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Double the Share of Renewables in the ‘Decade of Action’ to Achieve Energy Transition Objectives

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The share of renewables in global power should more than double by 2030 to advance the global energy transformation, achieve sustainable development goals and a pathway to climate safety, according to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA). Renewable electricity should supply 57 per cent of global power by the end of the decade, up from 26 per cent today.

A new booklet 10 Years: Progress to Action, published for the 10th annual Assembly of IRENA, charts recent global advances and outlines the measures still needed to scale up renewables. The Agency’s data shows that annual renewable energy investment needs to double from around USD 330 billion today, to close to USD 750 billion to deploy renewable energy at the speed required. Much of the needed investment can be met by redirecting planned fossil fuel investment. Close to USD 10 trillion of non-renewables related energy investments are planned to 2030, risking stranded assets and increasing the likelihood of exceeding the world’s 1.5 degree carbon budget this decade.

“We have entered the decade of renewable energy action, a period in which the energy system will transform at unparalleled speed,” said IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera. “To ensure this happens, we must urgently address the need for stronger enabling policies and a significant increase in investment over the next 10 years. Renewables hold the key to sustainable development and should be central to energy and economic planning all over the world.”

“Renewable energy solutions are affordable, readily available and deployable at scale,” continued Mr. La Camera. “To advance a low-carbon future, IRENA will further promote knowledge exchange, strengthen partnerships and work with all stakeholders, from private sector leaders to policy makers, to catalyse action on the ground. We know it is possible,” he concluded, “but we must all move faster.”

Additional investments bring significant external cost savings, including minimising significant losses caused by climate change as a result of inaction. Savings could amount to between USD 1.6 trillion and USD 3.7 trillion annually by 2030, three to seven times higher than investment costs for the energy transformation.

Falling technology costs continue to strengthen the case for renewable energy. IRENA points out that solar PV costs have fallen by almost 90 per cent over the last 10 years and onshore wind turbine prices have fallen by up half in that period. By the end of this decade, solar PV and wind costs may consistently outcompete traditional energy. The two technologies could cover over a third of global power needs. 

Renewables can become a vital tool in closing the energy access gap, a key sustainable development goal. Off-grid renewables have emerged as a key solution to expand energy access and now deliver access to around 150 million people. IRENA data shows that 60 per cent of new electricity access can be met by renewables in the next decade with stand-alone and mini-grid systems providing the means for almost half of new access.

IRENA

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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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Waste not, want watts – turning waste into energy

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by Anthony King

The race is on to reuse waste as energy in the most effective way possible. Combined heat and power is an old idea for saving fuel with a new imperative to slash emissions. Innovative furnaces based on biofuel systems will generate heat and power from waste materials with near-complete efficiency and very low emissions. 

The old mantra of waste not, want not, goes for energy as well as food. The less energy we waste, the lower will be our carbon emissions. 

It may come as a surprise to learn that around half of total energy is wasted in conventional ways of producing heat and electricity from fossil fuels. But there is another way to generate both electric power and heat in what is called “combined heat and power” (CHP), or cogeneration. Quite apart from using fossil fuels, it opens the door to bring more bioenergy from waste material into the energy mix. This kind of material is often overlooked as a resource but it has significant potential.

Biomass movement

‘This is a way to produce heat and power at the same time,’ said Martin Stroleny at Greenovate Europe, a Brussels-based network that supports sustainable technologies and green innovation. ‘It can save up to 40% energy compared to conventional power-only systems.’ He is part of an EU funded project called SmartCHP, which is designing a new engine that can turn biomass into heat and electricity.

The work involves modifying a diesel engine so that it can handle bio-oil, instead of diesel. The project scientists and engineers have been working on the nuts and bolts of the machine for the last two years.

The idea is to first use a machine (a fast-pyrolysis plant) that can turn organic waste such as olive kernels, but also forestry and agricultural leftovers, into a bio-oil. The greenish bio-oil can then be routed down either of two paths. The oil can be fed into a modified diesel engine to generate electricity, or, if heat is required, into a flue gas boiler.

‘We can generate heat and electricity at the same time,’ explained Stroleny, ‘And the system is very dynamic.’ This means the production of heat can be dialled up on a chilly winter day, but then dialled down during warmer summer days. It is also a great solution to balance the energy grid and complement more variable renewable energies such as solar or wind.

The engine that the project is designing will be suitable to provide heat and power to hotels, hospitals, schools and even some industrial buildings. ‘We can help them decrease their energy and heating costs, as well as improve overall energy efficiency and reduce greenhouse gas emissions,’ said Stroleny.

Bio-fuel firsts

In the past few months, the team scored a significant success when it put together its CHP unit in a lab and ran it on bio-oil for 500 hours. ‘This is actually a world’s first,’ said Stroleny. ‘The first time that somebody managed to run a CHP unit on biofuel for such a length of time.’

For now, the various parts of the machine such as the diesel engine, flue gas boiler and smart controller are being developed and tested in a lab. The project is still working on the best way to put them all together and make the CHP unit as efficient as possible. Full-scale testing is likely to occur in 2023.

It will also evaluate different biological feedstocks to go into the machine, such as olive kernels from Greece, miscanthus crop from Croatia or forestry waste from Sweden. SmartCHP is carrying out a market assessment in different countries, to support the commercialisation of these new machines.

CHP generates power and heat at the site of the school or hospital itself. This makes it especially suitable for heating and powering buildings in remote locations or even in places that are not connected to an electricity grid, such as islands.

Blazing ahead

BLAZE is another European project that is plugging away at developing more efficient and flexible technologies for returning leftover biomass as combined heat and power services. Engineers here are developing CHP systems capable of converting industrial, food or timber waste and other biomass into energy.

This process produces a gas for fuel, but this is not combusted in an engine or gas turbine. Instead, the gas is fed into a fuel-cell, a battery-like device that converts chemicals in the gas into electricity and heat. The system then feeds electricity into the electricity grid, to help balance the loads and possibly to make up shortfalls if the inputs from wind or solar power taper off.

‘The challenge is how to convert biomass waste in an efficient way, without emissions, and also at low cost,’ said Professor Enrico Bocci at the University Guglielmo Marconi, who leads the BLAZE project. Later this year, CHP machines will be put through their paces. The hope is for electrical efficiency of close to 50%, and an overall CHP efficiency of 90% – meaning that 50% of the energy available from a fuel gets converted into usable electricity and 40% into heating.

Double efficiency

The system will take in all sorts of wastes, which might generate tar, particles, sulfur and chlorine compounds that could interfere with the unit. To avoid such problems, it will turn waste into gas at around 800°C and treat it, before feeding the gas into the fuel cell, converting fuel plus oxygen into electricity and heat at temperatures of around 700°C, with very low emissions. The gas can also flow into a burner to allow for more heat to be generated.

A pilot power plant will be assembled in Italy towards the end of this year and tested up to May 2023. ‘We will achieve double the electrical efficiency of biomass CHP plants with zero emissions from our pilot programme,’ said Bocci.

‘When the price of energy increases, people and companies will look for alternative solutions to fossil fuels,’ he added. There is also a dire need to reduce reliance on fossil fuels for geopolitical and climate reasons. But it is not possible to replace fossil fuels only with renewable electricity from solar and wind, said Bocci, and as long as there is life there will be biomass.

BLAZE is a first demonstration of this technology that can convert leftover biomass highly efficiently and with low emissions and costs.

We are not there yet, but researchers and engineers in Europe are moving towards the day of optimal combined heat and power. It will provide multiple benefits.

‘There will come a time when you can take your biomass waste and put it in a small, low-cost reactor and generate electricity, heat and chemicals, with no emissions,’ said Bocci.

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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