Day 4

Day 2 started with a presentation from the UK cohort on the UK energy system. Rachel kicked things off with a description of the electricity policies since the 1990s. One of the worrying things highlighted by her presentation is the lack of new policy (to replace the ending of the capacity market and feed in tariffs). When you consider Theresa May’s recent announcement of decarbonisation by 2050, the new government has to act fast to ensure renewables continue to grow. She then gave an overview of the complex nature of the electricity market, this may be especially relevant considering the South African president Ramaphosa’s recent announcement to start splitting up Eskom and the continuing privatisation. Sam then took over and talked about the development of the UK’s energy mix, and the importance of grid stability. This is especially relevant considering our CDTs focus on energy storage.

Ewan highlighted one of the more unique challenges faced by the UK by looking at our heating system. Heating takes up a large proportion of our energy demand and is currently mostly provided by residential boilers running off natural gas. When you consider the large infrastructure cost associated with the UK’s gas network it quickly becomes apparent how hard decarbonisation of this sector will be. One of the solutions presented was the H21 project. This is a pilot scheme currently being run in Leeds, aiming to convert the natural gas used by residential properties to 100% hydrogen. This requires the use of polyethylene gas pipes to prevent hydrogen embrittlement of steel, and also requires new boilers to be used.

TRANSPORT! Did you know 23% of our transport emissions comes from domestic flights? I didn’t, until Andreas told me. That's actually a very scary figure because that total doesnt include any international flights. We’re meant to be at zero carbon by 2050 and aviation remains a serious problem. Electric vehicles look a bit more promising though, the government’s subsidy has been reduced but the market share is steadily increasing. Bloomberg think by 2040 a third of all vehicles on the road will be electric. That’s not really enough if we want to completely decarbonise transport though. Especially when you consider what they can do for the grid. Vehicle to grid (V2G) has been talked about for years but when you consider the potential energy storage resource, its easy to see why. Rachel calculated that a fully electric UK vehicle fleet would provide 19 hours of the whole UK electricity demand! That’s a serious amount of storage, the question then becomes what policy would we implement to tap into that. Finally Julia and Tom finished off by talking about the different types of storage currently on the grid. We’ve currently got about 3.3 GW on the system, mostly pumped hydro but a decent amount of li-ion battery storage is now online.

Next up we split into 3 groups, the idea was to look at the SA energy system and see if any suggestions could be made. We decided on three topics: resources, storage and electric vehicles. SA has both huge renewable potential and a large availability of natural resources from its mines, we wanted to explore how those could lead to a future energy system. Eskom has had some well documented problems with load shedding in SA, additionally blackouts appear to be more common here so storage could provide a real solution to some of their problems. Finally there are only 800 electric vehicles in the whole of South Africa! We wanted to understand why there’s such little public appetite for them.

From my perspective the group work was really cool. Its hard not to feel inspired when you are surrounded by such bright minds who really understand the field. It was especially cool to get to work with academics from SA, I ended up learning a lot from the whole experience. You’ll hear about the results of all our work on Friday’s blog!

At lunchtime we all went to go to a talk from Christopher Hebling. Christopher is one of the directors at the Fraunhofer institute, a very large research institution based in Germany; he’d recently been made a visiting professor of University of Cape Town so was giving a talk. He gave a really nice overview of his vision of the future hydrogen economy. Now I know we’ve all heard hydrogen hailed as the saviour of the future and its never seemed to materialise, but I’ll explain why its time might finally be coming.

He summarised it down into three steps:

1. Bring the cost of renewable energy down

2. Stabilise the electricity grid

3. Use the excess energy to produce hydrogen and synthetic fuels

Now step 1 is already happening. We’ve seen the strike price of onshore wind and PV dramatically drop in the last 10 years, and all signs point to that continuing. This is going to (in my opinion) shift the makeup of the electricity market. Generation of electricity is going to be very very cheap. The cost is going to come from stabilising the frequency. Inertia, frequency regulation, peak shifting. All of these are going to play increasingly more important roles in the future (step 2). (I may be slightly biased though as I do study energy storage). However lets imagine this situation does come true. Electricity prices have dropped and there’s a real demand for ways to stabilise the grid. Electrolysers can be run at a wide range of operating powers, meaning they can respond to changes in production and demand of the grid. A whole grid system of electrolysers could be distributed across the network balancing the frequency, and producing hydrogen as a byproduct. This abundance of hydrogen then opens up some really, really cool opportunities. We could use it to heat our homes (see H21 above), power our vehicles (through fuel cells) or even as a chemical feedstock. Synthetic fuels start to become very attractive when you consider the challenges facing industries such as aviation. If you can produce bio-kerosene through renewable means, then you could de-carbonise that industry. You get your hydrogen from electrolysers, and your carbon dioxide from carbon capture on your biomass plants.

I know this sounds like science fiction but when you start to look at the economics, this is probably whats going to happen. In fact green chemicals are already close to cost parity. Solar resource is abundant in Australia so its the perfect site for a pilot plant and an ammonia production plant. They estimate costs of 450 $/ton for green ammonia compared to the current market price of 350 -400 $/ton. But for an investor this makes sense, your production is now decoupled from volatile petroleum prices, so much less uncertainty. And when you consider that the cost of renewables is continuing to fall, this will likely become reality in a number of places.

In the evening we had a really nice braai (bbq!) up by the tennis courts looking over the whole of cape town. Nice way to chill out after a day of serious thinking!