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An interminable conversation 6: trying to understand inductive cooking.

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the guts of an induction cooker, I believe

Canto: So, with all the fuss and excitement about renewables, we should continue the near impossible task of trying to get our heads around electricity, never mind renewable sources of electricity. It’s still electrickery to me. For example, Saul Griffith in The Big Switch recommends inductive electric stoves as a replacement for gas, which many swear by because they appear to heat your pot immediately, or at least very quickly compared to those old ring electric heaters…

Jacinta: Yes, but as Griffith says in that book, you can tell the gas isn’t too efficient because you feel yourself getting hot when you’re near the stove. That’s heat that isn’t going into the pot. Apparently that doesn’t happen with inductive electricity, which heats the pot just as rapidly if not more so, but almost nothing’s ‘wasted’ into the surrounding air.

Canto: Unless you like to feel toasty warm in the kitchen. Anyway we’re talking about induction cooktops,to give them their proper name, apparently. The old electric cooktops had those coils, and they’re what we grew up with. Here’s a summary from the Forbes website:

Also known as radiant cooktops, electric cooktops offer centralized heat. Electric cooktops have an electrical current that flows through a metal coil underneath the glass or ceramic surface. The coil becomes hot and starts glowing due to the electrical resistance. It will transfer its heat through the glass using infrared energy. This means the burner holding your pot or pan is the one that gets hot. Your food is then cooked by the transfer of heat between the cooktop and the pot. There is residual heat for an undetermined amount of time with electric cooktops, which is why these ranges tend to have an indicator light letting you know that the burner is still warm.

Jacinta: Metal coils under glass or ceramics…? As I recall, they were just coils, not under anything. They were grey. But maybe they were ceramic, with metal embedded within, or on the underside. I wish I was the type who pulled things apart to see how they worked, like geeky kids. And wtf is ‘infrared energy’? As far as I remember, the coils turned visible red when hot, not invisible infrared.

Canto: You see the red light but you feel the infrared heat. The heat you feel from the sun is in the non-visible part of the spectrum – the infrared and beyond. On the other side of the visible spectrum is the ultraviolet and beyond. I think.

Jacinta: So which side has the long wavelengths and which side has the short? – not that this would mean much to me.

Canto: Infrared radiation is about longer wavelength, lower frequency waves than visible light, and ultraviolet radiation is higher frequency and shorter wavelengths. So they bookend invisible light, if you will. But the longest wavelength, lowest frequency waves are radio waves, followed by microwaves, while the highest frequency, shortest wavelength radiation is gamma rays. Whether there are forms of radiation beyond these ends of the spectrum, I don’t know.

Jacinta: I’ve heard of gravitational waves, which were only detected recently. What about them?

Canto: They can have almost infinitely long wavelengths apparently. So to speak. Obviously if they were ‘infinitely’ long, if that’s even meaningful, they’d be undetectable. But let’s get back down to earth, and the most useful energy. Here’s how the Red Energy website describes induction cooktops:

Basically, a standard electric or gas cooktop transfers heat (or conducts heat) from the cooktop to the pot or pan. Whereas, an induction cooktop ‘switches on’ an electromagnetic field when it comes into contact with your pot or pan (as long as the cookware contains a ferrous material like iron or steel). The heat comes on fast and instantly starts cooking the contents.

Jacinta: Okay that explains nothing much, as I don’t know, really, how an electromagnetic field works (still stupid after all these years). As to ferrous cookware, I didn’t realise you could use anything else.

Canto: Well the same website says that, given the speed of heating, you might need to upgrade to cookware that can take the stress, so to speak. As to the electromagnetic field thing, Red Energy doesn’t really explain it, but the key is that an electromagnetic field doesn’t require the heating of an element – those coily things.

Jacinta: They’ve eliminated the middle man, metaphorically speaking? I’m all in for eliminating men, even metaphorically.

Canto: Thanks. So I’m trying to get my head around this. I need to delve further into the meaning of this magical, presumably infrared, heat. The essential term to explore is electromagnetic induction, and then to join that understanding to the practical aspects, yer everyday cooking. So this goes back to the working-class hero Michael Faraday, and the Scottish hero J C Maxwell, which will be fun, though of course I’m not at all nationalistic, but…

Jacinta: Canto isn’t a particularly Scottish name is it?

Canto: My real name is Camran Ciogach Ceannaideach, but I prefer a simpler life. Anyway electromagnetic induction has a great variety of applications, but this is the ultimate, i.e Wikipedia, definition:

Electromagnetic or magnetic induction is the production of an electromotive force across an electrical conductor in a changing magnetic field.

Jacinta: None the wiser. What’s an electromotive force?

Canto: Called emf, it’s ‘the electrical action produced by a non-electrical source, measured in volts’. That’s also Wikipedia. So a non-electrical source might be a battery (which is all about chemistry) or a generator (all about steam in industrial revolution days -creating mechanical energy).

Jacinta: So the infernal combustion engine somehow converts petrol into mechanical energy? How does that happen?

Canto: Off topic. This is really difficult stuff. Here’s another Wikipedia quote which might take us somewhere:

In electromagnetic induction, emf can be defined around a closed loop of conductor as the electromagnetic work that would be done on an electric charge (an electron in this instance) if it travels once around the loop.

Jacinta: Right, now everything’s clear. But seriously, all I want to know is how to get rid of that middle man. We were talking abut cooking, remember?

Canto: So emf is also called voltage, or measured in volts, which I seem to recall learning before. Anyway, nowadays electromagnetic induction is everywhere – for example that’s how money gets removed from your bank account when you connect those cards in your wallet to those machines in the shop.

Jacinta: So they’re zapping your card, sort of?

Canto: I’ve looked at a few sites dealing with electromagnetic induction, and they all give me the same feel, that it’s like weird magic. I suppose because they explain how it works but not why.

Jacinta: Shut up and calculate?

Canto: Anyway, induction cooking has been around for more than a century, but it’s really catching on now. They always say it’s more direct, because it doesn’t involve heating an element.

Jacinta: Don’t you know it’s magic?

Canto: No, it’s magnetic. Which explains nothing. But let me try another website, this time Frigidaire:

Induction cooktops heat pots and pans directly, instead of using an electric or gas-heated element. It boils water up to 50 percent faster than gas or electric, and maintains a consistent and precise temperature. The surface stays relatively cool so spills, splatters and occasional boil-overs don’t burn onto the cooktop, making clean-up quick and easy…. Induction cooking uses electric currents to directly heat pots and pans through magnetic induction. Instead of using thermal conduction (a gas or electric element transferring heat from a burner to a pot or pan), induction heats the cooking vessel itself almost instantly….. An electric current is passed through a coiled copper wire underneath the cooking surface, which creates a magnetic current throughout the cooking pan to produce heat. Because induction doesn’t use a traditional outside heat source, only the element in use will become warm due to the heat transferred from the pan. Induction cooking is more efficient than traditional electric and gas cooking because little heat energy is lost. Like other traditional cooktops, the evenly heated pots and pans then heat the contents inside through conduction and convection…. Important: For induction to work, your cookware must be made of a magnetic metal, such as cast iron or some stainless steels.

Jacinta: So I’m not sure if that gets closer to an explanation, but what’s surely missing is how magnetism, or a magnetic current, creates heat. It doesn’t use an ‘element’, but it must use something. I know that heat is energy, essentially, and presumably an electric current is energy, or force, like emf, which is also energy…

Canto: Yes it’s very confusing. The Wikipedia article gets into the maths fairly quickly, and when it describes applications it doesn’t mention cooking… Hang on, it takes me to a link on induction cooking. So here’s a definition, similar to the Frigidaire one, but a little more concise. Something to really zero in on:

In an induction stove (also “induction hob” or “induction cooktop”), a cooking vessel with a ferromagnetic base is placed on a heat-proof glass-ceramic surface above a coil of copper wire with an alternating electric current passing through it. The resulting oscillating magnetic field wirelessly induces an electrical current in the vessel. This large eddy current flowing through the resistance of a thin layer of metal in the base of the vessel results in resistive heating.

I’ve kept in the links, which I usually remove. For our further education. So it’s the resistance of the metal base of the pan that produces heat. Something like incandescent light, which is produced through the resistance of the tungsten filament, which makes it glow white (this was a light bulb moment for me). So you really have to use the right cookware.

Jacinta: Thanks for the links – yes, the key is that ‘resistive heating’, also called Joule heating. James Joule, as well as Heirnrich Lenz, independently, found that heat could be generated by an electric current, and, by experimental testing and measurement, that the heat produced was proportional to the square of the current (which is basically the emf, I think), multiplied by the electrical resistance of the wire. So you can see that the wire (or in cooking, the pot) will heat more readily if it has a high electrical resistance. This can be stated in a formula: , where P is the heating power generated by an electrical conductor (measured usually in watts), I is the current, and R is the resistance.

Canto: So we’ve made progress, but it’s the relation of magnetism to electricity – that’s what I don’t get, and that’s the key to it all. I think I understand that an electric current creates a magnetic field – though not really – and I get that an alternating current would induce an oscillating magnetic field, I think, but is this just observation without understanding? That electricity and magnetism are connected, so just shut up and calculate as you say?

Jacinta: So how, and why a high frequency alternating current creates a dynamic field, that’s what we’re trying to understand. And what’s an eddy current?

Canto: I think we’ve had enough for now, but we’re getting there….

Written by stewart henderson

August 27, 2022 at 5:20 pm

Amazing internet, female science communicators and fighting global warming: an interminable conversation 4

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from Renew Economy – SA doing quite well

 

Jacinta: As I’ve said many times – or at least I’ve thought many times – the internet is surely the greatest development in human history for those interested in self-education. Can you think of anything to compare?

Canto: Not really. The printing press was important, but literacy rates were much lower when that came out – which makes me think that universal education, which includes literacy of course, must be up there. But of course it was never really universal, and I suppose neither is the internet, but it appears to have penetrated further and wider, and much faster than any previous technology…

Jacinta: Universal education was more or less compulsory, and so very top-down. Not self-education at all. The internet gives every individual more control…

Canto: And most choose to stay within their own social media bubble. But for those keen to learn, yes the internet just gets more and more fantastic. 

Jacinta: And the trend now is for spoken presentations, with bells and whistles, rather than reams of writing, which can be off-putting…

Canto: Well, our stuff is pretend-speak. We don’t do videos because we’re both extremely ugly, and even our voices are hideous, and we haven’t a clue about bells and whistles. 

Jacinta: Sigh. Consigned to obscurity, but we must perforce mumble on into the vacuum of our little internet space. Even so, I’d like to enthuse, however impotently, about the many excellent female science presenters out there, with their vodcasts or vlogs or whatever, such as Australia’s Engineering with Rosie, as well as Kathy loves physics and history, Sabine Hossenfelder and Dr Becky. And I’ll keep an eye out for more.

Canto: But of course we still love books. The most recent read has been Saul Griffith’s The Big Switch, a call to action on renewables, particularly here in Australia. 

Jacinta: So with a change of government, Australia is now going to try and catch up with the leading nations re renewable energy and generally changing the energy landscape. So it’s time to turn to the Renew Economy website, the best Australian site for what’s happening with renewables. First stop is the bar graph that’s long featured on the site. It shows that the eastern states, Queensland, NSW and Victoria, are the problem states, still heavily reliant on coal. Victoria is arguably worst as it relies on brown coal for about two thirds of its supply. 

Canto: And the other two states use black coal, but they’ve developed a lot more solar than Victoria. They are, of course, a lot sunnier than Victoria. What’s the difference between the two coals, in environmental terms? 

Jacinta: Black coal, aka anthracite, is generally regarded as a superior fuel. It contains less water than brown coal, aka lignite, and more carbon. You have to use quite a lot more brown coal – maybe 3 times as much – to extract the same amount of energy as anthracite. According to Environment Victoria,

Brown coal is pulverised and then burned in large-scale boilers. The heat is used to boil water and the steam is used to drive turbines that generate electricity. When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. By world standards these pollutants are poorly monitored & controlled, and they impose a staggering health cost of up to $800 million every year.

I’ve left in the links, which are to other Environment Victoria articles. Clearly this website isn’t government controlled, as it castigates heavily subsidised ‘boondoggle’ projects intended to keep the brown coal afloat (very problematic for mining). These projects have apparently gone nowhere. However the site does mention the ‘recent’ announcement of an electric vehicle manufacturing plant in the Latrobe Valley, providing at least 500 jobs. But since the article isn’t dated, I don’t know how recent it is. PLEASE DATE YOUR ARTICLES. 

Canto: Yeah, and please do your research Jazz. That plant, announced in 2018, was scrapped last November. Apparently it was announced ahead of the 2018 election. And over-hyped, as it was never guaranteed that the ‘promised’ 500 jobs would be created. Politics. 

Jacinta: Sad. Manufacturing has been in a sorry state in Australia for years. As Saul Griffith points out, we rely largely on the raw materials – crushed rocks – we export to keep our economy going, but if we could switch to other crushed rocks for the growing renewable energy economy we would be even better off. Further, if we added value through processing this material at home, we might be even better off financially, and we wouldn’t have to import those processed materials as we do now. Our two biggest imports are petrol and cars. If we could produce that stuff here we wouldn’t be paying for another country’s production costs, according to Griffith. Though I’m not quite sure if it’s that simple. 

Canto: So you’re talking essentially about manufacturing in Australia. The Reserve Bank (RBA) has an interesting article on this topic, and here’s a quote from the opening summary: 

Manufacturing output and employment have fallen steadily as a share of the Australian economy for the past three decades… the increase in the supply of manufactured goods from low-cost sources abroad, exacerbated by the appreciation of the Australian dollar during the period of rising commodity prices, impaired the viability of many domestic manufacturers and precipitated the closure of some manufacturing production over the past decade. While the recent exchange rate depreciation has helped to improve competitiveness of Australian producers, so far there is only limited evidence of a recovery in manufacturing output and investment.

Economics isn’t my strong suit, but I think I understand what ‘exchange rate depreciation’ means. Something like the exchange rate has swung a bit more in our favour (for home-grown manufacturing) than it was before..

Jacinta: But wouldn’t the exchange rate between us and other countries vary greatly from country to country? Or maybe they take an average, that’s to say of the countries we tend to trade with?

Canto: I suppose so. The article goes on to say that manufacturing hasn’t declined so much as commodity exports have increased. Commodities being raw materials, mostly. And by the way, this article is from the June quarter of 2016, and I suspect things have gotten worse for this gap between manufacturing and commodities. So, not so out-of date re trends. It claims that ‘over the 2000s, strong Asian demand for Australian commodities led to a sharp increase in the terms of trade and an appreciation of the Australian dollar’. 

Jacinta: Well, we all appreciate the Aussie dollar…

Canto: Appreciation just means a rise in value. An increase in the terms of trade means an increase in the trading price agreed by any two countries, for example Australia and China, our big bogey man trading partner. Here it might mean beneficial terms of trade for Australia specifically. So basically, manufacturing has stagnated, and declined as a percentage of total output, which includes commodities. Manufacturing industries as an employer have declined quite sharply – as I can personally attest to. I’ve worked in five different factories in my life, all of which have since closed down – for which I take no responsibility. 

Jacinta: So there would be a lack of skilled workers in manufacturing, unless… do we make solar panels here? And what about the old car factories we had here – Mitsubishis and Holdens, remember? Though I presume making EVs would require a whole different skill-set, and besides, wouldn’t it be largely automated? 

Canto: Well, in February – that’s 2022 – the Australia Institute posted a highly optimistic media release entitled ‘Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research’. And with the new federal government elected in May, this hope, expressed in a report from the AI’s Carmichael Centre, Rebuilding Vehicle Manufacturing in Australia: Industrial Opportunities in an Electrified Future, may actually be realised, at least partially. But before I explore that report – solar photovoltaic manufacturing in Australia. A recent (early July) Guardian article reports that ‘China controls over 80% of the global photovoltaic (PV) solar supply chain, with one out of every seven panels produced worldwide being manufactured by a single factory’. And China is actually increasing production, so as to dominate the market. Diversification is urgently required. Meanwhile, Australia is suffering a labour shortage in the field. The International Energy Agency (IEA) has found that ‘one in three installation jobs in Australia – including electricians and installers – were unfilled and at risk of remaining unfilled in 2023’. Tindo Solar is our only home-grown PV manufacturer, and is expanding its output, but clearly this is dwarfed by China’s production. Also there’s a problem with expending production here because, currently, it actually creates more carbon emissions. We need to ‘create renewables with renewables’, which local experts are saying is now more cost-effective than ever. So, back to the report on vehicle manufacturing in Australia. It’s a job trying to access the full report, so I’ll rely on the media release. It describes our country as ‘uniquely blessed’ to rebuild our car manufacturing capabilities, retooled to EVs, but this will require essential government input – a view very much consistent with Griffith’s. Here are some of the recommendations from the report:

  • Establishing an EV Manufacturing Industry Commission
  • Using tax incentives to encourage firms involved in the extraction of key minerals – primarily lithium and rare earths – with local manufacturing capabilities, especially emerging Australian EV battery industries
  • Introducing a long-term strategy for vocational training, ensuring the establishment of skills to service major EV manufacturers looking to set up operations Australia
  • Offering major global manufacturers incentives (tax incentives, access to infrastructure, potential public capital participation, etc) to set up – especially in Australian regions undergoing transition from carbon-intensive industries
  • Introducing local procurement laws for the rapid electrification of government vehicle fleets

Jacinta: So, as Griffith points out, we need to do some lobbying for this ourselves. Here in SA, we have a sympathetic state government as well as a federal government keen to make up for lost time, or at least saying all the right things. Where do we start? 

Canto: The Clean Energy Council has a website that encourages everyone to get educated (they cite a number of resources such as Renew Economy and ARENA), to spread the word, and of course to actually invest in renewable energy, which we, as impoverished public housing renters, aren’t in a great position to do, though we are trying to get our Housing Association to explore renewable options, and to lobby the government in our name. 

Jacinta: I think I’m starting to feel more optimistic…

References

Saul Griffith, The big switch: Australia’s electric future. 2022

Difference Between Black and Brown coal

Nem Watch

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-11-10/electric-vehicle-factory-deal-in-latrobe-valley-collapses/100608074

Australia ready to become sustainable EV-making powerhouse: new research

Click to access bu-0616-4.pdf

https://www.carmichaelcentre.org.au/rebuilding_vehicle_manufacture_in_australia

https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2022/jul/08/australia-could-see-a-solar-cell-renaissance-if-global-supply-chain-is-diversified

https://www.cleanenergycouncil.org.au/herenow/get-involved

Written by stewart henderson

August 6, 2022 at 7:29 pm

the shipping industry – a bit of a global warming headache

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Ok, that’s sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, carbon dioxide, particulate matter and non-methane volatile organic compounds

I’ve been alerted, by a brief piece on a New Scientist podcast, and then by some passages in Tim Smedley’s book Clearing the air: the beginning and end of air pollution, about some pretty disturbing stats on the polluting and greenhouse impact of the world’s shipping industry – a factor we don’t often consider when we attempt to reduce our personal environmental impact. We tend to focus on the products we consume, the cars we drive, the homes we heat, the plane trips we take and so forth. But once it’s pointed out to us it becomes obvious. We’re the recipients of a vast global trading network involving foodstuffs, appliances and gadgetry of all sorts, as well as bulk supplies of crude oil, iron ore and a host of other raw materials, brought to us by more or less massive marine vessels.According to an article in Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN), goods weighing 11 billion tonnes were shipped across our oceans in 2019, a 3-billion tonne increase from a decade before. And the increase is expected to … increase. So how are these vessels powered? To quote from the C&EN article,

“The shipping industry uses more than 300 million tons of fossil fuels every year, roughly 5% of global oil production,” says Camille Bourgeon, a specialist in air pollution and energy efficiency in the marine environment at the IMO [the International Maritime Organisation – an agency of the UN]. In 2018, global shipping activity emitted roughly 1.05 billion t of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, accounting for about 2.9% of the total global anthropogenic CO2 emissions for that year, according to the IMO’s 2020 greenhouse gas study.

What’s worse is that for decades the shipping industry has been using the lowest grade, most noxious fuels, ‘the stuff no-one else wants’, as one maritime engineer describes it. This ‘residual fuel’ is also called HFO, for ‘heavy fuel oil’, which the oil industry has been more than happy to provide to the shipping industry rather than having to get rid of it some other, more expensive way. And when you’re out in the middle of the ocean, who’s going to check your emissions? The fuel used has seriously high sulphur content, and once ships come into port, the cargo is offloaded onto diesel trucks and then often onto diesel locomotives. Here are some of Tim Smedley’s opening remarks on the industry:

[Shipping] is easily the transport sector with the worst history. Shipping emissions contribute nearly 15% of NOx [nitrogen oxides including nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, some of the worst air pollutants] and 13% of sulphur dioxide emissions globally, and these numbers are increasing. Due to growing populations and consumer spending, more and more supertankers set sail every year. Since 1985 global container shipping has increased by about 10% annually, with only brief dips for each recession.

There seems to be no stopping this growth, and about a quarter of this transport is fuelled by crude oil. As Smedley points out, this ‘gives us the headache-inducing fact that a quarter of all shipping emissions come from shipping the fuel needed to produce the emissions’.

As mentioned, sulphur dioxide is a major constituent of HFO. On the website of Aeroqual, a company that provides air monitoring systems, I found this disturbing claim – the sulphur dioxide of HFO is 2700 times higher than that of road fuel. Sulphur dioxide emissions have been dropping for years in developed countries – a 76% decrease in Europe between 1990 and 2009 – leaving shipping as the primary source.

As also mentioned, ports are some of the most atmospherically noxious places on the planet. Most of them use diesel-powered machinery for off-loading and transportation. Diesel emissions significantly increase cancer risks according to a host of epidemiological studies, and various engine improvements have barely kept up with improvements in emissions monitoring, which have highlighted further dangers. But the diesel issue probably requires a whole new post.

The shipping industry, setting aside all those smelly and sick-making ports, and the sulphur dioxide problem, is a major contributor to greenhouse emissions, releasing over 3% of our carbon dioxide, a percentage that is set to rise in the aftermath of the covid pandemic. A website called ship technology sets out a plan to address the issues, which reminds me of the plans regularly emanating from the IPCC, requiring targets which seem to be seldom met by the major emissions culprits. The plan includes improved ship-to shore data feed technology, exhaust emission technology, behavioural change such as slow steaming (yes, that just means slowing down) and more preventive maintenance, and alternative fuels such as LNG, hydrogen and even solar. LNG is the most touted alternative fuel due to requiring fewer alterations to shipping infrastructure, though it’s surely an interim solution.

The IMO has been rather defensive about its role as the shipping regulator, and the degree of progress made in reducing emissions. Certainly it’s a difficult industry to police, with many nations and companies involved, including military vessels worldwide, which have other priorities, to put it mildly. But it’s clear that shipping officials are feeling the pressure. As one of them put it:

“… can shipping reduce more greenhouse gas emissions? I’m sure it will. But it’s difficult to say how much particularly not knowing the consequences from regional regulations. There seems to be a wish to require unrealistic emission reductions in order to collect money from ships.”

These remarks make me wonder whether money is being collected from land-based greenhouse emitters, and if not, why not? Interestingly, the same official has this to say in the industry’s defence:

“When discussing short-term measures, the figure over the next 10 years will bring the shipping carbon intensity reduction in 2030 to more than 40%, below the year 2008. This is a remarkable achievement by a sector that is, and will remain, the most efficient mode of transportation”.

This appears to be saying that the most efficient form of transport in the shipping sector is, and always will be, shipping. Or maybe I’m reading it wrong. In any case, they’re on the case, which is great. Must remember to have another look in 2030.

References

https://cen.acs.org/environment/greenhouse-gases/shipping-industry-looks-green-fuels/100/i8

Tim Smedley, Clearing the air: the beginning and the end of air pollution, 2019

https://www.aeroqual.com/blog/ship-pollution-port-air-quality

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diesel_exhaust

https://www.ship-technology.com/analysis/guidelines-and-goals-reducing-shippings-emissions/

 

 

Written by stewart henderson

July 10, 2022 at 1:29 pm

some stuff on super-grids and smart grids

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In a recent New Scientist article, ‘The rise of supergrids’, I learned that Australia is among 80 countries backing a project, or perhaps an idea for a project, launched at COP26 in Glasgow, called One Sun One World One Grid, ‘a plan to massively expand the reach of solar power by joining up the electricity grids of countries and even entire continents’. My first reaction was cynicism – Australia’s successive governments have never managed to come up with a credible policy to combat global warming or to develop renewable energy, but they love to save face by cheering on other countries’ initiatives, at no cost to themselves.

Our state government (South Australia) did invest in the construction of a giant lithium ion battery, the biggest of its kind at the time (2017), built by Tesla to firm up our sometimes dodgy electricity supply, and, to be fair, there’s been a lot of state investment here in wind and solar, but there’s been very little at the national level. 

At the global level, the Chinese thugocracy has been talking up the idea of a ‘global energy internet’ for some years – but let’s face it, the WEIRD world has good reason not to trust the CCP. Apparently China is a world leader in the manufacture and development of UHVDC (ultra-high voltage direct current) transmission lines, and is no doubt hoping to spread the algorithms of Chinese technological and political superiority through a globe-wrapped electrical belt-and-road. 

But back in the WEIRD world, it’s the EU that’s looking to spearhead the supergrid system. It already has the most developed international system for trading electricity, according to the Financial Review. And of course, we’re talking about renewable energy here, though an important ancillary effect would be trade connections within an increasingly global energy system. There’s also an interest, at least among some, in creating a transcontinental supergrid in the US. 

Renewable sources such as solar and wind tend to be generated in isolated, low-demand locations, so long-distance transmission is a major problem, especially when carried out across national boundaries. Currently the growth has been in local microgrids and battery storage, but there are arguments about meshing the small-scale with the large scale. One positive feature of a global energy network is that it might just have a uniting effect, regardless of economic considerations. 

But of course economics will be a major factor in enticing investment. Economists use an acronym, LCOE, the levelized cost of electricity, when analysing costs and benefits of an electrical grid system. This is a measure of the lifetime cost of a system divided by the energy it produces. The Lappeenranta University of Technology in Finland used this and other measures to analyse the ‘techno-economic benefits of a globally interconnected world’, and found that they would be fewer than those of a national and subnational grid system, which seems counter-intuitive to me. However the analysts did admit that a more holistic approach to the supergrid concept might be in order. In short, more research is needed. 

Another concept to consider is the smart grid, which generally starts small and local but can be built up over time and space. These grids are largely computerised, of course, which raises security concerns, but it would be hard to over-estimate the transformative nature of such energy systems.

Our current grid system was pretty well finalised in the mid-twentieth century. It was of course based on fossil fuels – coal, gas and oil – with some hydro. The first nuclear power plant – small in scale – commenced operations in the Soviet Union in 1954. With massive population growth and massive increases in energy demand (as well as a demand for reliability of services) more and more power plants were built, mostly based on fossil fuels. Over time, it was realised that there were particular periods of high and low demand, which led to using ‘peaking power generators’ that were often switched off. The cost of maintaining these generators was passed on to consumers in the form of increased tariffs. The use of ‘smart technology’ by individuals and companies to control usage was a more or less inevitable response. 

Moving into the 21st century, smart technology has led to something of a battle and an accommodation with energy providers. Moreover, combined with a growing concern about the fossil fuel industry and its contribution to global warming, and the rapid development of variable solar and wind power generation, some consumers have become increasingly interested in alternatives to ‘traditional’ grid systems, and large power stations, which can, in some regions, be rendered unnecessary for those with photovoltaics and battery storage. The potential for a more decentralised system of mini-grids for individual homes and neighbourhoods has become increasingly clear.   

Wikipedia’s article on smart grids, which I’m relying on, is impressively fulsome. It provides, inter alia, this definition of a smart grid from the European Union:

“A Smart Grid is an electricity network that can cost efficiently integrate the behaviour and actions of all users connected to it – generators, consumers and those that do both – in order to ensure economically efficient, sustainable power system with low losses and high levels of quality and security of supply and safety. A smart grid employs innovative products and services together with intelligent monitoring, control, communication, and self-healing technologies in order to:

  1. Better facilitate the connection and operation of generators of all sizes and technologies.
  2. Allow consumers to play a part in optimising the operation of the system.
  3. Provide consumers with greater information and options for how they use their supply.
  4. Significantly reduce the environmental impact of the whole electricity supply system.
  5. Maintain or even improve the existing high levels of system reliability, quality and security of supply.
  6. Maintain and improve the existing services efficiently.”

So, with the continued growth of innovative renewable energy technologies, for domestic and industrial use, and in particular with respect to transport (the development of vehicle-to-grid [V2G] systems), we’re going to have, I suspect, something of a technocratic divide between early adopters and those who are not so much traditionalists as confused about or overwhelmed by the pace of developments – remembering that most WEIRD countries have an increasingly ageing population. 

I’m speaking for myself here. Being not only somewhat long in the tooth but also dirt poor, I’m simply a bystander with respect to this stuff, but I hope to to get more integrated, smart and energetic about it over time. 

References

https://www.afr.com/companies/energy/the-future-of-power-is-transcontinental-submarine-supergrids-20210622-p5837a

Global supergrid vs. regional supergrids

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smart_grid

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicle-to-grid

Written by stewart henderson

March 15, 2022 at 7:33 pm

what is electricity? part 10 – it’s some kind of energy

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je ne sais pas

Canto: We’ve done nine posts on electricity and it still seems to me like magic. I mean it’s some kind of energy produced by ionisation, which we’ve been able to harness into a continuous flow, which we call current. And the flow can alternate directionally or not, and there are advantages to each, apparently.

Jacinta: And energy is heat, or heat is energy, and can be used to do work, and a lot of work has been done on energy, and how it works – for example there’s a law of conservation of energy, though I’m not sure how that works.

Canto: Yes maybe if we dwell on that concept, something or other will become clearer. Apparently energy can’t be created or destroyed, only converted from one form to another. And there are many forms of energy – electrical, gravitational, mechanical, chemical, thermal, whatever.

Jacinta: Muscular, intellectual, sexual?

Canto: Nuclear energy, mass energy, kinetic energy, potential energy, dark energy, light energy…

Jacinta: Psychic energy… Anyway, it’s stuff that we use to do work, like proteinaceous foodstuff to provide us with the energy to get ourselves more proteinaceous foodstuff. But let’s not stray too far from electricity. Electricity from the get-go was seen as a force, as was gravity, which Newton famously explained mathematically with his inverse square law.

Canto: ‘Every object or entity attracts every other object or entity with a force directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between their centres’, but he of course didn’t know how much those objects, like ourselves, were made up of a ginormous number of particles or molecules, of all shapes and sizes and centres of mass.

Jacinta: But the inverse square law, in which a force dissipates with distance, captured the mathematical imagination of many scientists and explorers of the world’s forces over the following generations. Take, for example, magnetism. It seemed to reduce with distance. Could that reduction be expressed in an inverse square law? And what about heat? And of course electrical energy, our supposed topic?

Canto: Well, some quick net-research tells me that magnetism does indeed reduce with the square of distance, as does heat, all under the umbrella term that ‘intensity’ of any force, if you can call thermal energy a force, reduces in an inverse square ratio from the point source in any direction. As to why, I’m not sure if that’s a scientific question.

Jacinta: A Khan Academy essay tackles the question scientifically, pointing out that intuition sort of tells us that a force like, say magnetism, reduces with distance, as does the ‘force’ of a bonfire, and that these reductions with distance might all be connected, and therefore quantified in the same way. The key is in the way the force spreads out in straight lines in every direction from the source. That’s how it dissipates. When you’re close to the source it hasn’t had a chance to spread out.

Canto: So when you’re measuring the gravitational force upon you of the earth, you have to remember that attractive force is pulling you to the earth’s centre of mass. That attractive force is radiating out in all directions. So if you’re at a height that’s twice the distance between the earth’s surface and its centre of mass, the force is reduced by a particular mathematical formula which has to do with the surface of a sphere which is much larger than the earth’s sphere (though the earth isn’t quite a sphere), but can be mathematically related to that sphere quite precisely, or to a smaller or larger sphere. The surface of a sphere increases with the square of the radius.

Jacinta: Yes, and this inverse square law works for light intensity too, though it’s not intuitively obvious, perhaps. Or electromagnetic radiation, which I think is the technical term. And the keyword is radiation – it radiates out in every direction. Think of spheres again. But we need to focus on electricity. The question here is – how does the distance between two electrically charged objects affect the force of attraction or repulsion between them?

Canto: Well, we know that increasing the distance doesn’t increase the force. In fact we know – we observe – that increasing the distance decreases the force. And likely in a precise mathematical way.

Jacinta: Well thought. And here we’re talking about electrostatic forces. And evidence has shown, unsurprisingly, that the decreased or increased force is an inverse square relationship. To spell it out, double the distance between two electrostatically charged ‘points’ decreases the  force (of attraction or repulsion) by two squared, or four. And so on. So distance really matters.

Canto: Double the distance and you reduce the force to a quarter of what it was. Triple the distance and you reduce it to a ninth.

Jacinta: This is Coulomb’s law for electrostatic force. Force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance –     F = k \frac{q_1q_2}{r^2}. Where F is the electric force, q are the two charges and r is the distance of separation. K is Coulomb’s constant.

Canto: Which needs explaining.

Jacinta: It’s a proportionality constant. This is where we have to understand something of the mathematics of variables and constants. So, Coulomb’s law was published by the brilliant Charles Augustin de Coulomb, who despite what you might think from his name, was no aristocrat and had to battle to get a decent education, in 1785. And as can be seen in his law, it features a constant similar to Newton’s gravitational constant.

Canto: So how is this constant worked out?

Jacinta: Well, think of the most famous equation in physics, E=mc2, which involves a constant, c, the speed of light in a vacuum. This speed can be measured in various ways. At first it was thought to be infinite, which is crazy but understandable. It would mean that that we were seeing the sun and stars as they actually are right now, which I’m sure is what every kid thinks. Descartes was one intellectual who favoured this view. It was ‘common sense’ after all. But a Danish astronomer, Ole Roemer, became the first person to calculate an actual value, when he recognised that there was a discrepancy between his calculation of the eclipse of Io, Jupiter’s innermost moon, and the actual eclipse as seen from earth. He theorised correctly that the discrepancy was due to the speed of light. Later the figure he arrived at was successively revised, by Christiaan Huygens among others, but Roemer was definitely on the right track…

Canto: Okay, I understand – and I understand that the calculation of the gravitational force exerted at the earth’s surface, about 9.8 metres per sec per sec, helps us to calculate the gravitational constant, I think. Anyway, Henry Cavendish was the first to come up with a pretty good approximation in 1798. But what about Coulomb’s constant?

Jacinta: Well I could state it – that’s to say, quote it from a science website – in SI units (the International System of units), but how that was arrived at precisely, I don’t know. It wasn’t worked out mathematically by Coulomb, I don’t think, but he worked out the inverse proportionality. There are explanations online, which invoke Gauss, Faraday, Lagrange and Maxwell, but the maths is way beyond me. Constants are tricky to state clearly because they invoke methods of measurements, and those measures are only human. For example the speed of light is measured in metres per second, but metres and seconds are actually human constructions for measuring stuff. What’s the measure of those measures? We have to use conventions.

Canto: Yes, this has gone on too long, and I feel my electric light is fading. I think we both need to do some mathematical training, or is it too late for us?

Jacinta: Well, I’m sure it’s all available online – the training. Brilliant.org might be a good start, or you could spend the rest of your life playing canasta – chess has been ruined by AI.

Canto: So many choices…

 

Written by stewart henderson

February 20, 2022 at 2:34 pm

more on fuel cells and electrolysers

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Cross section of a PEMEL(polymer exchange membrane electrolyte?) stack comprising four cells, according to Science Direct

Jacinta: So continuing with Philip Russell’s simple video of a small hydrogen fuel cell (in the previous post), he explains that when the electrolysis process reverses itself, powering the fan, hydrogen is entering the cathode where it reacts with the palladium catalyst. The reaction with palladium is described as complex and weird, so he puts the matter off to a future video. In any case the hydrogen is split, producing electrons and hydrogen ions. Those electrons travel around the circuit which powers the fan, or a light bulb or some other electrical device, and the hydrogen ions travel through/across the PEM, where they react with the electrons in the circuit, and the oxygen, to produce water, which escapes from the anode side. 

Canto: So what they’re after in all this is the electrons, in sufficient abundance and in continuous supply to power whatever, without the use of carbon-based fuels. Frankly I’m not even sure how fossil fuels, hydrocarbons etc produce electricity, but hopefully I’ll learn something about this along the way.

Jacinta: You mean how does coal, oil or gas get transformed into high-energy electrons bumped along in a circuit? Yes, we have a lot to learn. 

Canto: And how do electrons in a wire make an air-conditioner work? But let’s stick with hydrogen for now. An older video, from 2012, from the excellent Fully Charged series, provides some other insights. I won’t go into too much detail with it, as the fuel cell described is very similar to Russell’s, but it does highlight some problems, at least from 2012. First, the interviewee, James Courtney from Birmingham University, uses the term proton-exchange membrane (PEM) rather than Russell’s PEM – a polymer exchange membrane. They mean the same thing, as the membrane is made of a polymer, and the key is that it’s an ‘electron insulator’, allowing protons to pass through. The polymer is usually nafion, a synthetic polymer created sixty years ago. It’s described as an ionomer for its ionic properties. But the most important thing I learned from Courtney is about the issue of platinum/palladium. It’s very very expensive, and its price is rising. Courtney – nine years ago – was experimenting with solid oxide electrolytes.

 Jacinta: From Wikipedia: 

solid oxide fuel cell (or SOFC) is an electrochemical conversion device that produces electricity directly from oxidizing a fuel. Fuel cells are characterized by their electrolyte material; the SOFC has a solid oxide or ceramic electrolyte. Advantages of this class of fuel cells include high combined heat and power efficiency, long-term stability, fuel flexibility, low emissions, and relatively low cost. The largest disadvantage is the high operating temperature which results in longer start-up times and mechanical and chemical compatibility issues.

Canto: An organisation called Bloom Energy, self-described as ‘a leader in the SOFC industry’, has a bit to say about the technology. So, again we have the negative anode and the positive cathode, and the electrolyte in between which undergoes ‘an electrochemical reaction’…

Jacinta: That’s when the miracle occurs.

Canto: Yes, and this produces an electrical current. So here’s something to think about re electrolytes: 

The electrolyte is an ion conductor that moves ions either from the fuel to the air or the air to the fuel to create electron flow. Electrolytes vary among fuel cell types, and depending on the electrolyte deployed, the fuel cells undergo slightly different electrochemical reactions, use different catalysts, run on different fuels, and achieve varying efficiencies.

Does that help?

Jacinta: Yes, it helps to complicate matters. 

Canto: So the Bloom Energy website reckons that SOFCs have the best potential for fuel cell technology, and promises they’ll bear fruit in the next six years – instead of the usual five. Here’s their diagram of an SOFC.

 

Note that they’re using natural gas (methane) in a process called methane reformation, also mentioned by James Courtney. So, not exactly a clean technology, but also, as the illustration mentions, no precious metals, corrosive acids or molten materials. 

Jacinta: But apparently this isn’t a hydrogen fuel cell. Barely a mention of hydrogen. 

Canto: Yes, the illustration presents oxygen ions reacting with ‘fuel in the fuel cell’ to produce electricity. The cleanness comes from the fact that there’s no combustion, making it more sustainable and of course more green than combustion-based tech. Apart from a partial reduction in greenhouse gases, this tech does away with the emission of harmful sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. And their ‘Bloom box’ fuel cell packs can run on hydrogen, with net zero carbon emissions. They see their technology being well suited to distributed networks and mini-grids, which may provide the power supplies of the future.

Jacinta: We shall see – if we live long enough. Meanwhile let’s look at another video, featuring Dr Stephen Carr, of the H2 Centre, University of South Wales, on how a hydrogen fuel cell works. Eventually it’ll all come together.

Canto: And then fall apart again. This video is more recent than the previous two, but I’m not sure that there have been any new developments in the interval. So Dr Carr presents ‘a demonstration kit of a renewable hydrogen energy storage system’, in which the hydrogen is produced by solar power…

Jacinta: Another magical moment?

Canto: Well, apparently. Anyway, he represents the sun with a lamp – so I suppose it’s a demonstration, not the real thing. The lamp shines on a PV (photovoltaic) panel which produces electricity.

Jacinta: Grrr, they never explain that bit.

Canto: How do you produce annoyance? Bet you can’t explain that either. Anyway, the electricity runs through an electrolyser, which splits water into oxygen and hydrogen, which is stored for times when we can’t directly produce power from the sun. At such times we can run the hydrogen and oxygen through a fuel cell (which seems to operate oppositely to an electrolyser) to produce electrical power. As he says (and this is new) the photons from the lamp (in lieu of the sun) are converted by the panel into electrical energy or power (but I think those are two distinct things). This is of course referring to how solar energy/power works, which is an entirely different thing. We’ll leave that aside for now, along with the big heap of other things.

Jacinta: Yes let’s just focus on what Dr Carr says. The electrical power powers an electrolyser. The electrons are used to drive an electrochemical process which splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. On one side of this electrolyser the water is ‘split into hydrogen’ and on the other side it produces oxygen (magic happens). Then the hydrogen and oxygen can be stored until required, when we can somehow convert these elements into electricity. We can observe, as in the Philip Russell video, bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen forming on either side of the electrolyser, and being collected and stored. 

Canto: So we’re again not going to discover the detailed physics/chemistry of all this, but apparently we now have stored power. And this gets run backwards through the fuel cell. In the fuel cell, the released oxygen and hydrogen, in a reverse process to electrolysis (I think), produces pure, apparently drinkable water, and electricity. So the two gases are released from the electrolyser into the fuel cell, oxygen at one electrode, hydrogen at the other, and they’re combined and subjected to electrochemical processes (more magic), producing water and electricity sufficient in this tiny demo model to power a fan or small light. So far, precisely as enlightening as the Philip Russell video.

Jacinta: So next we’re taken to a big electrolyser, something like the new one at Tonsley, South Australia. It uses a stack of some 80 fuel cells to produce stacks of hydrogen. The electrolyser takes in about 50kw of power and produces about 1 kilogram of hydrogen per hour – which means very little to me. 

Canto: It’s good that they know this I suppose. So they have an electrolysis stack, and they feed in ‘pure de-ionised water’ – I bet we could do a whole post on that – and apply DC electric power – another post’s worth – which splits the water into hydrogen and oxygen.

Jacinta: When I think of AC and DC I think of Tesla v Edison. History is so much easier than science. I think we need to do a basic course in electricity. But continuing with Dr Carr, for what it’s worth to us, he says that ‘everything else in this unit is gas clean-up’. The hydrogen is ‘de-watered’ to make sure it’s completely dry, and it’s also de-oxygenated, in other words thoroughly purified. Then, for storage, it’s compressed to 200 bar, meaning 200x atmospheric pressure.

Canto: The bar, presumably for barometric pressure, is commonly used in Europe but not accepted by the US, centre of arseholedom with regard to weights and measures. 

Jacinta: The trouble is that ‘atmosphere’ for measures of atmospheric pressure, is highly contestable. Anyway, we’ll finish this off next time, for now I’ll just say that Elon Musk is still not much impressed with hydrogen technology, saying that hydrolysis is way too energy-intensive-expensive, that methane or propane etc extraction defeats the purpose, that hydrogen is too light to store easily, that it’s very volatile etc, but maybe it could work for aircraft in the future… So why is so much money being expended on it, in so many countries? Why is it suddenly such a big deal? That’s a ‘mystery’ we’ll have to investigate… 

References

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0360319919312145

The Hydrogen fuel cell explained, clean energy, by Philip Russell, youtube video

Hydrogen Fuel Cells | Fully Charged, youtube video

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solid_oxide_fuel_cell

https://www.bloomenergy.com/blog/everything-you-need-to-know-about-solid-oxide-fuel-cells/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1369702103003316

How does a hydrogen fuel cell work, with Dr Stephen Car, video

Elon Musk about Hydrogen Cars, video

Written by stewart henderson

July 7, 2021 at 9:27 pm

a hydrogen energy industry in South Australia?

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an artist’s impression of SA’s hydrogen power project

I recently received in the mail a brochure outlining SA Labor’s hydrogen energy jobs plan, ahead of the state election in March 2022. The conservatives are currently in power here. The plan involves building ‘a 200MW hydrogen fuelled power station to provide firming capacity in the South Australian Electricity Market’.

So, what does a ‘hydrogen fuelled power station’ entail, what is ‘firming capacity’ and what does 200MW mean?

A presumably USA site called energy.gov tells me this:

Hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water. Hydrogen can be produced from a variety of domestic resources, such as natural gas, nuclear power, biomass, and renewable power like solar and wind. These qualities make it an attractive fuel option for transportation and electricity generation applications. It can be used in cars, in houses, for portable power, and in many more applications. Hydrogen is an energy carrier that can be used to store, move, and deliver energy produced from other sources.

This raises more questions than answers, for me. I can understand that hydrogen is a clean fuel – after all, it’s the major constituent, molecularly speaking, of water, which is pretty clean stuff. But what exactly is meant by ‘clean’ here? Do they mean ‘carbon neutral’, one of today’s buzz terms? Presumably so, and obviously hydrogen doesn’t contain carbon. Next question, what exactly is a fuel cell? Wikipedia explains:

A fuel cell is an electrochemical cell that converts the chemical energy of a fuel (often hydrogen) and an oxidizing agent (often oxygen) into electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Fuel cells are different from most batteries in requiring a continuous source of fuel and oxygen (usually from air) to sustain the chemical reaction, whereas in a battery the chemical energy usually comes from metals and their ions or oxides that are commonly already present in the battery, except in flow batteries. Fuel cells can produce electricity continuously for as long as fuel and oxygen are supplied.

So the planned 200 megawatt power station will use the chemical energy of hydrogen, and oxygen as an oxidising agent, to produce electricity through a pair of redox reactions. Paraphrasing another website, the electricity is produced by combining hydrogen and oxygen atoms. This causes a reaction across an electrochemical cell, which produces water, electricity, and some heat. The same website tells me that, as of October 2020, there were 161 fuel cells operating in the US with, in total, 250 megawatts of capacity. The planned SA power station will have 200 megawatts, so does that make it a gigantic fuel cell, or a fuel cell collective? In any case, it sounds ambitious. The process of extracting the hydrogen is called electrolysis, and the devices used are called electrolysers, which will be powered by solar energy. Excess solar will no longer need to be switched off remotely during times of low demand.

There’s no doubt that the fortunes of hydrogen as a clean fuel are on the rise. It’s also being considered more and more as a storage system to provide firming capacity – to firm up supply that intermittent power sources – solar and wind – can’t always provide. The completed facility should be able to store 3600 tonnes of hydrogen, amounting to about two months of supply. There are export opportunities too, with all this excess supply. Japan and South Korea are two likely markets.

While it may seem like all this depends on Labor winning state government, the local libs are not entirely averse to the idea. It has already installed the nation’s largest hydrogen electrolyser (small, though, at 1.25 MW) at the Tonsley technology hub, and the SA Energy Minister has been talking up the idea of a hydrogen revolution. The $11.4 million electrolyser, a kind of proof of concept, extracts hydrogen gas from water at a rate of up to 480 kgs per day.

The difference between the libs and labor it seems is really about who pays for the infrastructure. Unsurprisingly, the libs are looking to the private sector, while Labor’s plans are for a government-owned facility, with the emphasis on jobs. Their brochure on the planned power station and ancillary developments is called the ‘hydrogen jobs plan’. According to SA’s Labor leader, Peter Malinauskas, up to 300 jobs will be created in constructing the hydrogen plant, at least 10,000 jobs will be ‘unlocked from the $20bn pipeline of renewable projects in South Australia’ (presumably not all hydrogen-related, but thrown in for good measure) and 900+ jobs will be created through development of a hydrogen export industry. He’s being a tad optimistic, needless to say.

But hydrogen really is in the air these days (well, sort of, in the form of water vapour). A recent New Scientist article, ‘The hydrogen games’, reports that Japan is hoping that its coming Olympic and Paralympic Games (which others are hoping will be cancelled) will be a showcase for its plan to become a ‘hydrogen society’ over the next few decades. And this plan is definitely good news for Australia.

Japan has pledged to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. However, this is likely impossible to achieve by solar or other established renewables. There just isn’t enough available areas for large scale solar or wind, in spite of floating solar plants on its lakes and offshore wind farms in planning. This is a problem for its hydrogen plans too, as it currently needs to produce the hydrogen from natural gas. It hopes that future technology will make green hydrogen from local renewables possible, but meanwhile it’s looking to overseas imports, notably from Australia, ‘which has ample sunshine, wind and empty space that make it perfect for producing this fuel’. Unfortunately we also have an ample supply of empty heads in our federal government, which might get in the way of this plan. And the Carbon Club, as exposed by Marian Wilkinson in her book of that name, continues to be as cashed-up and almost thuggishly influential as ever here. The success of the South Australian plan, Labor or Liberal, and the growing global interest in hydrogen as an energy source – France and Germany are also spending big on hydrogen – may be what will finally weaken the grip of the fossil fuel industry on a country seen by everyone else as potentially the best-placed to take financial advantage of the green resources economy.

References

Hydrogen Jobs Plan: powering new jobs & industry (South Australian Labor brochure)

https://www.energy.gov/eere/fuelcells/hydrogen-fuel-basics

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fuel_cell

https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/hydrogen/use-of-hydrogen.php

‘The hydrogen games’, New Scientist No 3336 May 2021 pp18-19

Marian Wilkinson: The Carbon Club: How a network of influential climate sceptics, politicians and business leaders fought to control Australia’s climate policy, 2020

https://www.abc.net.au/news/2021-03-23/hydrogen-power-play-in-sa-as-labor-announces-gas-plant-project/100022842

Written by stewart henderson

June 24, 2021 at 7:49 pm

climate change – we know what we should be doing

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Professor Mark Howden of the ANU and the IPCC – straight science and economic sense

Here in Australia we have a national government that hates to mention human-induced climate change publicly, whatever their personal views are, and clearly they’re varied. I’ve long suspected that there’s a top-down policy (which long predates our current PM) of not mentioning anthropogenic global warming, lest it outrage a large part of the conservative base, while doing a few things behind the scenes to support renewables and reduce emissions. It’s a sort of half-hearted, disorganised approach to what is clearly a major problem locally and globally. And meanwhile some less disciplined or less chained members or former members of this government, such as former PM Tony Abbott and current MP for Hughes, Craig Kelly, are ignoring the party line (and science), and so revealing just how half-arsed the government’s way of dealing with the problem really is. The national opposition doesn’t seem much better on this issue, and it might well be a matter of following the money…

So I was impressed with a recent ABC interview with Australian climate scientist and leading member of the IPCC, Professor Mark Howden, also director of the Climate Change Institute at the Australian National University, who spoke a world of good sense in about ten minutes. 

The interview was preceded by the statement that the government is holding to its emission reduction targets – considered to be rather minimal by climate change scientists – while possibly ‘tweaking’ broader climate change policy. This is another example of ‘don’t scare the base’, IMHO. It was also reported that the government felt it might reach its Paris agreement without using ‘carry-over credits’ from the previous Kyoto agreement.  

The issue here is that our government, in its wisdom, felt that it should get credit for ‘more than meeting’ its Kyoto targets. As Howden pointed out, those Kyoto targets were easy to meet because we’d have met them even while increasing our emissions (which we in fact did). Spoken without any sense of irony by the unflappable professor. 

There’s no provision in the Paris agreement for such ‘carry-over credits’ – however the government has previously relied on them as an entitlement, and in fact pushed for them in a recent meeting in Madrid. Now, it’s changing its tune, slightly. The hullabaloo over the bushfire tragedies has been an influence, as well as a growing sense that reaching the Paris targets without these credits is do-able. Interestingly, Howden suggests that the credits are important for us meeting our Paris commitments up to 2030, as they make up more than half the required emissions reductions. So, if they’re included, we’ll need a 16% reduction from here, rather than a 26 – 28% reduction. But is this cheating? Is it in the spirit of the Paris agreement? Surely not, apart from legal considerations. It certainly affects any idea that Australia might play a leadership role in emissions reductions. 

So now the government is indicating that it might scrap the reliance on credits and find real reductions – which is, in fact, a fairly momentous decision for this conservative administration, because the core emissions from energy, transport, waste and other activities are all rising and would need to be turned around (I’m paraphrasing Howden here). So far no policies have been announced, or are clearly in the offing, to effect this turnaround. There’s an Emissions Reductions Fund,  established in 2014-5 to support businesses, farmers, landowners in reducing emissions through a carbon credit scheme (this is news to me) but according to Howden it’s in need of more public funding, and the ‘carbon sinks’ – that’s to say the forests that have been burning horrifically in past weeks  – which the government has been partly relying upon, are proving to be less stable than hoped. So there are limitations to the government’s current policies. Howden argues for a range of additional policies, but as he says, they’ve rejected (presumably permanently) so many options in the past, most notably carbon pricing, that the cupboard looks pretty bare for the future. There’s of course a speedier move towards renewables in electricity generation – which represents about 30% of emissions, the other 70% being with industry, agriculture, transport and mining (see my previous piece on fracking, for example, a practice that looks to be on the increase in Australia). Howden puts forward the case that it’s in this 70% area that policies can be most helpful, both in emissions reduction and jobs growth. For example, in transport, Australia is well behind other nations in the uptake of EVs, which our government has done nothing to support, unlike most advanced economies. Having EVs working off a renewables grid would reduce transport emissions massively. Other efficiencies which could be encouraged by government policy would be reducing livestock methane emissions through feed and husbandry reforms, such as maintaining shade and other stress-reducing conditions. This can increase productivity and reduce per-unit environmental footprint – or hoofprint. 

As to the old carbon pricing argument – Howden points out that during the brief period that carbon pricing was implemented in Australia, core emissions dropped significantly, and the economy continued to grow. It was clearly successful, and its rescinding in around 2015 has proved disastrous. Howden feels that it’s hard to foresee Australia meeting its 2030 Paris targets without some sort of price on carbon – given that there won’t be any deal on carry-over credits. There’s also an expectation that targets will be ramped up, post-2030. 

So, the message is that we need to sensibly revisit carbon pricing as soon as possible, and we need to look positively at abatement policies as encouraging growth and innovation – the cost of doing nothing being much greater than the costs involved in emissions reduction. And there are plenty of innovations out there – you can easily look them up on youtube, starting with the Fully Charged show out of Britain. The complacency of the current Oz government in view of the challenges before us is itself energy-draining – like watching a fat-arsed couch potato yawning his way towards an early death. 

References

https://iview.abc.net.au/show/abc-news-mornings

https://www.environment.gov.au/climate-change/government/emissions-reduction-fund/about

https://ussromantics.com/2020/01/02/fracking-hell/

Written by stewart henderson

January 16, 2020 at 10:37 am

fracking hell

with one comment

A very very brief piece in New Scientist back in August reported some research to the effect that hydraulic fracturing, aka fracking, is mostly responsible for a rise in atmospheric methane since 2008.

Having just spotted this today, I was somewhat shocked. I’ve heard news about fracking of course, and the damage report has grown – but it seemed to me mostly about local geological instability, overuse of water, and site pollution. So what’s the methane issue?

National Geographic reports on the same research (published in the journal Biogeoscienceshere. Methane is a major greenhouse gas, of course, heating the atmosphere as much as eighty times the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide, but the question surely is – just how much methane does fracking release?

The NG article also mentions a 2015 NASA study that found a sharp rise in methane levels from 2006, growing by about 25 million tons per year. It calculated that at least half of this increase came from fossil fuels. These findings happen to coincide with the growth in the use of fracking technology from around that time. Most of the emissions come from shale gas – that’s mostly methane – operations in the USA and Canada. The article describes the process:

Fracking involves drilling an oil or gas well vertically and then horizontally into a shale formation. A mixture of highly pressurized water, chemicals, and sand is injected to create and prop open fissures, or pathways for the gas to flow

But as more has become known about fracking, opposition has grown. While most fracking is done in the USA and Canada, a number of US states have either banned the practice or are considering doing so. It’s banned in France and Germany, and has become a hot issue in Australia, with the ‘unconventional gas’ producers, mostly operating in Queensland, seeking to expand operations throughout much of northern Australia. The NT government decided to lift its moritorium on fracking in 2018 after a comprehensive enquiry claimed that fracking could be brought to safe levels if 135 recommendations were followed. The government promised to follow the recommendations, of course, but the process smells horribly of back-door dealing. And in the USA the Trump anti-administration is doing all it can to further the practise, auctioning off drilling rights in large swathes of land to oil and gas developers. 

It seems to me that fracking is by its nature a short-term, stop-gap technology, which seeks to ferret out smaller and smaller reserves through applying more and more pressure, risking increasing damage to the environment, and to the health of local people exposed to under-reported leakages of the 650 or so chemicals used in the process, many of them well-recognised carcinogens. Australia’s Business Insider website has an article on the 10 scariest chemicals that have been used in hydraulic fracking. They are: methanol, BTEX compounds (benzene, toluene, xylene and ethylbenzene), diesel fuel, lead, hydrogen fluoride, naphthalene, sulphuric, crystalline silica, formaldehyde and ‘other unknown chemicals’. Now it’s likely true that any operations which employ chemicals would be found wanting under scrutiny, but it’s also true that the fracking industry, especially in the USA currently, operates under very little oversight, and will be seeking maximum benefit from a rogue regime. And it seems to me that some science-based organisations, such as the US Geological Survey, are minimising the damage and extolling the virtues, always pointing out that risks will be minimal ‘if proper practises are in place’. That’s an impossibly big ‘if’ when talking about the USA’s current dictatorship. 

References

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jun/18/not-safe-not-wanted-is-the-end-of-nt-fracking-ban-a-taste-of-things-to-come

https://www.businessinsider.com.au/scary-chemicals-used-in-hydraulic-fracking-2012-3#methanol-1

https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/2019/08/fracking-boom-tied-to-methane-spike-in-earths-atmosphere/

Written by stewart henderson

January 2, 2020 at 7:37 am

reflections on base load, dispatchable energy and SA’s current situation

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just to restate the point that SA’s power outages are due to transmission/distribution lines being damaged, nothing to do with renewable energy

Canto: So now we’re going to explore base load. What I think it means is reliable, always available energy, usually from fossil fuel generators (coal oil gas), always on tap, to underpin all this soi-disant experimental energy from solar (but what about cloudy days, not to mention darkness, which is absence of light, which is waves of energy isn’t it?) and wind (which is obviously variable, from calm days to days so stormy that they might uproot wind turbines and send them flying into space, chopping up birds in the process).

Jacinta: Well we can’t think about base load without thinking about grids. Our favourite Wikipedia describes it as ‘the minimal level of demand on an electrical grid over a span of time’. So the idea is that you always need to cover that base, or you’ll be in trouble. And an electrical grid is a provision of electrical service to a particular community, be it a suburb, a city or a state. 

Canto: Right, I think, and what I like about Wikipedia is the way it sticks it to the back-facing thinkers, for whom base load always means provision from traditional providers (coal oil gas). 

Jacinta: Yes, let’s rub it in by quoting Wikipedia on this. 

When the cheapest power was from large coal and nuclear plants which could not be turned up or down quickly, they were used to generate baseload, since it is constant, and they were called “baseload plants.” Large standby reserves were needed in case of sudden failure of one of these large plants. Unvarying power plants are no longer always the cheapest way to meet baseload. The grid now includes many wind turbines which have such low marginal costs that they can bid lower prices than coal or nuclear, so they can provide some of the baseload when the wind blows. Using wind turbines in areas with varying wind conditions, and supplementing them with solar in the day time, dispatchable generation and storage, handles the intermittency of individual wind sources.

Canto: So the times are a-changing with respect to costs and supply, especially as costs to the environment of fossil fuel supplies are at last being factored in, at least in some parts of the world. But let’s keep trying to clarify terms. What about dispatchable generation, and how does it relate to base load?

Jacinta: Well, intermittent power sources, such as wind and solar, are not dispatchable – unless there’s a way to store that energy. Some renewable energy sources, such as geothermal and biomass, are dispatchable, but they don’t figure too much in the mix at present. The key is in the word – these sources are able to be dispatched on demand, and have adjustable output which can be regulated in one way or another. But some sources are easier, and cheaper, to switch on and off than others. It’s much about timing; older generation coal-fired plants can take many hours to ‘fire up’, so their dispatchability, especially in times of crisis, is questionable. Hydroelectric and gas plants can respond much more quickly, and batteries, as we’ve seen, can respond in microseconds in times of crisis, providing a short-term fix until other sources come on stream. Of course, this takes us into the field of storage, which is a whole other can of – what’s the opposite of worms?

Canto: So this question of base load, this covering of ‘minimal’ but presumably essential level of demand, can be a problem for a national grid, but you can break that grid up presumably, going ‘off grid’, which I’m guessing means going off the national grid and either being totally independent as a household or creating a micro-grid consisting of some small community…

Jacinta: Yes and this would be the kind of ‘disruptive economy’ that causes nightmares for some governments, especially conservative ones, not to mention energy providers and retailers. But leaving aside micro-grids for now, this issue of dispatchability can be dealt with in a flexible way without relying on fossil fuels. Energy storage has proven value, perhaps especially with smaller grids or micro-grids, for example in maintaining flow for a particular enterprise. On the larger scale, I suppose the Snowy 2 hydro project will be a big boon? 

Canto: 2000 megawatts of energy generation and 175 hours of storage says the online ‘brochure’. But the Renew Economy folks, who always talk about ‘so-called’ base load, are skeptical. They point to the enormous cost of the project, which could escalate, due, among other things, to the difficulties of tunnelling through rock of uncertain quality. They feel that government reports have over-hyped the project and significantly downplayed the value of alternatives, such as battery electric storage systems, which are modular and flexible rather than this massive one-off project which may be rendered irrelevant once completed. 

Jacinta: So let’s relate this to the South Australian situation. We’re part of the national grid, or the National Energy Market (NEM), which covers SA and the eastern states. This includes generators, transformers (converting low voltage to high voltage for transport, and then converting back to low voltage for distribution), long distance transmission lines and shorter distance distribution lines. So that’s wholesale stuff, and it’s a market because different companies are involved in producing and maintaining the system – the grid, if you like.

Canto: I’ve heard it’s the world’s largest grid, in terms of area covered.

Jacinta: I don’t think so, but it depends on what metric you use. Anyway, it’s pretty big. South Australia has been criticised by the federal government for somehow harming the market with its renewables push. Also, it was claimed at least a year ago that SA had the highest electricity prices in the world. This may have been an exaggeration, but why are costs so high here? There are green levies on our bill, but I think they’re optional. Also, the electricity system was privatised in the late 90s, so the government has lost control of pricing. High-voltage transmission lines are owned by ElectraNet, part-owned by the Chinese government. The lower voltage distribution lines are operated by SA Power Networks, majority-owned by a Hong Kong company, and then there are the various private retailers. It’s hard to work out, amongst all this, why prices are so high here, but the closure of the Northern coal-fired power station in Port Augusta, which was relatively low cost and stable, meant a greater reliance on more expensive gas. Wind and solar have greater penetration into the SA network than elsewhere, but there’s still the intermittency problem. Various projects currently in the pipeline will hopefully provide more stability in the future, including a somewhat controversial interconnector between SA and NSW. Then there’s the retail side of things. Some retailers are also wholesalers. For instance AGL supplies 48% of the state’s retail customers and controls 42% of generation capacity. All in all, there’s a lack of competition, with only three companies competing for the retail market, which is a problem for pricing. At the same time, if competitors can be lured into the market, rather than being discouraged by monopoly behaviour, the high current prices should act as an incentive. 

Canto: Are you suggesting that retailers are profiteering from our high prices?

Jacinta: I don’t know about that, but before the Tesla battery came online the major gas generators – who are also retailers – were using their monopoly power to engage in price gouging at times of scarcity, to a degree that was truly incredible – more so in that it was entirely legal according to the ACCC and other market regulators. The whole sorry story is told here . So I’m hoping that’s now behind us, though I’m sure the executives of these companies will have earned fat bonuses for exploiting the situation while they could. 

Canto: So prices to consumers in SA have peaked and are now going down?

Jacinta: Well the National Energy Market has suffered increased costs for the past couple of years, mainly due to the increased wholesale price of gas, on which SA is heavily reliant. It’s hard to get reliable current data on this online, but as of April this year the east coast gas prices were on their way down, but these prices fluctuate for all sorts of reasons. Of course the gas lobby contends that increased supply – more gas exploration etc – will solve the problem, while others want to go in the opposite direction and cut gas out of the South Australian market as much as possible. That’s unlikely to happen though, in the foreseeable, so we’re likely to be hostage to fluctuating gas prices, and a fair degree of monopoly pricing, for some time to come. 


Written by stewart henderson

November 26, 2018 at 11:37 am