« Swiss team develops effective and low-cost solar water-splitting device; 14.2% solar-to-hydrogen efficiency | Main | Volkswagen, VW-branded franchise dealers in US reach agreement in principle to resolve diesel litigation » A new study from University of Michigan researchers challenges the assumption that crop-based biofuels such as corn ethanol and biodiesel are inherently carbon-neutral—i.e., that only production-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions need to be tallied when comparing them to fossil fuels. In an open-access paper published in the journal Climatic Change, the researchers conclude that once estimates from the literature for process emissions and displacement effects including land-use change are considered, US biofuel use to date is associated with a net increase rather than a net decrease in CO emissions. The study, based on US Department of Agriculture crop-production data, shows that during the period when US biofuel production rapidly ramped up, the increased carbon dioxide uptake by the crops was only enough to offset 37% of the CO emissions due to biofuel combustion over the period 2005-2013. The environmental justification rests on the assumption that, as renewable alternatives to fossil fuels, biofuels are inherently carbon neutral because the CO released when they are burned is derived from CO uptake during feedstock growth. That convention is premised on globally complete carbon accounting in which biogenic emissions are not counted in energy sectors when carbon stock changes are counted in land-use sectors. This assumption has been used in cap-and-trade programs and carbon taxes as promulgated to date, which address only fossil-derived CO emissions. However, errors arise when bioenergy is treated as carbon neutral in national and subnational policies, which do not impose globally coherent accounting that tracks all carbon stock changes. The carbon neutrality assumption is also embedded in lifecycle analysis (LCA), which traditionally focused only on production-related GHG emissions within a fuel’s supply chain. … Thus, although it was proposed as an objective way to compare fuels, LCA has become a form of scenario analysis. However, it is inferior in this regard to integrated assessment modeling (IAM), which uses a biogeochemically and economically coherent analytic framework that LCA lacks. Moreover, as a static framework, it fails to reflect the stock-and-flow dynamics that are fundamental to bioenergy systems. Indeed, policy applications of LCA raise serious questions regarding the limitations of the method. Given such concerns, it is useful to analyze the situation by a method other than LCA. The researchers applied Annual Basis Carbon accounting to investigate the changes in carbon flows directly associated with a vehicle-fuel system. Unlike LCA or other forms of carbon accounting used for climate policy to date, ABC does not treat biofuels as inherently carbon neutral; it tallies CO emissions on the basis of chemistry in the specific locations where they occur. ABC accounting reflects the stock-and-flow nature of the carbon cycle,— i.e., that changes in the atmospheric stock depend on both inflows and outflows. LCA, on the other hand, focuses only on inflows (GHGs discharged into the atmosphere). The system in the study was defined to include motor fuel consumption, fuel processing operations and resource inputs, including cropland for biofuel feedstocks. Thus, instead of modeling the emissions, lead author Professor John DeCicco and his colleagues analyzed real-world data on crop production, biofuel production, fossil fuel production and vehicle emissions—without presuming that that biofuels are carbon neutral. This is the first study to carefully examine the carbon on farmland when biofuels are grown, instead of just making assumptions about it. When you look at what’s actually happening on the land, you find that not enough carbon is being removed from the atmosphere to balance what's coming out of the tailpipe. When it comes to the emissions that cause global warming, it turns out that biofuels are worse than gasoline. So the underpinnings of policies used to promote biofuels for reasons of climate have now been proven to be scientifically incorrect. Policymakers should reconsider their support for biofuels. This issue has been debated for many years. What’s new here is that hard data, straight from America’s croplands, now confirm the worst fears about the harm that biofuels do to the planet. DeCicco’s co-authors include current and former students at the U-M School of Natural Resources and Environment and the U-M Program in the Environment, as well as a postdoctoral researcher at the Energy Institute. They are Danielle Yuqiao Liu, Joonghyeok Heo, Rashmi Krishnan, Angelika Kurthen and Louise Wang. Some funding for the study was provided by the American Petroleum Institute.
Tesla Motors moved a step closer in its bid to buy SolarCity after federal regulators said the $2.6 billion deal doesn't present antitrust concerns. Tesla announced plans to purchase the solar panel installer earlier this month, and Reuters says the Federal Trade Commission quickly signed off "because the merging companies have few or no overlaps." NPR's Jeff Brady has more on the deal. As we approach November 8, a bill to abolish the appliance efficiency programs at the U.S. Department of Energy illustrates that congressional candidates, including their party leaderships, need close scrutiny during this election season. It’s not just presidents who make energy policy. The bill this year from Congressman Michael Burgess (R-Texas) would eliminate efficiency standards for appliances ranging from refrigerators to light bulbs and goes even further to end similar efforts at the state level. California first adopted efficiency standards in 1974. The early legislative roots of national standards go back to the Energy Policy and Conservation Act of 1975 following the Arab oil embargo. None were actually finalized by the Department of Energy, however, until passage of the National Appliance Conservation Act of 1987 led to rules the following year for dishwashers, clothes washers and clothes driers. Bloomberg: China’s Golden Concord Said to Compete for SunEdison YieldCo Golden Concord Holdings Ltd., the Chinese clean-energy group, is seeking to acquire assets from bankrupt U.S. renewable-energy giant SunEdison Inc., people familiar with the company’s plans said. Golden Concord is planning to bid for SunEdison’s controlling stake in TerraForm Power Inc., which owns operating power plants, according to the people, who asked not to be identified because they’re not authorized to speak publicly. That would pit Golden Concord against a planned joint offer from Canada’s biggest alternative-asset manager, Brookfield Asset Management Inc., and billionaire David Tepper’s Appaloosa Management LP hedge fund. An important study on the impact of benchmarking on big apartment and office buildings in New York City offers proof of something that can benefit energy managers everywhere: Simply providing people with insight into their energy use tends to promote efficiency. The study -- which is posted in its entirety by Crain’s New York Business -- was conducted by New York University’s Center for Urban Science Progress (CUSP) and Urban Green, which is the New York City chapter of the U.S. Green Building Council. It examines the impact of Local Law 84 (LL84), which was promulgated in 2009. The law mandated that buildings of 50,000 square feet or more annually report energy and water consumption. The performance of these buildings then can be compared. Years of number crunching that had seemed to corroborate the climate benefits of American biofuels were starkly challenged in a science journal on Thursday, with a team of scientists using a new approach to conclude that the climate would be better off without them. Based largely on comparisons of tailpipe pollution and crop growth linked to biofuels, University of Michigan Energy Institute scientists estimated that powering an American vehicle with ethanol made from corn would have caused more carbon pollution than using gasoline during the eight years studied. The research was financially supported by the American Petroleum Institute, which represents fossil fuel industry companies and has sued the federal government over its biofuel rules.
News Article | August 17, 2016
The technology that produces hydrogen using renewable electricity has already passed crucial regulatory tests for grid balancing in a commercial environment, despite what I said here a month ago. For over 30 years the prophets of green energy have been promoting the idea that the “hydrogen age” is just around the corner. The gas is abundant in the form of water, molecules of which possess two hydrogen atoms for every oxygen atom. Making it from water using electrolysis releases only oxygen and no pollutants. It can then be burnt in any suitable boiler, cooker or vehicle and used in fuel cells. All we have to do is get it to the right place at the right time at the right price. The problem has always been the right price, which provides the market incentive for investment in the necessary infrastructure. A month ago I wrote a piece on a proposal to convert the UK’s gas grid to hydrogen. The reports I covered judged that the most likely route to creating the hydrogen was through the steam reforming of methane. This is not a climate friendly way of doing it, although it is currently by far the most common. In a low carbon future, producing hydrogen this way in the required quantities would be unlikely without the ability to capture the carbon released by this process and store it underground, a relatively unproven and expensive process dubbed Carbon Capture and Storage. I had compared in my article the cost of steam reforming with CCS with the cost of producing hydrogen by the electrolysis of water using wind or solar power. My source for the latter information was an apparently reliable one: the Energy Institute of University College London, which produced a report in April last year authored by Samuel L Weeks about using hydrogen as a fuel source in internal combustion engines. This states: “Hydrogen produced by electrolysis of water is extremely expensive, around US$1500/kWh [AU$1959/kWh]. The editor of The Ecologist magazine, Oliver Tickell, pulled me up on this, observing that it struck him as being way too expensive. I tried to get Professor Weeks and the UCL Energy Institute to give me the source for the $1500 figure but so far have not had a response. So instead I turned to a company that is already making hydrogen from renewable electricity for grid balancing and fuel cell powered cars: ITM Power. They provided me with another professor, Marcus Newborough, who is their development director. He gave me a much lower figure. He said: “We are currently selling high purity hydrogen at our refuelling stations for fuel cell cars at £10/kg of hydrogen. Each kilogram contains 39.4kWh of energy, so that’s about 25 pence/kWh or $0.33/kWh. The ambition is to decrease the $/kWh value as more stations are manufactured and more FC cars are in circulation. So yes the $1500/kWh number looks absurd to us.” Indeed it does. It is 4545 times larger, if we are comparing like with like. And I apologise for not checking more thoroughly. And I’m still mighty curious as to why UCL Energy Institute got it so wrong. Not only is ITM using the gas for hydrogen car filling stations, a chain of which it is opening in the UK (on a full tank of hydrogen a fuel cell car can drive up to 300 miles), it is also using it to inject into the grid. The process is called power-to-gas (P2G) and it is useful when too much renewable electricity is being produced compared to the demand that exists at that moment. Instead of it going to waste it could be used to produce hydrogen as a form of energy storage and used when required. Professor Newborough said, “The power-to-gas approach is a form of energy storage and (in the UK) there are various assessments and discussions ongoing [through organisations such as BEIS (the new UK government department dealing with energy and industry), OFGEM (the British energy regulator), UK National Grid, DG Energy in Brussels (the European Commission’s department dealing with energy) and The European Association for Storage of Energy] but no conclusive economic framework yet for energy storage to operate within.” He said P2G was particularly advantageous for its following abilities: “P2G is part of this alongside batteries, pumped storage, etcetera,” he said. “Fundamentally the economic benefit is greatest for those technologies that possess the operational advantages of being able to respond very rapidly and/or hold onto the energy for a long period and/or discharge energy at a controllable rate across a very long period. Now power-to-gas is particularly advantageous in each of these respects.” ITM has a pilot P2G system operational in Frankfurt with 12 other companies that together form the Thüga group. At the end of 2013, this plant injected hydrogen for the first time into the Frankfurt gas distribution network. It therefore became the first plant to inject electrolytic generated hydrogen into the German gas distribution network, and possibly anywhere in the world. Final acceptance of the plant was achieved at the end of March 2014. Overall efficiency is said to be over 70 per cent and the plant is now participating in Germany’s secondary control (grid balancing) market. The conditions for being allowed to do this are extremely stringent. Systems have to respond in under one second when they receive a command to increase to maximum power or decrease to zero power to demonstrate that they are suitable for frequency regulation. The energy is discharged as hydrogen and should be available for as long as required. The Frankfurt system has been shown to do this and can react to variable loads in the network. Work is ongoing to see how the plant can be integrated into an increasingly intelligent future energy system. “For the duration of the demonstration, we want to integrate the plant so that it actively contributes to compensating for the differences between renewable energy generation and power consumption,” Thüga chief executive Michael Riechel said. Professor Newborough told me that the payment levels for providing such services have yet to emerge. In the UK, the national grid is introducing an Enhanced Frequency Response service to pay energy storage technology operators to provide sub-second response. “ITM has already pre-qualified to provide such a service,” he said. They are also introducing a Demand Turn Up service, which will pay operators £60/MWh (AU$102/MWh) for operating overnight and on summer afternoons to absorb excess wind and solar power. “Clearly the economics of P2G are a function of such balancing services payments from the grid operator and the electricity tariff,” he said, “but in addition P2G offers a greening agent to the gas grid operator in the form of injecting hydrogen at low concentrations into natural gas. “So the economics are also a function of the value placed on greening up the gas grid. By analogy we have seen in recent years in France, Germany and the UK, feed-in tariffs for injecting bio-methane into the gas grid as a greening agent and these have been up to four times the value of a kWh of natural gas. “The economic case therefore depends on a combination of value propositions and costs – providing services to the electricity grid, the electricity tariff paid, the value of green gas for the gas grid and the capital cost of the plant. In this context it is not possible to state firm figures at this time, but equally it is important to state the underpinning factors as described above.” It was at this point in our conversation that he gave me the price at which the company is currently selling high purity hydrogen at its fuel cell car refuelling stations. A report on energy storage undertaken by McKinsey and Co last year found that using variable renewable electricity this way could use nearly all excess renewable energy in a scenario in the future in which there was a high installed capacity of renewable electricity generation. Reusing this stored energy in the gas grid, for transport or in industry, it said, would provide a valuable contribution to decarbonising these sectors. The European potential, in 2050, of this value would be “in the hundreds of gigawatts”. This future scenario, in which countries are reliant for much of the electricity on renewables, is likely to be common. The Kinsey report contrasts the use of hydrogen with the use of batteries, which it calls power-to-power or P2P because it’s electricity rather than gas that comes out. In this situation hydrogen scores better as a storage medium because batteries can either be emptied (in which case they can’t supply the demand) or full (in which case they can not be charged even if the generator is generating). By contrast, hydrogen can continue to be pumped into the grid or into vehicles and the limiting factor instead is the limit of local demand for the distance to the demand from the generator. This is shown in the following diagram: Nevertheless the Kinsey report warns that current regulations lag behind the potential of these technologies. Reviewing them is the key to unlocking this enormous opportunity. So it now seems that the most likely route to creating the hydrogen that goes into our gas grids could be from electrolysis using renewables after all. Yet, like many cutting-edge low carbon technologies, it’s early days. The Germans are pioneering this method as part of their transition strategy. It’s one part of the picture. With the UK Met office this week saying that we have already reached 1.38°C temperature rise since the beginning of the industrial revolution and the Paris Agreement aspiring to keeping that rise to 1.5°C, the task of mainstreaming these technologies becomes even more urgent. This article is republished from The Fifth Estate. Originally published on 9 August. David Thorpe is the author of:
In most states (including California) power generated by rooftop solar panels earns Renewable Energy Certificates, which quantify how much clean electricity they produce. But if panels are leased or installed under a power purchase agreement, it's the "third-party owner"—not the homeowner—who gets those certificates. Most then turn around and sell the RECs, which magically turns some other brown electrons green. Here's how it works: Joe's Solar puts panels on your roof that produce 7,500 kilowatt-hours a year, and Joe sells you the electricity under a power purchase agreement. Because Joe still owns the panels, he gets credit—in the form of RECs—for that renewable electricity. Meanwhile, Bob's all-fossil utility wants to "green up" so it buys the RECs from Joe. That allows Bob to relabel 7,500 kilowatt-hours of its coal or gas-fired power generation as "renewable energy." It may sound strange, but a market to sell or trade RECs can be extremely useful. California, for instance, has a mandate for its utilities to use 33% renewable power by 2020, but some parts of the state have little sun or wind resources. Still, utilities in the best locations for renewables, can produce more than their requirement and then sell the extra RECs to areas where it would much more costly, or impossible, to hit the target. Thus, the RECs market allows a utility in one area to finance additional green energy production in another area where it is cheaper, supporting more carbon reduction at a lower cost to consumers. That seems sensible enough. But something's wrong if the buying and selling utility companies both claim that green power as their own. That, however, is essentially what's been going on with solar rooftops. Today about 70% of new solar systems are owned by third parties that typically resell the associated RECs to a company with a well-publicized goal of being "carbon neutral" or to a power company that wants to claim it's delivering a high percentage of green energy. (Homeowners are notified of this in the fine print of their contracts, which they probably never read.) One might see this as a creative way to make both the solar homeowner and the REC buyers feel good about saving the planet. But the Federal Trade Commission is a real killjoy when it comes to such double counting of virtue. The FTC recently issued legal guidance that says if a solar company sells certificates, it is deceptive to tell homeowners they are getting "clean," "renewable," or maybe even "solar" electricity with their lease or power purchase agreement. The FTC guidance uses this illustration: A toy manufacturer places solar panels on the roof of its plant to generate power, and advertises that its plant is ''100% solar-powered.'' The manufacturer, however, sells renewable energy certificates based on the renewable attributes of all the power it generates. Even if the manufacturer uses the electricity generated by the solar panels, it has, by selling renewable energy certificates, transferred the right to characterize that electricity as renewable. The manufacturer's claim is therefore deceptive. To be clear, there is nothing necessarily wrong with installing solar panels in one location and letting someone in another location claim credit, as long as everyone understands that is what's happening. But many individuals who signed up for a rooftop solar system might be unhappy to learn that they were enabling some fossil-powered company to claim it has gone green. The lesson here is that if you choose to go solar, find out what will happen to the RECs. If they are sold to someone else, you still get to use the electricity, but you have to give back the halo. More information: Severin Borenstein is the E.T. Grether Professor of Business and Public Policy at U.C. Berkeley's Haas School of Business and a Research Associate of the Energy Institute at Haas.
Using 250 million data points and a data visualization created by Kiln, researchers at the University College London's Energy Institute** have been able to display the movements of merchant ships around the world in 2012. For the big data enthusiast, the detailed nature of the dataset used in the map allows users to sort ship movements into different types of shipping vessels, including: These vessel types can help users to distinguish between the types of goods that are flowing across the world’s oceans. For example, one can see oil tankers coming from the Middle East or coal and ores flowing out of Australia and Latin America. According to the University: “Based only on ship movements and without a background map, the world’s coastlines are clearly defined, with plenty of variation in ship activity: from the buzz of activity in the East China Sea to the relative quiet of Somalia’s piracy afflicted waters to ship movements in areas where one might not expect them, such as the Arctic and Antarctic. The map also clearly shows the most crucial shipping thoroughfares of all: the canals linking different bodies of water, such as the Panama Canal, opened a century ago to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean, and the even older and busier Suez Canal which saw 17,000 transits in 2012 alone.” The map also provides data related to the freight carried and carbon dioxide (CO ) emitted by the ships as they travel around the globe. All told, the data show that estimated CO emissions from international shipping totaled 796 million tonnes. This total emissions level was calculated using ship location and speed data overlaid with vessel characteristics (e.g. engine type and hull size). This information allowed researchers to calculate the carbon emissions produced by these vessels hour-by-hour over 2012. According to the researchers behind the project, this total is more than the whole of the annual emissions from the UK, Canada or Brazil. **The author of this article is currently a PhD student at the University College London Institute for Sustainable Resources and works on projects with members of the UCL Energy Institute.