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Can Africa Afford to ‘Strand’ its Fossil Fuels?

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In recent years, “stranded assets” have attracted a lot of interest, as climate-driven changes to our physical environment amplify the calls for a seamless transition to low-carbon pathways.

More than 185 countries have agreed to leave two-thirds of proven fossil fuels in the ground, in order to meet the Paris Agreement climate target of keeping global warming below 2 degrees Celsius.

“Stranded assets” are natural resources, like minerals, that have suffered from unanticipated or premature write-downs, devaluation or conversion to liabilities even before their exploration, causing potential market failure.

In 2017, the International Energy Agency warned that oil and gas assets worth $1.3 trillion could be left stranded by 2050, if the fossil fuel industry does not adapt to greener climate policies. The risk of stranded assets presents a major policy issue for the African continent due to the dependence on natural resources.

Ninety percent of African countries depend on primary commodities, either for state revenues or exports, and two-thirds are dependent on minerals. The continent needs a long-term strategy on the future of exposed fossil fuels and minerals, yet the discussion has been relatively absent to date.

The risk of stranded assets

Most African countries are still increasing their oil production. New discoveries of oil and gas signal possible fortunes. Earlier this year, French oil firm Total made public its discovery of a large “gas condensate” in South Africa. The gas condensate – effectively a liquid form of natural gas – is a more prized fossil fuel than crude oil. In Kenya, British oil company Tullow Oil projected 2024 as the earliest likely date by which Kenya can expect to start reaping gains from its Turkana oil.

More so, Africa’s grasp on coal is, in part, the result of its acute power shortage. Strong economic growth since 2000 has sparked a notable increase in demand for energy from the private sector to drive the expansion of job-creating industries. For the continent, a latecomer to the fossil fuel boom, arguments for “asset stranding” have the potential to influence development gains and even interrupt economic transition.

There are certain nuances to consider – some assets will be stranded due to changes in markets and investment flows, as global extractive companies and investors adjust their portfolios to meet new, low-carbon regulations. Other extractive assets are at risk due to changing consumer demand, such as the growing use of solar energy and electric vehicles in developed countries.

Climate change is equally affecting Africa’s renewable resources – forests, land, fisheries and water resources – although this deviates from the classic case of asset stranding, which is a potent threat for the non-renewable sector.

The renewable resource sector is witnessing a rapid depletion or degradation of various ecosystems – from land, water, forests, fisheries and oceans – due to the twin pressures of urbanisation and industrialisation, underwritten by high population growth. This presents a dangerous situation.

It is crucial for the African Development Bank to raise awareness of the potential impact of asset stranding for resource-dependent countries, as well as mitigating actions that could create new jobs and resilient economies in the low-carbon transition.

Renewable energy offers opportunity

A renewable energy revolution could unlock Africa’s social and economic development. However, a change in the political economy is needed to move away from the current preoccupation with big power projects, centralised electricity production and a heavy reliance on coal. More attention, for example, can be given to localised and resource-efficient energy options like decentralised, community-owned local solar, wind and biomass projects.

It is on this premise that the African Development Bank’s African Natural Resources Centre (ANRC) developed a flagship project to analyse the risks and opportunities facing the natural resource sector in Africa under various low-carbon development pathways. The centre has conducted studies on low-carbon regulatory options for the petroleum sector in Nigeria, and the mining sector in South Africa. Research shows that mining companies in South Africa are increasingly adopting energy-efficient techniques to reduce their carbon footprint, as part of the country’s national climate strategy. Similarly, Nigeria has also introduced innovative climate-friendly initiatives such as the National Gas Flare Commercialisation Initiative, which aims to capitalise flared gas through a trading scheme, while increasing power generation.

The Bank is also supporting policy reforms to minimise the risks and impact of asset stranding in general, and the low-carbon transition by:

  • Ensuring complementary policies and institutional coordination among African countries in order to meet Paris climate commitments (e.g. by financing the implementation of nationally determined contributions through the Africa NDC Hub), and national extractive sector policy and regulation, as part of a broader green growth strategy.
  • Leveraging existing funding to countries to attract sustainable and green financing opportunities (such as carbon emissions trading and green bonds) for climate adaptation in countries with high carbon risk.
  • Introducing green components into existing Bank funding vehicles (such as natural capital and biodiversity conservation) to reduce the risks and transaction costs of accessing climate financing by regional member countries and private actors in the extractive sector.
  • Climate-screening countries’ extractive sector development strategies to ensure that carbon risks are fully addressed and mitigated, as part of broader technical advisory support provided by the Bank on resilience and green growth.

The bottom line is that there will be winners and losers from asset stranding, according to the nature of the resource (fossil fuels vs “green” minerals), the level of mineral or extractive dependence, and institutional preparedness (markets, policies and skills/labour force). Policy actions by African governments in the next decade will be critical to mitigating this risk. Therefore, there is a need for regional cooperation through existing mechanisms on mineral-based development, trade and economic integration, such as the Africa Mining Vision (AMV) and the African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA).

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Dream of unlimited, clean nuclear fusion energy within reach

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by Gareth Willmer

The old joke is that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away. Yet the dream of abundant clean energy is no laughing matter as we meet an ITER researcher to catch up on progress at the reactor facility.

The Sun has fuelled life on Earth for billions of years, creating light and heat through nuclear fusion. Given that incredible power and longevity, it seems there can hardly be a better way to generate energy than by harnessing the same nuclear processes that occur in our own and other stars.

Nuclear fusion reactors aim to replicate this process by fusing hydrogen atoms to create helium, releasing energy in the form of heat. Sustaining this at scale has the potential to produce a safe, clean, almost inexhaustible power source.

The quest began decades ago, but could a long-running joke that nuclear fusion is always 30 years away soon start to look old?

Some hope so, following a major breakthrough during a nuclear-fusion experiment in late 2021. This came at the Joint European Torus (JET) research facility in Oxfordshire, UK, in a giant, doughnut-shaped machine called a tokamak.

Inside, superheated gases called plasmas are generated in which the fusion reactions take place, containing charged particles that are held in place by powerful magnetic fields. Such plasmas can reach temperatures of 150 million degrees Celsius, an unfathomable 10 times hotter than the Sun’s core. 

In a sustained five-second burst, researchers in the EUROfusion consortium released a record-breaking 59 megajoules (MJ) of fusion energy. This was almost triple the previous 21.7 MJ record set at the same facility in 1997, with the results touted as ‘the clearest demonstration in a quarter of a century of the potential for fusion energy to deliver safe and sustainable low-carbon energy’. Follow the link to learn more about the successful nuclear fusion experiment at JET.

The results provided a major boost ahead of the next phase of nuclear fusion’s development. A larger and more advanced version of JET known as ITER (meaning “The Way” in Latin) is under construction on a 180-hectare site in Saint-Paul-lès-Durance, southern France.

ITER, which is being built as a collaboration between 35 nations, including those in the EU, is aimed at further firming up the concept of fusion. One of the most complicated machines ever to be created, it was scheduled to start generating its first plasma in 2025 before entering into high-power operation around 2035 – although researchers on the project expect some delays because of the pandemic.

Major milestone

The results at JET represent a major landmark, said Professor Tony Donné, programme manager of the EUROfusion project, a major consortium of 4 800 experts, students and facilities across Europe. ‘It’s a huge milestone – the biggest for a long time,’ he said.

‘It’s confirmed all the modelling, so it has really increased confidence that ITER will work and do what it’s meant to do.’ While the energy generated at JET lasted just a few seconds, the aim is to ramp this up to a sustained reaction that produces energy.

The results were the culmination of years of preparation, with Prof Donné explaining that one of the key developments since 1997 involved changing the inner wall of the JET vessel.

Previously, the wall was made of carbon, but this proved too reactive with the fuel mix of deuterium and tritium, two heavier isotopes  – or variants – of hydrogen used in the fusion reaction. This resulted in the formation of hydrocarbons, locking up the tritium fuel in the wall.

In the rebuild, which involved 16 000 components and 4 000 tonnes of metal, the carbon was replaced with beryllium and tungsten to reduce tritium retention. Ultimately, the team was able to cut the amount of trapped fuel by a large multiple, contributing to the success of the recent fusion shot. 

DEMO run

In preparation for the next stage of fusion’s epic journey, upgrades to JET ensured that its configuration aligns with the plans for ITER. Further in the future, the next step beyond ITER will be a demonstration power plant known as DEMO, designed to send electricity into the grid – leading on to fusion plants becoming a commercial and industrial reality.

‘ITER is a device which will create 10 times more fusion energy than the energy used to heat the plasma,’ said Prof Donné. ‘But as it is an experimental facility, it will not deliver electricity to the grid. For that, we need another device, which we call DEMO. This will really bring us to the foundations for the first generation of fusion power plants.’ 

Prof Donné added: ‘JET has shown now that fusion is plausible. ITER has to show that it’s further feasible, and DEMO will need to demonstrate that it really works.’

Planned to provide up to 500 megawatts (MW) to the grid, he thinks it is realistic for DEMO to come into operation around 2050. ‘We hope to build DEMO much faster than we built ITER, making (use of the) lessons learned,’ he said.

Yet there are other key challenges to overcome on the way to getting nuclear fusion up and running. Not least is that while deuterium is abundant in seawater, tritium is extremely scarce and difficult to produce.

The researchers therefore plan to develop a way of generating it inside the tokamak, using a ‘breeding blanket’ containing lithium. The idea is that high-energy neutrons from the fusion reactions will interact with the lithium to create tritium.

Essential energy

Prof Donné said nuclear fusion could prove a pivotal green and sustainable energy source for the future. ‘I would say it’s essential,’ he said. ‘I’m not convinced that by 2050 we can make the carbon dioxide transition with only renewables, and we need other things.’

And although he says the current method of creating nuclear energy through fission is becoming safer and safer, fusion has key advantages. Proponents for ITER talk of benefits such as an absence of meltdown risk, adding that nuclear fusion does not produce long-lived radioactive waste and that reactor materials can be recycled or reused within 100 to 300 years.

‘It’s definitely much safer,’ said Prof Donné. Referencing the stigma carried by nuclear energy, he said, ‘What we see when we interact with the public is that people very often haven’t heard about nuclear fusion. But when we explain the pros and cons, then I think people get positive.’

Referring to Lev Artsimovich, dubbed the “father of the tokamak”, he said, ‘Artsimovich always said fusion will be there when society really needs it. If we get fusion up and running, then really we have a very safe and clean energy source which can give us energy for thousands of years.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Salt and a battery – smashing the limits of power storage

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by Caleb Davies

Thanks to the renewables’ boom, the limiting factor of the energy revolution is not power supply as much as power storage these days. Cleaner, greener batteries are needed to charge our cars, ebikes and devices for longer.

We have all been there. The rectangular icon in the top right-hand corner of the screen turns red and flashes to indicate you’re almost out of battery. But the problems with batteries go far beyond this kind of minor inconvenience. Batteries are a crucial part of our green energy future but also an imperfect one.

In future, a large portion of our energy will come from renewable sources such as solar and wind. But there are times when the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine. To even out supply, we need to store the surplus electricity generated by renewables, until we are ready to consume it. One important means of doing so is with better batteries. We also need huge numbers of batteries if we are to power the envisioned fleets of electric cars and mobility devices.

The trouble is, even the best batteries have problems. One big sticking point is that lithium-ion cells use lithium as a key component. This is mined as salt. Europe does not presently have any large reserves, so relies on imports from only a small number of places, such as Australia and Chile. Lithium batteries are also expensive, have a limited storage capacity, and lose performance after repeated charging.

If we are to make them better, first we need to understand how they work. Traditional lithium-ion batteries have three key components. There are two solid components called electrodes – the anode and the cathode – and a liquid called the electrolyte. When the battery discharges, electrons stream out of the anode to the cathode to power whatever device it’s connected to. Positive lithium ions diffuse through the electrolyte, attracted to the negative charge of the cathode. When the battery is being charged up, this goes in reverse.

Energy density

The whole process is a reversible electrochemical reaction. There are many flavours of this basic process with different kinds of chemicals and ions involved. A particular option being explored by the ASTRABAT project is to do away with the liquid electrolyte and make it a solid or gel instead. In theory, these solid-state batteries have a higher energy density, meaning they can power devices for longer. They should also be safer and quicker to manufacture, since, unlike typical lithium-ion batteries, they don’t use a flammable liquid electrolyte.

We need to continue to invest in research to validate the next generation of batteries.

Dr Sophie Mailley, ASTRABAT

Electrochemist Dr Sophie Mailley at the Atomic Energy and Alternative Energies Commission (CEA) in Grenoble, France, is the ASTRABAT project coordinator. She explains that lithium-based solid-state batteries do already exist. But such batteries use a gel as the electrolyte and only work well at temperatures of about 60 C, meaning they are unsuitable for many applications. ‘It’s clear that we need to innovate in this area to be able to face the problems of climate change,’ said Dr Mailley.

She and her team of partners have been working on perfecting a recipe for a better solid-state lithium battery. The job involves looking at all sorts of candidate components for the battery and working out which ones work best together. Dr Mailley says they have now identified suitable components and are working out ways to scale up manufacturing of the batteries. 

One question she and her team plan to investigate next is, whether it will be easier to recycle lithium and other elements from solid-state batteries compared to typical lithium-ion batteries. If it is, that could increase the recycling of lithium and to reduce dependence on imports.

Dr Mailley estimates that if the research goes well, solid-state lithium batteries like the one ASTRABAT is working on could be entering commercial use in electric cars by about 2030. ‘I don’t know if it is these solid-state batteries that will be the next important battery innovation,’ said Dr Mailley. ‘There are a lot of other possible solutions, like using manganese or sodium (instead of lithium). Those might work out. But we need to continue to invest in research to validate the next generation of batteries,’ she said.

Positively charged

When it comes to storing energy for the purposes of smoothing out supply to electricity grids, batteries need be reliable and high capacity, which means expensive. Scarce lithium isn’t the best choice. Instead, the HIGREEW project is investigating another different kind of battery, known as a redox flow cell.

The main components of redox flow batteries are two liquids, one positively charged, one negatively charged. When the battery is in use, these are pumped into a chamber known as a cell stack, where they are separated by a permeable membrane and exchange electrons – creating a current.

The project’s co-ordinator is chemist Dr Eduardo Sanchez at CIC energiGUNE, a research centre near Bilbao in Spain. He explains that plenty of large-scale redox flow batteries are already in operation around the world and they are designed to be stable, lasting about 20 years. But these existing batteries use vanadium dissolved in sulfuric acid, which is a toxic and corrosive process. Safety requirements mean these batteries must be manufactured at great expense.

I would say we have a bloom here in Europe, with a lot of companies working on flow batteries.

Dr Eduardo Sanchez, HIGREEW

‘Vanadium has lots of strengths – it’s cheap and stable,’ said Dr Sanchez. ‘But if you have a leak from one of these batteries, that’s not nice. You must design the tanks to be extremely durable.’

Less toxic

The HIGREEW project is planning to create a redox flow battery that uses far less toxic materials such as salt solutions in water which stores carbon-based ions.  Sanchez and his team of colleagues have been working on developing the best recipe for this battery, screening many different combinations of salts and chemical solutions. They have now come up with a shortlist of a few prototypes that perform well and are working on scaling these up.

Work on one huge prototype battery is ongoing at the CIC energiGUNE centre. ‘We have to ensure that they maintain their good performance at scale,’ said Dr Sanchez.

His team have also been investigating a method of dipping commercially available battery membrane materials so as to chemically alter them, making them last longer.

Dr Sanchez sees a bright future for redox flow batteries. ‘I would say we have a bloom here in Europe, with a lot of companies working on flow batteries.’ He predicts that manufacturing redox flow batteries could bring abundant employment opportunities to Europe in the coming years.

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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Hydrogen heads home to challenge oil and gas as local energy supply

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by Tom Cassauwers

Hydrogen is carving out its place in the world of renewable energy. Regional developments like hydrogen valleys and hydrogen islands are serving as blueprints for larger ecosystems to produce and consume this versatile fuel locally.

The Northern Netherlands region used to be prime gas country. One of the largest gas fields in the world was found underfoot in Groningen province. Gas extraction from the territory helped bankroll the Netherlands for decades. But times are changing. 

‘Gas production is winding down,’ said Jochem Durenkamp, hydrogen project manager at New Energy Coalition. ‘Which would mean the north would lose many jobs. Hydrogen turned out to be a perfect replacement.’

With gas extraction and related jobs coming to an end, these northern regions are seeking alternatives. Furthermore, shifts in the soil from drilling for gas are causing minor earthquakes, with 72 registered in 2021 alone. This has significant economic repercussions, particularly when it damages houses in the area. As much as €1.2 billion has been paid out in compensation for earthquake damage since 1991.

The Northern Netherlands region is setting out to become a so-called “Hydrogen Valley”. The HEAVENN project, coordinated by the New Energy Coalition, is at the helm. The region is tapping European support to develop the infrastructure necessary to adopt green hydrogen as a locally produced energy supply.  

The European Union has an eventual target of 100 of these hydrogen valleys. Currently there are 23 in Europe at various stages of development, with the ambition to double this total by 2025. Dozens of projects have commenced all over Europe and in 20 countries worldwide, in a rapidly evolving clean energy investment trend worth billions. Follow the link for a map of hydrogen valleys.

The strategy is to provide a regional economic impetus while also fighting the main driver of climate change, the burning of fossil fuels. Eventually, when enough regions emerge, they will join up to create a wide-scale hydrogen-based economy founded on a clean, secure energy supply.

Green hydrogen

The Northern Netherlands is in an ideal position to take advantage of the hydrogen opportunity. Located close to the rapidly expanding offshore wind farms of the North Sea, it has a direct line of renewable energy to manufacture green hydrogen. On top of that, the previous gas exploitation in the region has created a body of knowledge and skills that easily transfers to the production, distribution, storage and consumption of hydrogen in the local economy.

The idea behind hydrogen valleys is to create a self-sufficient hydrogen ecosystem from start to finish. In the case of HEAVENN, that begins by identifying sites where the electrolysis process can be used to separate water into hydrogen and oxygen by use of electricity.

A Hydrogen Valley is a medium-sized area where clean hydrogen is produced locally and consumed by homes, vehicles and industry. The goal is to initiate a hydrogen economy at the community level. Eventually the regional hydrogen valleys will join up to create wider economic zones powered by hydrogen.

When this electricity is derived from renewable sources, like offshore wind in the case of HEAVENN, the hydrogen is considered to be a green energy source. Most usually stored as a gas, this zero-emission energy carrier is used to fuel everyday applications such as in transport, heating and industry.

HEAVENN, for example, invests in projects for hydrogen-based mobility with a number of hydrogen filling points for every kind of hydrogen powered vehicle – from cars to trucks and buses. Hydrogen will also be used to power a datacentre and to heat residential neighbourhoods.

Building energy ecosystems is not easy. ‘The project includes thirty partners,’ said Durenkamp. ‘It’s a big challenge to coordinate what they do, but building this ecosystem is key for hydrogen.’

Beyond the partners, the local community is also an important player. ‘It’s very important that inhabitants are consulted,’ said Durenkamp. ‘Where before, energy was extracted from underground, it’s now very visible in the landscape with wind turbines, solar panels and large electrolysis facilities. Whenever something is done in the project, it’s done together with the local inhabitants.’

Clean energy islands

Another region unlocking hydrogen’s potential is the Spanish island of Mallorca, which styles itself as a “Hydrogen Island”.

‘The idea of the project came when CEMEX, a cement manufacturer, announced it would close its plant on Mallorca,’ said María Jaén Caparrós. She acts as coordinator of hydrogen innovation at Enagás, the Transmission System Operator of the national gas grid in Spain. ‘With hydrogen, we want to re-industrialise the island and decarbonise the Balearic region.’

Known as GREEN HYSLAND, the project will create an ecosystem of hydrogen producers and users across the Mediterranean island. Achieving this will cut down on expensive energy imports and eliminate harmful emissions.

Central to this is an electrolysis plant that produces hydrogen from energy supplied by two newly built solar-power plants. This hydrogen is then used in a range of different applications in the locality. For example, the public transport company of the city of Palma de Mallorca is rolling out hydrogen-powered buses. Another use-case is to power the island’s vital ferry port and even to provide energy for a hotel. But community energy needs community support.

Renewable diversification

‘It’s key to have the support of society,’ said Jaén Caparrós. ‘Hydrogen is something new for the Balearic Islands. This project will not only promote reindustrialisation based on renewables, but will also provide knowledge, research and innovation. It is a milestone that the Balearic Islands must take advantage of, in order to promote the diversification of the production model with new, stable and quality jobs.’

The second related objective of GREEN HYSLAND is to reduce the emissions from the use of natural gas. They will inject part of the hydrogen into the gas grid, according to Jaén Caparrós. They are compatible sources of energy. ‘We will build a hydrogen pipeline to transport it to the injection point,’ he said, ‘Which we will use to partly decarbonise the natural gas grid.’ They plan to commence this phase by the end of 2022.

In this way, hydrogen can be mixed into the existing gas infrastructure used to heat homes, hotels and industry or generate electricity. The resulting blend of gas and green hydrogen has a lower emissions footprint than just using gas by itself, a step toward complete decarbonisation.

Hydrogen blueprints

GREEN HYSLAND even joined up with parties from outside of Europe. ‘We are 30 partners from 11 countries including Morocco and Chile,’ said Jaén Caparrós. ‘They also want to develop green hydrogen ecosystems, and hydrogen valleys have an added value if we can connect with regions inside and outside of Europe,’ she said.

‘Hydrogen valleys create new jobs, re-industrialise and create new economic activities,’ said Jaén Caparrós. ‘And on top of that they decarbonise. It serves the entire society.’

Once this infrastructure-building and experimentation phase is complete, the lessons learned will also need to scale up. Both HEAVENN and GREEN HYSLAND want to share what they learn. ‘We want to be a blueprint for other regions across the world,’ concluded Durenkamp. ‘If this project is a success, we want to share it.’

The research in this article was funded by the EU. This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine.  

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