trading of 'Wood Alcohol' as it was then known was around 1660, was sourced from distillation of the 'wood gas' output of charcoal kilns, which yielded at around 2% by weight of the feedstock wood. No doubt there are micro-organisms that produce it but I've yet to hear of any fuel-related research on them.

        The invisible flame issue might as you say be resolved by an additive, but again I've not heard of one being tested. A relevant factor on this issue is research done by the (fossil) Methanol Institute showing the potential saving of several hundreds of US lives per year if the transport fleet were to switch to methanol, due to it having a far lower accidental combustion risk than petrol. A further relative benefit is that methanol is very rapidly biodegradable - to the extent that a tanker-load spilled in a marsh will be consumed by bacteria in a few days.

        I gather from your remark of the current cheapness of fossil methane that you're looking at the US prices; here in Europe they're much higher, and the recent intervention in Ukraine's politics has people very concerned over Russian gas supplies reaching us next winter. There is a black irony in the fact that the higher the price of gas, the more generators will swich to burning cheap US coal that is being exported due to the temporary US boom in fracked gas supply. - How the EPA can claim to be cutting US coal emissions without proposing a cap on coal-exports is beyond me.

        Regards,

        Lewis

      • [Methanol has a really nasty safety issue: you can't see it burning.

        Same with hydrogen.
        So, why are tech folks more enthusiastic about hydrogen than about methanol?
        Perhaps because methanol is so down-to-Earth: It could even be produced from wood syngas, resulting in char coal for carbon sequestration in soil. Doesn't sound like glitzy space age tech. But I get very terresrtial visions: Mobile wood distilleries browsing the forests (Bayerwald Standard Holzöle), or collecting farm waste to produce carbon negative methanol.

        The only issue I see is corrosiveness. But that seems same as ethanol. (And, dear economist, forget about precise energy density numbers.) Does this corrosiveness rule out simple combustion engine technology?

  9. This is an oddity, but worthy of note, I think. We sideswipe the dangerous nature of plastics too much in my humble opinion. Seems too obvious to pay attention, doesn't it, as a solution to both poverty in Bangladesh and a number of other related problems about materials. I like the building materials part too.

    Jute May Solve the World's Plastic Problem

  10. I recommend the (relatively) new film Snowpiercer. Worth a Planet 3.0 discussion all by itself.

    With the OECD report:
    http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/jul/07/capitalism-rich-poor-2060-populations-technology-human-rights-inequality

    And the sense that 4°C is our true target, Snowpiercer seems like it's getting closer to being a documentary. Except for the train part. Unless Elon Musk, or China, gets it together.
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews/wp/2014/05/09/china-may-build-an-undersea-train-to-america/

  11. It's discouraging that the fundamental truth, that we all need to work together, gets buried deeper and deeper in piles of me first shite (of which I am not unguilty). Hillel the Elder:

    If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
    If I am only for myself, what am I?
    And, if not now, when?

    "Without mutual responsibility, we’re a bunch of people fighting each other endlessly or, to quote Thomas Hobbes, we “are in that condition which is called war; and such a war is of every man against every man.”"

    Stolen from DailyKos

  12. Money quote from Paul Douglas (Republican meteorologist from the midwest)

    The terminology we've been using is all wrong. Global warming suggests everyone warms up, simultaneously. Climate change? Our climate has always changed, although this time we're the ones stepping on the accelerator," he said on his Minneapolis Star Tribune blog.

    Climate volatility is a better descriptor. From a record warm 2012 to last winter's Polar Vortex. From "flash drought" last summer to June 2014, the wettest month in Minnesota history. That's what we're seeing in the data and on the maps.

    I'm a fan of Andrew Freedman who reports current events with a watching brief for climate, and has moved from ClimateCentral to Mashable. Here are three of his reports on the "polar vortex". If it walks like a duck ... the reversal and far northern heat are worthy of attention.

    source (sorry, I'm too lazy/busy (oxymoronically) to make a link):

    http://mashable.com/2014/07/14/polar-vortex-usa-canada-weather/

    His ongoing busy reporting here, current events a bit overpowering:
    http://mashable.com/people/andrewfreedman/

  13. AA says,

    Methanol has a really nasty safety issue: you can't see it burning. I don't know if there's a practical way to "spike" it so it burns visibly ...

    Easiest thing you can do. TMB stands for trimethylborate, B(OCH3)3, which I made by adding boric acid, B(OH)3, to methanol. Just a little makes a lot of green.

    That's not the colour of a boron-burning flame, because all the boron is already fully oxidized going in. It is, rather, the emission colour of the gas-phase radical BO2. An actual boron fire video (10 seconds). I was going to say it was bluer because of the oxygen-deficient radical BO, but really it looks much the same to me. The oxygen source in that flame is KNO3, so there must be some potassium light in the mix.

    Interesting to note: the energy that little heap of powder released was much more than an equal mass of explosive would have done, but the latter smaller output would have cratered or shattered the block the heap was on, and probably destroyed the window.

    • Thanks for the proposal of a chemical additive to make methanol flames visible - and a green flame could actually be helpful in its promotion as a fuel for public use in ICsi farm and haulage vehicles.

      Can you say what effect a sufficient ratio of additive to fuel would have on the latter's combustion characteristics ?

      Regards,

      Lewis


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