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Ambrose’s Holy Grail

August 13, 2016
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By Paul Homewood 

   

image

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/08/10/holy-grail-of-energy-policy-in-sight-as-battery-technology-smash/

 

Our old friend, Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, is away with the fairies again:

 

The world’s next energy revolution is probably no more than five or ten years away. Cutting-edge research into cheap and clean forms of electricity storage is moving so fast that we may never again need to build 20th Century power plants in this country, let alone a nuclear white elephant such as Hinkley Point.

The US Energy Department is funding 75 projects developing electricity storage, mobilizing teams of scientists at Harvard, MIT, Stanford, and the elite Lawrence Livermore and Oak Ridge labs in a bid for what it calls the ‘Holy Grail’ of energy policy.

You can track what they are doing at the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E). There are plans for hydrogen bromide, or zinc-air batteries, or storage in molten glass, or next-generation flywheels, many claiming "drastic improvements" that can slash storage costs by 80pc to 90pc and reach the magical figure of $100 per kilowatt hour in relatively short order.

“Storage is a huge deal,” says Ernest Moniz, the US Energy Secretary and himself a nuclear physicist. He is now confident that the US grid and power system will be completely "decarbonised" by the middle of the century.

The technology is poised to overcome the curse of ‘intermittency’ that has long bedevilled wind and solar. Surges of excess power will be stored for use later at times when the sun sets, and consumption peaks in the early evening.

This transforms the calculus of energy policy. The question for the British government as it designs a strategy fit for the 21st Century – and wrestles with an exorbitant commitment to Hinkley Point – is no longer whether this form of back-up power will ever be commercially viable, but whether the inflection point arrives in the early-2020s or in the late 2020s…..

I do not wish to single out this particular technology. I cite it as an example of how fast the picture is evolving as the world’s scientific superpower mobilizes in earnest, and investors start to chase the immense prize. Consultants Mckinsey estimate that the energy storage market will grow a hundredfold to $90bn a year by 2025.

Once storage costs approach $100 per kilowatt hour, there ceases to be much point in building costly ‘baseload’ power plants such as Hinkley Point. Nuclear reactors cannot be switched on and off as need demands – unlike gas plants. They are useless as a back-up for the decentralized grid of the future, when wind, solar, hydro, and other renewables will dominate the power supply.

I will be writing about the economics of offshore wind in coming days but bear in mind that renewables generated 18pc of UK power last year, and this is expected to double by the late 2020s as wind and solar capacity reach 50 gigawatts (GW). Once the power can be stored for overnight use, there will be extended periods in the summer when no base-load is needed whatsoever.

Perhaps the Hinkley project still made sense in 2013 before the collapse in global energy prices and before the latest leap forward in renewable technology. It is madness today.

The latest report by the National Audit Office shows that the estimated subsidy for these two reactors has already jumped from £6bn to near £30bn. Hinkley Point locks Britain into a strike price of £92.50 per megawatt hour – adjusted for inflation, already £97 – and that is guaranteed for 35 years.

That is double the current market price of electricity. The NAO’s figures show that solar will be nearer £60 per megawatt hour by 2025. Dong Energy has already agreed to an offshore wind contract in Holland at less than £75.

Theresa May has inherited a poisonous dossier, left with the invidious choice of either offending China or persisting with a venture that no longer makes any economic sense. She may have to offend China – as tactfully as possible, let us hope -  for the scale of the folly has become crushingly obvious.

Every big decision on energy strategy by the British government or any other government must henceforth be based on the working premise that cheap energy storage will soon be a reality.

This country can achieve total self-sufficiency in power at viable cost from our own sun, wind, and waters within a generation. Once we shift to electric vehicles as well, we will no longer need to import much oil either. Rejoice.

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/business/2016/08/10/holy-grail-of-energy-policy-in-sight-as-battery-technology-smash/

 

AEP seems to be forgetting that storage does not actually produce any power (This may be totally obvious, but appears to need re-stating). Coal, gas and nuclear generation do not need any storage. Although he states that renewables generated 18pc of UK power last year, he does not tell us that some of this is accounted for by either hydro or burning forests. Whatever your view of the “greenness” or “ sustainability” of these technologies, neither need storage either.

This leaves wind and solar, which generated 14% of the UK’s electricity last year. All of the power they generated was supplied to the grid, so no amount of batteries will increase this figure.

AEP seems to naively believe that we only need storage to spread the load overnight, when the sun does not shine. He obviously does not realise that solar produces very little power during winter months in the UK. Somehow, therefore, we would need to build enough batteries to store all of the surplus power produced in summer, so as to last us through the winter.

Plainly, even if feasible, the cost would be prohibitive. This leaves us with wind power, which, despite his protestations, is horribly expensive.

 

image

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/energy-trends-march-2016

 

 

   

AEP makes an elementary mistake when he states, “nuclear reactors cannot be switched on and off as need demands – unlike gas plants. They are useless as a back-up for the decentralized grid of the future, when wind, solar, hydro, and other renewables will dominate the power supply.”

The whole point about nuclear power is that it provides baseload and not back up, for which gas plants are ideal.

 

He also says, “Every big decision on energy strategy by the British government or any other government must henceforth be based on the working premise that cheap energy storage will soon be a reality”.

This is utter lunacy. No such big decision should be made on the basis of what might happen one day. We can agree that Hinkley is the wrong decision, but any sensible government would continue with the current and most effective means of generation, ie fossil fuels. When, or if, renewables (including the cost of battery storage), become cost competitive, then they will no doubt take their rightful place amongst the energy mix.

The last thing we should be doing is committing to long term, expensive subsidies, for renewable technology, which AEP and others keep insisting will soon come down in price substantially.

In the meantime, AEP might like to reflect just how many more windmills and solar panels might be needed to fulfil his joyous future, once all of our cars, heating and industry are running off of AA batteries.

According to DECC, wind/solar/hydro managed to supply a magnificent 2% of the UK’s energy consumption last year.   

 

 

image

https://www.gov.uk/government/statistics/energy-trends-march-2016

 

No amount of batteries can increase this figure. 

 

It is baffling how otherwise normally intelligent journalists, such as AEP, suddenly lose all their critical facilities when climate change or decarbonisation are mentioned.

No doubt, it is interesting to learn about all of these latest technological developments, and maybe they will be well and truly eclipsed by other developments, such as thorium or mini nuclear, in the near future.

But most of us will remember well how we were promised energy utopia back in the 1950s, when the golden age of “cheap” nuclear power began.

Fools should tread carefully, Ambrose! 

 

FOOTNOTE

Curiously AEP states, “once the power can be stored for overnight use, there will be extended periods in the summer when no base-load is needed whatsoever”.

I know I am tired, after a long drive home. But can anybody explain the relevance of this? The whole point about baseload is that it is there when you need it, all year round. Just because you don’t need it in the middle of July does not mean you don’t need it there in January.

And if you do need it in winter, you have to pay for it all year round.

39 Comments leave one →
  1. August 13, 2016 9:12 pm

    For ninety-two years pseudo-scientists hid from the public the source of “powers beyond the dreams of scientific fiction” that Aston described in the last paragraph of his Nobel Lecture (12 DEC 1922).

    That SECRET will be publicly unveiled at the London GeoEthics Conference on Climate Change on 8-9 SEPT 2016.

    The genie is out of the lamp!

  2. August 13, 2016 9:21 pm

    Battery Storage of electricity is not going to solve any grid-size problems. If not technically impossible, there are no ideas on how to make it technically possible. Cellulosic ethanol mandates did not conjure up cellulosic ethanol. AEP can talk tech – he isn’t here. Because the technical issues are seemingly insurmountable.

    Coal and gas can be stored and converted into electric energy through combustion. The newest combined-cycle gas turbines convert gas into electricity at a staggering 67% efficiency. And gas is a very inexpensive BTU primary source. Gas is already stored and already cheap. Smaller scale units are very cost efficient allowing for distributed generation, which is great for reliability and grid efficiency. The cycle up and down relatively quickly and are small providing cheap spinning reserve.

    Only massive, truly massive, government mandates could force electric utilities to ‘invest’ in battery technology.

    • johnmarshall permalink
      August 14, 2016 9:59 am

      Batteries can only store DC but all our electricity is generated as AC. So if battery storage is used generated power must be converted to DC for storage and back to AC for the grid. This process is very power hungry so leads to very low efficiency.

      • johnmarshall permalink
        August 14, 2016 10:00 am

        PV generation is DC so this could use batteries but convertion to AC for the grid is needed.

  3. Alan Davidson permalink
    August 13, 2016 9:28 pm

    I would suggest that the vast majority of the UK population have no idea how the electric grid operates, the difference between AC & DC, the physics of electricity, storage and climate etc. Journalists with any kind of science or engineering background and good knowledge of all or any these subjects are rare. As a result the news media is able to write whatever they wish, or accept third party articles for publication/broadcast, and there is little or no editorial control as nobody involved is able to fully understand the content. Then the vast majority of readers/viewers/listeners generally accept the content without question.

    The same applies in Parliament as there are only handful of MPs with any science or engineering background, as evidenced by only 3 votes against the 2008 Climate Change Act in all parties. I suppose exactly the same problem also exists in the bureaucracy.

  4. markl permalink
    August 13, 2016 9:40 pm

    Super capacitors and giant batteries have been “just around the corner” for over 50 years yet all the improvements have been through incremental advances of old technology. “Every big decision on energy strategy by the British government or any other government must henceforth be based on the working premise that cheap energy storage will soon be a reality”. Pure snake oil.

  5. Roger Cole permalink
    August 13, 2016 10:01 pm

    Mr. Homewood, I am confused here. At one point above you state “This leaves wind and solar, which generated 14% of the UK’s electricity last year” and later, “According to DECC, wind/solar/hydro managed to supply a magnificent 2% of the UK’s energy consumption last year.”
    Which is it please?

    • August 13, 2016 10:32 pm

      Do you know?

    • CheshireRed permalink
      August 13, 2016 10:36 pm

      Electricity is electricity.
      Energy consumption is everything: electricity, gas, oil, diesel, petrol, vehicles, industry, residential, commercial, the lot.
      As electricity is all of the former category but only one component part of the latter group it shows as being a smaller share of the total energy burden.

    • August 13, 2016 11:23 pm

      Electricity only accounts for a small portion of overall energy consumption.

      • Roger Cole permalink
        August 14, 2016 3:27 am

        Oh yes of course, tripped by the same snag that I’ve pointed out to others on quite numerous occasions! Thanks for the reply.

      • Dave Ward permalink
        August 14, 2016 1:47 pm

        “Electricity only accounts for a small portion of overall energy consumption”
        Hence AE-P’s claim “Once we shift to electric vehicles as well, we will no longer need to import much oil either” is utter tosh. Oil & gas provide the feedstocks for most manufacturing processes – particularly plastics, which form a large part of everything we use these days – particularly those electric vehicles he thinks we’ll all be driving…

  6. Graeme No.3 permalink
    August 13, 2016 10:03 pm

    Anaerobic digestion of manure can generate methane, which could fuel power stations. With AEP as an example there should be a virtually inexhaustible supply.
    Batteries, as you note, don’t generate electricity nor do they miraculously turn expensive surplus electricity into cheap renewable power.

    • Joe Public permalink
      August 13, 2016 10:49 pm

      GB gas demand is significantly higher than power demand. In 2015 GB gas demand was 880TWh vs ~334TWh for power demand; and, only 25% of the gas demand was by gas fired power stations.

      That’s an awful lot of bullshit needed.

      • Graeme No.3 permalink
        August 14, 2016 7:04 am

        Joe:
        See the most recent article. With Lord Krebs and company ‘on the job’ I think GB’s supply worries will be flushed away.

  7. August 13, 2016 10:29 pm

    I wish he would stick to pure economics.

  8. CheshireRed permalink
    August 13, 2016 10:41 pm

    Paul has hit the nail on the head re ‘so-called renewables’ and battery storage: they’ve simply been over-promoted before they were market ready. To commit the same error for battery storage on the back of ‘what may be available soon’ (but which may also NOT be ready at any time at all) would compound the initial renewables stupidity.

    • August 14, 2016 2:11 am

      It worked for decades with fusion reactors that were always ready in “a few more years” to supply all our energy

  9. Dodgy Geezer permalink
    August 13, 2016 10:42 pm

    ….AEP makes an elementary mistake when he states, “nuclear reactors cannot be switched on and off as need demands – unlike gas plants. They are useless as a back-up for the decentralized grid of the future, when wind, solar, hydro, and other renewables will dominate the power supply.”

    The whole point about nuclear power is that it provides baseload and not back up, for which gas plants are ideal….

    Actually, nuclear reactors CAN be switched on and off as the need demands – quite easily. How do you think nuclear submarines operate? They turn their engines on and off whenever they need to; and quite rapidly as well.

    The point is that you CAN design a nuclear power station to be switched on and off, but since you usually use them for base load, you design them for maximum efficiency and continuous operation, not rapid switching…

    • Joe Public permalink
      August 13, 2016 11:00 pm

      “Actually, nuclear reactors CAN be switched on and off as the need demands – quite easily.”

      Although nuclear power plants can be shut down in seconds (e.g. to ensure safety in the case of a meltdown), they cannot be started up from cold very rapidly. Hence they are generally classified as ‘non-dispatchable’.

      http://energyeducation.ca/encyclopedia/Dispatchable_source_of_electricity

      • August 14, 2016 6:49 am

        They can be designed for load-follow.

      • A C Osborn permalink
        August 14, 2016 1:58 pm

        As the French do.

      • Colin permalink
        August 15, 2016 5:51 pm

        Only 3% of the cost of nuclear power arises from the cost of uranium. Hence it makes economic sense to run them flat out which is probably the chief reason why we use them for base capacity.

  10. Joe Public permalink
    August 13, 2016 10:46 pm

    O/T but you’re ‘Mentioned in Dispatches’ again, Paul

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/08/13/the-climate-change-brigade-are-wrong-again/

  11. tom0mason permalink
    August 14, 2016 3:22 am

    Yes, there’ll be real good jam tomorrow.

    I wonder what the odds are for this lame duck idea chasing a huge wild goose subsidy …
    … will all be good by 2050?

  12. August 14, 2016 3:24 am

    As someone who has invested over ten years, several $millions,,and who now holds multiple energy storage patents in Korea, China, Japan, and the US (EU is just slow), let me input here on this narrow topic. There are NO viable grid storage solutions on the horizon. Super caps have the power density and lifetime, but are one order of magnitude off on energy density even given my new, improved, and patented storage material potentially now being licensed to a major U.K. Company after Austrian pilot scale validation. Good for hybrid vehicles, lousy for grid storage. All battery chemistries to date have inadequate energy storage and inadequate cycle life for the grid, let alone their cost.

  13. mwhite permalink
    August 14, 2016 8:48 am

    ” that can slash storage costs by 80pc to 90pc and reach the magical figure of $100 per kilowatt hour in relatively short order.”

    $100 per kilowatt hour,maybe he means Megawatt hour???

    Or maybe he doesn’t know what he’s talking about???

    • Will Janoschka permalink
      August 14, 2016 1:35 pm

      Even with the excess weight and low recycles, lead acid is more that $100/kWh.

  14. chrism56 permalink
    August 14, 2016 9:52 am

    MWhite No The costs of $100/kWh capital cost is one of the Holy Grails of storage systems. The other is how many cycles it can do. If it gets to 1000 deep draw cycles, then you need to replace the batteries only once every three years. They really need to be aiming for 3-5k. The latter will be a lot harder to achieve than the former.

  15. Russ Wood permalink
    August 14, 2016 10:48 am

    Wasn’t it in the 1950’s when nuclear scientists were telling us “Fusion power in 20 years!”. And they’ve been saying that for the last 60 years. So, super batteries are coming ‘real soon now’ (to use a Jerry Pournelle term).

  16. August 14, 2016 12:39 pm

    ‘It is baffling how otherwise normally intelligent journalists, such as AEP, suddenly lose all their critical facilities when climate change or decarbonisation are mentioned.’

    $urely no great my$tery $quire😉

  17. August 14, 2016 7:08 pm

    See today’s Ambrose piece for an update. We’ll be able to compare notes by 2020 and see what’s what’s, but my money is on his crystal ball.

    • August 14, 2016 7:36 pm

      I’m not sure that we should be running our energy policy on the basis of a crystal ball!

  18. August 14, 2016 10:09 pm

    I work on a green version of Compressed Air Energy Storage which does not need natural gas to recover the electricity. This is a technology, unlike batteries, which can benefit from scale up to GWH size as it uses the same basic turbine design that we use for power generation. The best Honest efficiency is about 75%. So to get 3GWH out you have to put in 4 GWH. This is the base operating cost plus man power and of course the capital cost. We estimate about $1/watt peak power or $1000/KW after several rounds of scaleup and a decade or two of development. Typical storaqe output is about 5 hours so that would be $200/KWh. Energy storage has benefits because the value of electricity varies drastically with demand. The real value is in using efficiently generated base load power for peak use. Thus more storage really means you want more base load power. We also work in improving battery storage but the main market there is power tools then cars not bulk storage.

    • August 15, 2016 9:56 am

      ‘more storage really means you want more base load power’

      Surely if you have more base load power you will need less storage?

  19. August 15, 2016 10:37 am

    I find it rather appropriate to see that Ambrose’s new magic batteries are powered by … rhubarb.

  20. Earth Monitor Russ permalink
    August 17, 2016 7:11 pm

    You can’t store so called ‘electricity’ in the form of electrons, because thats not what electrical energy is. A battery pushes electrons using potential difference, which turns the circuit into an antenna which then guides electrical energy across the circuit. Whichever way you produce movement of electrons steam turbines or windmills or solar panels, you aren’t going to store the electrons that you are moving. This movement only makes electrical energy available to use. The electrical energy we use is all around us, all the time, and the movement of electrons is our way of making use of it…..got it? Store electricity indeed. You may as well try juggling loose soot!!!

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