Warning: this blog article is rather more strident than most.
The energy transition isn’t carefully thought through – it’s driven by fads, the current ones being batteries, distributed, virtual and demand-side. They all fall down on a number of factors, including:
- All are small-scale and rely on the grid for back-up: what’s on the grid providing that back-up? (Us…)
- All are DC connected and therefore have no inertia, real reactive power/load, grid-forming capability (unless expensively fitted out), voltage/frequency regulation etc.: what provides those naturally? (Us…)
- All are small scale: how do they expect to solve GW scale problems with kW or MW scale solutions? (We’re at the right scale…)
- What happens after sunset on a windless winter evening, when batteries and DSR are exhausted by 6pm and there’s no real power for virtual solutions to optimise? (Us…)
When confronted with those, they all fall back on fad no. 5, interconnectors, saying that if renewables aren’t generating somewhere, they are generating somewhere else:
- Sunset on a windless winter evening happens across Europe simultaneously. Weather patterns extend this to up to a fortnight (the kalte Dunkelflaute, cold dark doldrums). What then? (Us…)
- For generation from one corner of Europe to be balancing lack of generation in another would require 2,000-mile transmission lines of at least 500GW going along all points and half-points of the compass: prohibitively expensive, and environmentally unacceptable…
- …and it would require enormous over-capacity of generation in every single corner of Europe to make up for lack of generation elsewhere – which is also prohibitively expensive, and environmentally unacceptable.
- And the interconnectors are DC systems, so carry no real inertia or real reactive power/load etc.
At this point they jump on fad no. 6, hydrogen. However:
- If electrolysis absorbs the intermittency of generation, it needs 3-8 times as many expensive (both capex and opex) electrolysers…
- … and doesn’t solve the problem of variability of demand, unless you burn hydrogen in turbines which has a theoretical maximum efficiency of barely over 40% for the electricity-to-electricity cycle, compared with our 70% with much cheaper kit.
- Hydrogen is great for feeding into industrial-chemical processes (e.g. steel making), the gas grid and use cases where the output is not electricity (e.g. fuel cell vehicles where the output is portability and motive power), but not where the output is grid-based electricity.
The final fall-back, fad no. 7, is CCS (carbon capture and storage) generation. This is advocated by the hydrocarbon industry desperate to get governments to invest billions and adopt burdensome legislation, all to give them a future. But they usually fail to consider a number of points, including:
- CCS equipment imposes a 20-30% inefficiency on any power station to which it’s fitted, while increasing capital costs greatly.
- Carbon capture effectiveness (i.e. capture %) isn’t perfect (~85-90% in systems that are put forward as being potentially affordable within a decade or two), and its cost and inefficiency penalty increase exponentially with capture effectiveness.
- Any leak in the capture equipment, pipeline or storage location would cause an asphyxiating cloud of CO2 that would drift over population centres like a WW1 chlorine gas cloud, only it can’t be seen or smelt, or fought by simple means (chlorine is resisted by breathing through a wet rag), and is 50% heavier and therefore much slower/harder to disperse.
- Most carbon usage (the U in CCUS) is merely delaying the emissions, not preventing them.
Which all begs the question: why are policy makers and regulators so determined to ignore large-scale long-duration storage, which can resolve every one of these issues? It has frequently been described as the missing link or Holy Grail of the energy transition, yet policymakers are determined not to support it with financing first-of-a-kind commercial-scale plants, and regulators are determined to undermine it by mis-defining storage as a type of generation, by eliminating contracts of durations that encourage investment, by salami-slicing contracts which split up services that such storage cannot deliver separately, and by wasting billions in supporting technologies that, frankly, can’t do the job. That is not to say that those technologies are wrong: they have their place. But people seek magic bullets, one-size-fits-all solutions. They don’t exist. But they do give them hundreds of excuses for not considering the issues in the round. Or, more bluntly, for giving as little thought to the challenges as they think that they can get away with.
Instead, a cost-effective energy transition requires an entire ecosystem not just of zero-carbon generation but also of supporting technologies, as described in a previous blog article. And it needs to be regulated sensibly, as outlined here. Storelectric has published many supporting articles on its website, such as on:
- Black start
- Interconnectors and imports, and other grid costs
- Inertia and grid stability
- Synergies with renewables and interconnectors
- Other regulatory issues
- The scale of the need for storage