This ‘Other’ Form Of Solar Energy Can Run At Night, And It Just Got A Big Backer


Fortunately, one country appears to be making a major bet on CSP — China. SolarReserve, the company that built the Crescent Dunes plant (pictured above) recently announced a deal with the Shenhua Group, the world’s largest coal provider, to build 1,000 megawatts of CSP with storage in China. And the country as a whole has plans to build some 10,000 megawatts of CSP in the next five years.

I say “fortunately” because CSP has one huge potential advantage compared to PV. The heat it generates can be stored over 20 times more cheaply than electricity — and with far greater efficiency. So CSP’s “killer app” is that it can provide power long after the sun has set — and it doesn’t disrupt the grid when a cloud passes overhead.

CSP has several possible designs, including a power tower such as the Crescent Dunes plant (top picture), which uses movable mirrors to focus sunlight on a central tower that holds the engine, and the parabolic trough, which uses mirrors to focus sunlight on a long tube filled with a heat-storing fluid.

Because of its built-in cheap, efficient storage, CSP — aka Solar Thermal Electric (STE) — has the ability to directly address the “variability” or “intermittency” problem that PV has when the sun isn’t shining. As a result, the 2014 STE Technology Roadmap from the International Energy Agency (IEA) concludes that while PV could generate 16 percent of the world’s electricity by 2050, as much as 11 percent could be generated by STE at the same time.

In this scenario: “Combined, these solar technologies could prevent the emission of more than 6 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year by 2050 — that is more than all current energy-related CO2 emissions from the United States or almost all of the direct emissions from the transport sector worldwide today.”

But this isn’t a forecast or projection by the IEA, it is a roadmap or scenario of what could happen with the right policies and continued technology improvement. In the past decade, though, solar PV has leap-frogged the competition because of aggressive pro-PV policies by governments around the world, most especially in Germany and China.

Both of those countries embraced massive deployment programs that turned PV from an expensive renewable source with limited deployment into one of the cheapest and most rapidly expanding sources of new power in the world:

One technology’s miracle is, however, another technology’s competitive nightmare. And so the question has been, will any country try to do for CSP which Germany and China (and others) did for PV — make major investments to bring CSP down the learning curve?

Both the IEA and the U.S. National Renewable Energy Lab have said that after solar PV makes a deep penetration into the electricity market, CSP will likely become more valuable. A 2014 NREL study found a CSP project with thermal storage “would add additional value of 5 or 6 cents per kilowatt hour to utility-scale solar energy in California where 33 percent renewables will be mandated in six years.”

Right now, solar PV produces power at the most valuable time — the daytime peak in electricity consumption, especially during the summer, when air conditioning use creates a huge power draw. But once solar PV hits 10 percent to 15 percent of annual electric generation in a region, it can become less valuable. The IEA projects that when that occurs, perhaps around 2030, “Massive-scale STE deployment takes off at this stage thanks to CSP plants’ built-in thermal storage, which allows for generation of electricity when demand peaks in late afternoon and in the evening, thus complementing PV generation.”

But, again, that assumes the world sees continued investments in CSP so that its price and performance steadily improve, and it can scale up quickly to become a large-scale contributor to a zero-carbon power grid.

For a while it seemed as if the United States would be that big driver, but CSP was stalled by the collapsing price of PV. Also, the reputation of CSP as “green” was harmed in this country by a shocking estimate of 28,000 birds burned a year by one CSP facility — an estimate that turned out to be no more than pure speculation. The actual number of birds burned in one year appears to be 700 — and that was before any abatement actions were taken. It turns out that just using standard strategies to ward off birds can cut that number by two thirds. And the Crescent Dunes facility built by SolarReserve (see top picture) was able to virtually eliminate bird burning entirely by changing how the mirrors were operated when in standby mode.

But the public relations damage had already been done to U.S. CSP plants. And so this May, SolarReserve announced a partnership with China’s Shenhua Group, the world’s largest coal provider, to build 1,000 megawatts of CSP with storage. The two companies explain:

The unique power dispatch capabilities of these utility scale projects will facilitate the deployment of additional wind and PV generation, while ensuring the reliability and security of the new ultra-high voltage transmission lines being constructed to bring clean, renewable power from the north and west regions of China to load centers in the east.

This is important because China had been forcing wind plants “to shut down at times to let coal power plants meet their generation quotas,” as the American Wind Energy Association explained last year. As a result, some 17 percent of potential wind generation was lost due to curtailment in 2012. The figure may be even higher today.

China has committed to prioritize the dispatch of renewable power first as part of its overall “war on coal,” as we have reported. A big increase in CSP — together with a big planned increase in pumped storage at hydropower plants — could go a very long way to enabling further reductions in coal use in China.

And, indeed, China aims to build 10,000 megawatts of CSP over the next five years (and they have over a dozen plants planned or under construction right now). If China is able to achieve even half that target, they would likely become the world’s largest deployer of CSP. Here’s a chart of current CSP from the recent “Renewables 2016 Global Status Report” by REN21, the Renewable Energy Policy Network for the 21st Century:

The continued expansion of CSP worldwide is crucial to reducing its costs, just as it was for wind and solar PV. Obviously, CSP has a very long way to go to catch up to PV, which hit 227 gigawatts of capacity in 2015 and continues to rise rapidly.

That said, SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith believes that by around 2020, with the help of its Shenua deal, it can reduced the cost of the electricity it provides up to 40 percent, “well into the single digits per kilowatt-hour.” And that’s pretty good for a carbon-free source of dispatchable power — cheaper than new nuclear.

Lastly, the biggest threat to CSP in a carbon-constrained world probably may turn out to be battery technology. If batteries continue their miraculous price drops, then the need for the kind of low-cost, built in storage that CSP delivers may be reduced, especially if electric vehicles also continue their recent exponential growth leading to widespread vehicle-to-grid systems.

May the best technology win!

Source: Joe Romm, Climate Progress

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Battery and Biofuel Research Energized by New State-of-the Art Facility Down Under

Ongoing research at the AINST, which is headquartered at the new AU $150 million Sydney Nanoscience Hub, could give us energy storage embedded in the walls and roofs of buildings and much more.

Professor Thomas Maschmeyer is the Director of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (AINST) and an experimental chemist. He is working to integrate new battery and solar cell technologies into the walls and roofs of new houses, and to transform the at times somewhat “black art” of catalysis — the process that cracks crude oil into useful fuels, oils and chemicals at every refinery, and that will be central to efficient biofuel production. He has already helped to create over 200 new jobs with four spin-out companies.

“Developing better batteries and catalysts has been challenging,” he said. “We understood the reactions that were taking place. But we couldn’t see exactly where they were happening on the surface of the materials involved. You would develop a new catalyst, use it for an hour, find it was ruined, and have to go back to the drawing board. We were guessing at what was happening to the active surfaces over time.”

“Now we can use a suite of instruments, including various high resolution microscopes and spectroscopic mapping tools to look at dynamic changes on the nanoscale, to see what’s happened (or even what is happening in real time), and then develop more stable chemical structures for batteries and catalysts, which in their design incorporate strategies to deal with and exploit their changing nature.”

He believes that the new AINST facilities at the state-of-the-art Sydney Nanoscience Hub, which opened in April 2016 will double or triple the effectiveness of his team. “We have a fantastic team of researchers who’ve published a truckload of high-impact papers over the years. But how do you harness all that intellect to create real batteries, catalysts and jobs? This is how… this Institute brings together the engineering, science, instrumentation, facilities, people and connections to industry needed to put our researchers ahead of the pack.”

batteryImage: Sydney Nanoscience Hub. Credit: University of Sydney.

Batteries Beyond Lithium

Lithium batteries have transformed power storage — from smartphones to electric cars and submarines. But like every battery their chemical composition changes through every charge cycle. Lithium ions sitting in layers of graphite move between electrodes and change the oxidation state of, e.g. magnesium oxide. The chemical rearrangements cause the graphite and oxide layers to physically expand and contract by up to 15 percent at every cycle, cracking and detaching from the electrodes.

Maschmeyer has eliminated the stack of cards. Instead, his design has a wobbly carbon electrode, with a gel touching it. The design is self-healing.

He has used this idea to create zinc-bromine batteries that transport ions embedded in a gel. These batteries are stable and flexible and use nano-engineered gel structures and surfaces on the electrodes. The gel also acts as fire retardant. His spin-out company Gelion Technologies is currently working with Lend Lease on solutions for how this battery technology could be built into the walls and roofs of new buildings.

“You won’t need a battery in the garage. Instead it will be in the walls and roof — perhaps as roof tiles, or solar shingles, with a solar panel on one side and a battery on the other, and all clipping together. City office buildings will become huge batteries capturing off-peak energy and stabilizing the power grid.”

“Zinc and bromine are abundant and inexpensive commodities. Our battery designs are a platform technology that will enable commercially viable, grid-supporting storage solutions; as well as inexpensive, flexible, fast and safe new batteries, sufficiently compact to be also usable in domestic solar systems and electric vehicles.”

batteryImage: The green roof above the transmission electron microscope (TEM) suite, which is one of the most electromagnetically and mechanically stable environments in the world. Credit: University of Sydney.

Maschmeyer’s Sydney colleagues are also looking at new lithium-based technologies — trying to improve the density and mobility of the lithium ions, which would increase capacity and make charging faster.

Nano-engineered materials are also key to the solar cell side — the Institute is working on solar cells based on perovskite minerals. Although they have reached 20 percent efficiency, the cells are still unstable. Maschmeyer said they can solve that problem.

Not only are nano-engineering concepts changing battery design, they are also transforming industrial catalysts.

Catalysts for Biofuels and Other Unconventional Fuels

Every oil refinery depends on catalysts. Made of materials such as zeolites and platinum they reduce the activation point of reactions, making it easier to turn crude oil into useful fuels, oils, and chemicals.

REW_BatteryAndBiofuel3.pngImage: Professor Thomas Maschmeyer, Director of the Australian Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology (AINST) and experimental chemist. Credit: University of Sydney.

But the development of more efficient catalysts that stay the course of time has been hit or miss because the action is taking place at dynamically changing nano-sized surfaces. The Hub’s electron microscopes can help visualize exactly what is happening and aid Maschmeyer and his colleagues in turning the “black art of catalyst design” into a “predictive art,” based on high level science.

Maschmeyer has the industry contacts to bring his work to life. While at Delft University in Holland he consulted to Shell, DSM and other global businesses. In Australia he has created a group of three companies based on his ideas for catalysts.

Ignite Energy Resources is an Australian company with a patented “catalytic hydrothermal reactor” technology, that uses water at near-supercritical temperatures together with nanostructured catalysts to upgrade lignite into synthetic crude oil and micronized refined carbon (MRC). This technology would reduce CO2 emissions associated with brown coal power by more than 50 percent, making it comparable to natural gas.

Licella using a related but distinctive approach has been set up to upgrade waste biomass (non-edible) into biocrude to produce renewable fuels and chemicals.

A 10,000 ton per year pilot plant for both companies is already in operation in Somersby, NSW and discussions regarding full-scale (200,000 – 350,000 ton per year) systems are well advanced with partners in North America and Scandinavia.

“It’s taken us nine years to develop this system. I believe that with AINST we could have knocked four years off the development time.”

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Do You and Your Energy Storage Investment Have Good Chemistry? Part 3

In this series on energy storage, we have been looking at the important factors that consumers must understand when considering various energy storage technologies and the return on their investment. In Parts I & II, we discussed system safety and multi-service assets. (Read Part I here and Part II here.)

A third critical factor affecting the economic viability of battery storage technologies is the ongoing costs for operations and maintenance (O&M).

Aside from the up-front and “all in” costs for an energy storage system, which includes power electronics, top-level controls and auxiliary systems, ongoing operational and maintenance costs have a significant impact on the economics of an energy storage investment.

Lithium-ion battery technologies require a considerable ongoing O&M investment. The battery cells have at best a lifespan of seven to 10 years while at the same time having revenue-grade degradation performance. Compared to the estimated 20-year stable life of a zinc-iron flow battery, lithium-ion cells require replacement up to two times, adding further maintenance costs to the system when you include the price of modules, labor and the requisite hazardous materials handling. Furthermore, the above estimated life of the battery cells doesn’t calculate additional performance degradation due to improper cycling or extreme ambient temperatures which can dramatically shorten the life of lithium-ion cells.

The costs for lithium-ion typically don’t account for the auxiliary subsystems (HVAC and fire suppression) required for safety and operational requirements. These additional components, which wear out over time, are another factor contributing to system failure and increased downtime outside of maintenance for the battery, itself. Even for short-duration, high power applications for which lithium-ion is typically suitable, downtime due to required maintenance or component failure contributes to lost revenue for the end user on top of regular maintenance costs.

Current vanadium and bromine flow battery technologies incur significant O&M costs over their estimated operating life, too. The electrolyte, itself, has proven to have a relatively short life span compared to zinc-iron and requires regular replacement because of degradation. The acid electrolyte of vanadium, for example, is prone to oxidation under normal use and must be replaced every five to six years in order to maintain the battery’s functionality. The replacement of vanadium electrolyte equates to roughly 30 percent of the total system cost over the life of the battery.

The cell stacks for flow batteries can be a large part of the O&M equation because they last only eight to 10 years as a result of the acid electrolyte degrading the anodes. So, the cell stacks for this kind of system will have to be replaced at least once during the life of the battery — at a significant expense — if the battery is to last the projected 20 plus years of a zinc-iron system. Not only does the electrolyte of vanadium and bromine-based systems degrade the cell stacks, but electrolyte storage tanks, pumps, seals, gaskets and the like are affected by acidic electrolyte, accelerating the degradation of those components as well.

Alkaline zinc-iron electrolyte, which is already less expensive than vanadium, has been tested to last well over 20 years without replacement, greatly reducing O&M costs. Unlike systems using an acidic vanadium or bromine electrolyte, chemical replacement for zinc-iron systems does not require personal protective equipment like a hazmat suit; the maintenance can be done wearing only goggles and gloves.

The chart below provides estimated O&M costs per kWh for lithium-ion batteries and vanadium flow batteries compared to their zinc-iron flow battery counterparts.


The evolution of energy storage technologies is moving at a rapid clip. Utilities and governments have yet to catch up with the speed of the rapidly expanding market, but are working to figure out the safest and most efficient possible application for these assets. Likely, there will emerge a melee of restrictions, regulations and recommendations for the capabilities, siting and deployment of energy storage on the federal, state and local levels.

As these standards develop, customers will need to make adjustments in their usage of energy storage, whether it is behind-the-meter or in front-of-the-meter, to fit the future regulatory environment. The starting point, though, is to invest in an inherently safe system with the minimum level of complexity, the greatest level of flexibility, lowest ongoing costs and the smallest amount of future risk. So when considering an investment in energy storage for your specific application, it is important to ask yourself, “Do you and your energy storage system have good chemistry”?

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Do You and Your Energy Storage Investment Have Good Chemistry?


Do You and Your Energy Storage Investment Have Good Chemistry?

As the energy storage industry gains momentum, it will be increasingly important for consumers to evaluate a number of factors that will impact their returns on investment. It is well known that energy storage systems providing a greater mix of services typically have a more favorable rate of return than those with limited capabilities whether used for applications in front-of-the-meter or behind-the-meter.

There are more income streams for systems that can multi-task. Some of the critical factors affecting the economic viability of battery storage technologies are: safety, performance, multi-service capabilities (stacking applications), and ongoing costs for operations and maintenance (O&M).

Although the debate over energy storage deployment and regulation has yet to fully take shape, there are justifiable concerns about the safety of various battery chemistries being sited in locations adjacent to highly populated areas and critical grid infrastructure where storage is needed most.

Lithium is a highly volatile element, making lithium-ion batteries prone to thermal runaway in the event of overcharge, over-discharge, short circuits, mechanical impacts and even from use in locations with high ambient temperatures. Guarding against these risks adds significant costs to a large-scale lithium-ion system beyond the costs of the cells alone. Fire and material safety concerns are paramount not only for end users, but also for fire departments.

Fire departments typically have a fire plan for every type of facility based on the type of structure and its contents. According to the National Fire Protection Association, the most common course of action for firefighters responding to building fires where large format lithium-ion batteries are contained is to let them “self-extinguish”. Safety concerns about the use of water to extinguish charged or partially-charged electrochemical devices are secondary only to environmental concerns over the runoff water which has been shown to contain high concentrations of toxic materials. This reality casts doubt as to whether lithium-ion is suitable for applications where the energy storage system must be located at a customer site or near critical grid infrastructure.

Other chemical elements widely used in energy storage — specifically flow batteries — are vanadium and bromine. Though present in small amounts in some consumer products, vanadium can be toxic in large quantities like those contained in a flow battery. In fact, any handling of vanadium by maintenance technicians, like that occurring during electrolyte replacement, must be done wearing hazmat suits by professionals trained in the handling and disposal of hazardous materials. Likewise, personnel transporting hazardous materials like vanadium and bromine are required to be certified by the US Department of Transportation to ensure that they adhere to various safety regulations.

Aside from toxicity, the chemical electrolyte of a vanadium flow battery tends to break down at higher state-of-charge (SOC), creating a potentially hazardous outgassing scenario. According to research on vanadium redox flow batteries by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, there is the potential for chlorine gas to form in the system as the SOC approaches 100 percent. Likewise, bromine is hazardous in both gas and liquid form. The two chemicals are also used in electrolyte solutions that are highly acidic and would be harmful to both people and the environment should they ever leak out of the storage tanks. As a result of the caustic and toxic nature of these chemical electrolytes, such technologies may not be suitable for deployment in densely-populated areas regardless of safety precautions.

An alternative flow battery electrolyte composed of zinc and iron may be the answer to circumventing safety issues associated with many battery technologies. The alkaline chemistry of a zinc-iron flow battery contains chemical elements that are food-grade ingredients found in many off-the-shelf products in a local grocery store. Taken as a whole, zinc-iron electrolyte is non-toxic, non-flammable and non-explosive. Since these systems pose no risk to the human population, wildlife or the environment, they have much greater flexibility in where they can be sited and how they can be utilized.

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