Tag Archives: electricity storage

An Impossible Made Possible: the Green Energy Revolution

Since the cost of renewable energy can now be competitive with fossil fuels. Government, corporate and consumer interests finally seem to be aligning.  The stock market has noticed. After years of underperformance, indexes that track clean-energy stocks bottomed out in late 2018. The S&P Global Clean Energy index, which covers 30 big utilities and green-technology stocks, is now up 37% over two years, including dividends, compared with 18% for the S&P 500.

This year’s Covid crisis will delay some renewable projects, but could speed up the energy transition in other ways. Alternative-energy spending has held up much better than spending on oil and gas. Globally, clean-energy investment is now expected to account for half of total investment in the entire energy sector this year, according to UBS.  Moreover, the crisis has pushed governments to spend money, including on renewable technologies. The massive stimulus plan announced by the European Union last month is decidedly green. The German government increased electric-car subsidies as part of its pandemic-related stimulus package rather than rolling out a 2009-style “cash-for-clunkers” program. China’s plans include clean-energy incentives, too.

Solar and wind are now mature technologies that provide predictable long-term returns. Big lithium-ion batteries, such as those that power Teslas, are industrializing rapidly. More speculatively, hydrogen is a promising green fuel for hard-to-decarbonize sectors such as long-haul transport, aviation, steel and cement.  Many big companies—the likes of Royal Dutch Shell, Air Liquide and Toyota —have green initiatives worth many hundreds of millions of dollars. They are, however, a relatively small part of these large businesses, some of whose other assets may be rendered obsolete by the energy transition… Early-stage electric-truck maker Nikola jumped on its market debut this month to a valuation at one point exceeding that of Ford.

Investors might be better off looking at the established specialists in between. Vestas is the world’s leading manufacturer of wind turbines. Orsted, another Danish company, has made the transition from oil-and-gas producer to wind-energy supplier and aspires to be the first green-energy supermajor. More speculatively, Canadian company Ballard has three decades of experience making hydrogen fuel cells.

Rochelle Toplensky, Green Energy Is Finally Going Mainstream, WSJ, June 24, 2020

Human and Environmental Costs of Low-Carbon Technologies

Substantial amounts of raw materials will be required to build new low-carbon energy devices and infrastructure.  Such materials include cobalt, copper, lithium, cadmium, and rare earth elements (REEs)—needed for technologies such as solar photovoltaics, batteries, electric vehicle (EV) motors, wind turbines, fuel cells, and nuclear reactors…  A majority of the world’s cobalt is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country struggling to recover from years of armed conflict…Owing to a lack of preventative strategies and measures such as drilling with water and proper exhaust ventilation, many cobalt miners have extremely high levels of toxic metals in their body and are at risk of developing respiratory illness, heart disease, or cancer.

In addition, mining frequently results in severe environmental impacts and community dislocation. Moreover, metal production itself is energy intensive and difficult to decarbonize. Mining for copper,and mining for lithium has been criticized in Chile for depleting local groundwater resources across the Atacama Desert, destroying fragile ecosystems, and converting meadows and lagoons into salt flats. The extraction, crushing, refining, and processing of cadmium can pose risks such as groundwater or food contamination or worker exposure to hazardous chemicals. REE extraction in China has resulted  threatens rural groundwater aquifers as well as rivers and streams.

Although large-scale mining is often economically efficient, it has limited employment potential, only set to worsen with the recent arrival of fully automated mines. Even where there is relative political stability and stricter regulatory regimes in place, there can still be serious environmental failures, as exemplified by the recent global rise in dam failures at settling ponds for mine tailings. The level of distrust of extractive industries has even led to countrywide moratoria on all new mining projects, such as in El Salvador and the Philippines.

Traditional labor-intensive mechanisms of mining that involve less mechanization are called artisanal and small-scale mining (ASM). Although ASM is not immune from poor governance or environmental harm, it provides livelihood potential for at least 40 million people worldwide…. It is also usually more strongly embedded in local and national economies than foreign-owned, large-scale mining, with a greater level of value retained and distributed within the country. Diversifying mineral supply chains to allow for greater coexistence of small- and large-scale operations is needed. Yet, efforts to incorporate artisanal miners into the formal economy have often resulted in a scarcity of permits awarded, exorbitant costs for miners to legalize their operations, and extremely lengthy and bureaucratic processes for registration….There needs to be a focus on policies that recognize ASM’s livelihood potential in areas of extreme poverty. The recent decision of the London Metals Exchange to have a policy of “nondiscrimination” toward ASM is a positive sign in this regard.

A great deal of attention has focused on fostering transparency and accountability of mineral mining by means of voluntary traceability or even “ethical minerals” schemes. International groups, including Amnesty International, the United Nations, and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, have all called on mining companies to ensure that supply chains are not sourced from mines that involve illegal labor and/or child labor.

Traceability schemes, however, may be impossible to fully enforce in practice and could, in the extreme, merely become an exercise in public relations rather than improved governance and outcomes for miners…. Paramount among these is an acknowledgment that traceability schemes offer a largely technical solution to profoundly political problems and that these political issues cannot be circumvented or ignored if meaningful solutions for workers are to be found. Traceability schemes ultimately will have value if the market and consumers trust their authenticity and there are few potential opportunities for leakage in the system…

Extended producer responsibility (EPR) is a framework that stipulates that producers are responsible for the entire lifespan of a product, including at the end of its usefulness. EPR would, in particular, shift responsibility for collecting the valuable resource streams and materials inside used electronics from users or waste managers to the companies that produce the devices. EPR holds producers responsible for their products at the end of their useful life and encourages durability, extended product lifetimes, and designs that are easy to reuse, repair, or recover materials from. A successful EPR program known as PV Cycle has been in place in Europe for photovoltaics for about a decade and has helped drive a new market in used photovoltaics that has seen 30,000 metric tons of material recycled.

Benjamin K. Sovacool et al., Sustainable minerals and metals for a low-carbon future, Science, Jan. 3, 2020

Mini-Green Grids

A forested village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid… In 2018, it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the national power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.

In 2016, before the national grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network.  The power generated by the plant is expensive (though it costs less than villagers often pay for alternatives such as kerosene for lighting and diesel for irrigation pumps). The worry is that demand for electricity may not be enough to justify the installation cost. …But Mlinda and other mini-grid installers see them as more than a way to satisfy existing demand for electricity: they are a way to catalyse development. The installers advise villagers on irrigation, farming and marketing to help them develop businesses that require reliable electricity, which in turn justifies the expense of installation.

Vijay Bhaskar of Mlinda says a big mistake in development has been to assume that, once people are hooked up to electricity, businesses will automatically flourish. People have to be taught how to make the most of power, he says. “Bringing energy is the easy part. The hard part is finding productive ways to make use of it.”  According to one British expert, “mini-grid operators are not sellers of kilowatt-hours; they are stimulators of rural development.” Jaideep Mukherjee, the boss of Smart Power India, an NGO supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, says their job is to “demonstrate the benefits, train and then propagate”.

An independent study for Mlinda found that GDP per person in eight villages with mini-grids rose by 10.6% on average over the first 13 months, compared with 4.6% in a group of similar villages without them.  Mini-grids are being set up at the rate of just 100 or so a year, from Myanmar to Mozambique. But the International Energy Agency (IEA), a forecaster, says hundreds of thousands of them could connect 440m people by 2030, with the right policies and about $300bn of investment.

African countries used to focus almost exclusively on expanding national electricity networks. Now some, including Nigeria and Togo, have started to prioritise mini-grids. ..

Most mini-grids are green, unlike diesel, kerosene and coal- and gas-fired electricity. That is a welcome feature, though not the main aim, since the contribution of places like Narotoli to global warming is minuscule.

Excerpts from Mini-girds and development: Empowering Villages, Economist, July 14, 2018, at 61

The Power of Batteries and Micro-Grids

Who needs the power grid when you can generate and store your own electricity cheaply and reliably? Such a world is drawing nearer: good news for consumers, but a potential shock for utility companies. That is the conclusion of a report this week by Morgan Stanley, an investment bank, which predicts that ever-cheaper solar and other renewable-energy sources, combined with better and more plentiful batteries, will allow many businesses and other electricity users to cut the cord on their electricity providers.

Tesla Motors, an American maker of electric cars, recently said it will build a “gigafactory”, which by 2020 will turn out as many lithium-ion batteries as the whole world produced last year (2013). These batteries can do more than power cars; they can also store electricity which is produced when it is not needed, and discharge it when it is….

In poor, volt-starved countries, a lorry-mounted aircraft engine can become a mobile gas-fired power station. GE recently installed 24 such units in Algeria, providing 30MW of power. Local difficulties meant it took six months; that was fast by the standards of big power stations, “but we could have done it in ten days,” says Lorraine Bolsinger, who heads GE’s new distributed-generation business….

Morgan Stanley reckons that if Tesla’s factory provides the cheap batteries it promises, Californian households will be able to run off a solar-plus-storage system costing just $350 a year. Buying electricity off the grid may cost them around $750 a year by then.

Morningstar, an investment-research firm, says that though distributed generation represents only 1% of America’s installed capacity now (compared with 20% in Germany), it could make up a third by 2017 and could “kill” utilities in their current form. Small-scale producers will dump their surplus power on the market at prices below those at which the utilities can recoup their cost of capital—and thus pay to maintain the grid.

America’s Electric Power Research Institute last month produced a paper highlighting the dangers of an unplanned move to distributed generation, using Germany as an example. The dash for renewables there has strained the power network and made life hard for utilities. This week one of the country’s largest, RWE, announced that it made a net loss of €2.8 billion ($3.8 billion) in 2013, its first annual loss in more than 60 years, as the rising supply of electricity from (subsidised) renewable sources undercut its prices.

Distributed generation: Devolving power, Economist,  Mar. 8, 2014, at 69