Category Archives: Alternative Energy

Mini-Green Grids

image from http://www.nigeriaelectricityhub.com/2017/12/11/legal-framework-for-mini-grids-power-generation-and-distribution-in-nigeria/

A forested village in Jharkhand state, eastern India, Narotoli is home mainly to adherents of Sarna, a nature-worshipping tribal religion. In more ways than one, it has long been off-grid… In 2018, it became one of the last in India to benefit from a push by Narendra Modi, the prime minister, to supply electricity to all the country’s villages. But the national power lines are so “reliably unreliable”, says an Indian executive, that they might as well be washing lines.

In 2016, before the national grid arrived, however, Mlinda, a social enterprise, had set up a “mini-grid”, a bank of batteries charged by solar panels and hooked up to homes, to guarantee round-the-clock power independent of the national network.  The power generated by the plant is expensive (though it costs less than villagers often pay for alternatives such as kerosene for lighting and diesel for irrigation pumps). The worry is that demand for electricity may not be enough to justify the installation cost. …But Mlinda and other mini-grid installers see them as more than a way to satisfy existing demand for electricity: they are a way to catalyse development. The installers advise villagers on irrigation, farming and marketing to help them develop businesses that require reliable electricity, which in turn justifies the expense of installation.

Vijay Bhaskar of Mlinda says a big mistake in development has been to assume that, once people are hooked up to electricity, businesses will automatically flourish. People have to be taught how to make the most of power, he says. “Bringing energy is the easy part. The hard part is finding productive ways to make use of it.”  According to one British expert, “mini-grid operators are not sellers of kilowatt-hours; they are stimulators of rural development.” Jaideep Mukherjee, the boss of Smart Power India, an NGO supported by the Rockefeller Foundation, says their job is to “demonstrate the benefits, train and then propagate”.

An independent study for Mlinda found that GDP per person in eight villages with mini-grids rose by 10.6% on average over the first 13 months, compared with 4.6% in a group of similar villages without them.  Mini-grids are being set up at the rate of just 100 or so a year, from Myanmar to Mozambique. But the International Energy Agency (IEA), a forecaster, says hundreds of thousands of them could connect 440m people by 2030, with the right policies and about $300bn of investment.

African countries used to focus almost exclusively on expanding national electricity networks. Now some, including Nigeria and Togo, have started to prioritise mini-grids. ..

Most mini-grids are green, unlike diesel, kerosene and coal- and gas-fired electricity. That is a welcome feature, though not the main aim, since the contribution of places like Narotoli to global warming is minuscule.

Excerpts from Mini-girds and development: Empowering Villages, Economist, July 14, 2018, at 61

Drones for Renewable Energy

BVLOS drone, precision hawk

Utilities in Europe are looking to long-distance drones to scour thousands of miles of grids for damage and leaks in an attempt to avoid network failures that cost them billions of dollars a year. w altitudes over pipelines and power lines….Italy’s Snam, Europe’s biggest gas utility, told Reuters it is trialing one of these machines – known as BVLOS drones (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) because they fly ‘beyond the visual line of sight’ of operators – in the Apennine hills around Genoa. It hopes to have it scouting a 20 km stretch of pipeline soon.

France’s RTE has also tested a long-distance drone, which flew about 50 km inspecting transmission lines and sent back data that allowed technicians to virtually model a section of the grid. The company said it would invest 4.8 million euros ($5.6 million) on drone technology over the next two years.

At present, power companies largely use helicopters equipped with cameras to inspect their networks. They have also recently started occasionally using more basic drones that stay within sight of controllers and have a range of only about 500 meters.  However an industry-wide shift toward renewable energy, and the need to monitor the myriad extra connections needed to link solar and wind parks to grids, is forcing utilities to look at the advanced technology.  “It’s a real game changer,” Michal Mazur, partner at consultancy PwC, said of drones. “They’re 100 times faster than manual measurement, more accurate than helicopters and, with AI devices on board, could soon be able to fix problems.”

In-sight drones cost around 20,000 euros each and BVLOS ones will cost significantly more, according to executives at tech companies that make the machines for utilities, and a fleet of dozens if not hundreds would be needed to monitor a network.

Power grid companies are expected to spend over $13 billion a year on drones and robotics by 2026 globally, from about $2 billion now, according to Navigant Research.  But that is still dwarfed by the amount of money the sector loses every year because of network failures and forced shutdowns – about $170 billion, according to PwC…

BVLOS drone flights are largely prohibited because of safety concerns. However over the past year European watchdogs have for the first time granted special permits to allow utilities – namely RTE and Snam – to test prototypes. it…Xcel Energy (XEL.O) in April  2018 became the first American utility to gain approval for BVLOS flights.

Excerpts from Power to the drones: utilities place bets on robots, Reuters, July 16, 2018

Furthest from their Minds: greenhouse gases in Afirca

When sub-Saharan Africa comes up in discussions of climate change, it is almost invariably in the context of adapting to the consequences, such as worsening droughts. That makes sense. The region is responsible for just 7.1% of the world’s greenhouse-gas emissions, despite being home to 14% of its people. Most African countries do not emit much carbon dioxide. Yet there are some notable exceptions.

Start with coal-rich South Africa, which belches out more carbon dioxide than Britain, despite having 10m fewer people and an economy one-eighth the size. Like nearly all of its power plants, many of its vehicles depend on coal, which is used to make the country’s petrol (a technique that helped the old apartheid regime cope with sanctions). A petrochemical complex in the town of Secunda owned by Sasol, a big energy and chemicals firm, is one of the world’s largest localised sources of greenhouse gases.  Zambia is another exception. It burns so much vegetation that its land-use-related emissions surpass those of Brazil, a notorious—and much larger—deforester.

South Africa and Zambia may be extreme examples, but they are not the region’s only big emitters . Nigerian households and businesses rely on dirty diesel generators for 14GW of power, more than the country’s installed capacity of 10GW. Subsistence farmers from Angola to Kenya use slash-and-burn techniques to fertilise fields with ash and to make charcoal, which nearly 1bn Africans use to cook. This, plus the breakneck growth of extractive industries, explains why African forests are disappearing at a rate of 0.5% a year, faster than in South America. Because trees sequester carbon, cutting them counts as emissions in climate accounting.

Other African countries are following South Africa’s lead and embracing coal…A new coal-fired power plant ….Lamu in Kenya is one of many Chinese-backed coal projects in Africa…Africa’s sunny skies and long, blustery coastlines offer near-limitless solar- and wind-energy potential. But what African economies need now are “spinning reserves”, which can respond quickly to volatile demand, says Josh Agenbroad of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think-tank in Colorado. Fossil fuels deliver this; renewables do not…. Several countries are intrigued by hybrid plants where most electricity is generated by solar panels, but diesel provides the spinning reserves…

Excerpts from  Africa and Climate Change: A Burning Issue, Economist,  Apr. 21, 2018, at 41.

Exploiting Chaos: water management in the Middle East

Ilisu Dam. Image from wikipedia

A water crisis rooted in wasteful irrigation, climate change and dam-building is imperiling [the wetlands of Iraq] again.

A weakened flow into the Tigris and Euphrates rivers means that salt water from the Persian Gulf can now seep upstream into the marshes. This, coupled with farming run-off that has boosted salinity,threatens wetland wildlife, vegetation and the local Marsh Arabs who have depended on them for millennia.  The problem is partly home-made. Iraq’s irrigation methods are often wasteful, and the equipment tends to be rickety. Many farmers rely on thirsty crops such as rice. Politicians have in the past secured extra water for their upstream districts at the marshes’ expense. Reform-minded technocrats are forced to contend with deep-rooted corruption, the distracting and costly fight against the Islamic State (IS) group, and low oil prices, all of which have drained state coffers.

But other problems lie beyond Iraq’s control. For decades dams built in Syria, Turkey and Iran have swallowed up the waters of the Tigris, Euphrates and other rivers feeding the marshes. New dams due to open in Turkey, including the 1,200-megawatt Ilisu Dam, could further restrict the flow of the Tigris.

Talks over these dams have been inconclusive, partly because the Syrian and Iraqi states barely function and partly because IS has controlled swathes of the Euphrates. Turkey may be tempted to exploit its upstream position.

Climate change is taking its toll, too. Last summer temperatures of about 54°C were recorded in southern Iraq, among the hottest ever.

If only Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey would share their waters as amicably as the Danube countries do… Dam levels should be calibrated during wet and dry years to ensure steadier flows. Iraqi officials might also ponder novel solutions, he says, such as renting storage at the Ilisu Dam for use when needed. Yet stronger countries have exploited their advantages rather than seek compromise

Excerpts from Iraq’s Wetlands: Drying Up Again,  Economist,  Sept. 16, 2017

Cut or Pay up: Net Negative Carbon Emissions

Carbon footprint. image from wikipedia

Sweden’s parliament passed a law in June which obliges the country to have “no net emissions” of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere by 2045. The clue is in the wording. This does not mean that three decades from now Swedes must emit no planet-heating substances; even if all their electricity came from renewables and they only drove Teslas, they would presumably still want to fly in aeroplanes, or use cement and fertiliser, the making of which releases plenty of carbon dioxide. Indeed, the law only requires gross emissions to drop by 85% compared with 1990 levels. But it demands that remaining carbon sources are offset with new carbon sinks. In other words greenhouse gases will need to be extracted from the air

[I]f the global temperature is to have a good chance of not rising more than 2ºC above its pre-industrial level, as stipulated in the Paris climate agreement of 2015, worldwide emissions must similarly hit “net zero” no later than 2090. After that, emissions must go “net negative”, with more carbon removed from the stock than is emitted…

To keep the temperature below a certain level means keeping within a certain “carbon budget”—allowing only so much to accumulate, and no more. Once you have spent that budget, you have to balance all new emissions with removals. If you overspend it…you have a brief opportunity to put things right by taking out more than you are putting in…

Climate scientists like Mr Henderson have been discussing negative-emissions technologies (NETs) with economists and policy wonks since the 1990s. [But] NETs were conspicuous by their absence from the agenda of the annual UN climate jamboree which ended in Bonn on November 17th 2017.

 Reforesting logged areas or “afforesting” previously treeless ones presents no great technical challenges. More controversially, they also tend to invoke “bioenergy with carbon capture and storage” (BECCS). In BECCS, power stations fuelled by crops that can be burned to make energy have their carbon-dioxide emissions injected into deep geological strata, rather than released into the atmosphere….

The Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)  technologies that exist today, under development by companies such as Global Thermostat in America, Carbon Engineering in Canada or Climeworks of Switzerland, remain pricey. In 2011 a review by the American Physical Society to which Ms Wilcox contributed put extraction costs above $600 per tonne, compared with an average estimate of $60-250 for BECCS…

Much of the gas captured by Climeworks and other pure NETs firms (as opposed to fossil-fuel CCS) is sold to makers of fizzy drinks or greenhouses to help plants grow. It is hard to imagine that market growing far beyond today’s total of 10m tonnes. And in neither case is the gas stored indefinitely. It is either burped out by consumers of carbonated drinks or otherwise exuded by eaters of greenhouse-grown produce…..

One way to create a market for NETs would be for governments to put a price on carbon. Where they have done so, the technologies have been adopted. Take Norway, which in 1991 told oil firms drilling in the North Sea to capture carbon dioxide from their operations or pay up. This cost is now around $50 per tonne emitted; in one field, called Sleipner, the firms have found ways to pump it back underground for less than that. A broader carbon price—either a tax or tradable emissions permits—would promote negative emissions elsewhere, too…

Another concern is the impact on politicians and the dangers of moral hazard. NETs allow politicians to go easy on emission cuts now in the hope that a quick fix will appear in the future.

Excerpt from Sucking up Carbon, Combating Climate Change, Economist,  Nov. 18, 2017

Unjustifiable Extinctions

Hydrostachys polymorpha. image from http://www.zimbabweflora.co.zw/speciesdata/image-display.php?species_id=124820&image_id=2

The world’s botanic gardens contain at least 30% of all known plant species, including 41% of all those classed as ‘threatened’, according to the most comprehensive analysis to date of diversity in ‘ex situ’ collections: those plants conserved outside natural habitats.

The study, in September 2017 in the journal Nature Plants, found that the global network of botanic gardens conserves living plants representing almost two-thirds of plant genera and over 90% of plant families.  However, researchers from the University of Cambridge discovered a significant imbalance between temperate and tropical regions. The vast majority of all plants species grown ex situ are held in the northern hemisphere. Consequently, some 60% of temperate plant species were represented in botanic gardens but only 25% of tropical species, despite the fact that the majority of plant species are tropical.

For the study, researchers analysed datasets compiled by the Botanic Gardens Conservation International (BGCI)….

“The global network of botanic gardens is our best hope for saving some of the world’s most endangered plants,” said senior author Dr Samuel Brockington, a researcher at Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences as well as a curator at the University’s own Botanic Garden.
“Currently, an estimated one fifth of plant diversity is under threat, yet there is no technical reason why any plant species should become extinct.   “If we do not conserve our plant diversity, humanity will struggle to solve the global challenges of food and fuel security, environmental degradation, and climate change.”

The plants not currently grown in botanic gardens are often more interesting than those that are, say the researchers. Hydrostachys polymorpha, for example, an African aquatic plant that only grows in fast flowing streams and waterfalls, or the tiny parasitic plant Pilostyles thurberi – only a few millimetres long, it lives completely within the stem tissue of desert shrubs.  Species from the most ancient plant lineages, termed ‘non-vascular’ plants, are currently almost undocumented in botanic gardens – with as few as 5% of all species stored in the global network. These include plants such as the liverworts and mosses.

“Non-vascular species are the living representatives of the first plants to colonise the land,” said Brockington. “Within these plants are captured key moments in the early evolutionary history of life on Earth, and they are essential for understanding the evolution of plants”

Excerpts from World’s botanic gardens contain a third of all known plant species, and help protect the most threatened, Press Release of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, Sept. 25, 2016

Longing for Lithium

Salar de Atacama. image from wikipedia

Lithium is a coveted commodity. Lithium-ion batteries store energy that powers mobile phones, electric cars and electricity grids (when attached to wind turbines and photovoltaic cells). Joe Lowry, an expert on the lightest metal, expects demand to nearly triple by 2025. Supply is lagging, which has pushed up the price. Annual contract prices for lithium carbonate and lithium hydroxide doubled in 2017, according to Industrial Minerals, a journal. That is attracting investors to the “lithium triangle” that overlays Argentina, Bolivia and Chile .  The region holds 54% of the world’s “lithium resources”, an initial indication of potential supply before assessing proven reserves.

Chile dominated the world lithium markets for decades. The Atacama salt flat has the largest and highest-quality proven reserves. The desert’s blazing sun, scarce rainfall and mineral-rich brines make Chile’s production costs the world’s lowest. Allied to this is the region’s most benign investment climate. Chile is far ahead in rankings of ease of doing business, levels of corruption, and the quality of its bureaucracy and courts (see charts). Its lithium deposits are close to Antofagasta and other Chilean ports;

But growth has flattened, allowing Australia to threaten Chile’s position as the world’s top producer…Laws enacted in the 1970s and 1980s classify lithium as a “strategic” material on the ground that it can be used in future nuclear-fusion power plants. There is little prospect that Chile will soon build one of these, but controls on lithium production remain as a way of protecting the desert’s fragile ecosystem.

Just two companies, Chile’s SQM and Albemarle of the United States, are allowed to extract brine under leases that were signed in the 1980s. In addition, they are subject to quotas on the lithium they can produce from the brine, which also yields other minerals….Ending the metal’s strategic status and getting rid of quotas would make still more sense. So would improving Chile’s institutions and infrastructure. 

Argentina: Under the constitution, provinces, not the federal government, own the country’s minerals. Mining firms had to find their way through a confusion of provincial rules and regulations. “It was like the Tower of Babel,” says Daniel Meilán, the country’s current mining secretary. I Argentina’s newish president, Mauricio Macri, has tried to unblock investment, including that in lithium….  The federal government is trying to harmonise provincial regulations. It has hammered out agreement on a standard royalty (3% of revenue, plus 1.5% to improve local infrastructure)…

These advances have started to unfreeze investment in lithium. In 2016 the sector attracted $1.5bn; production rose by nearly 60%….

Under the left-wing government led by President Evo Morales since 2006, Bolivia has pulled out of numerous bilateral investment treaties, denying investors access to international arbitration. His government has nationalised parts of the oil and gas industries, along with the biggest telecoms company and most of the electricity sector.  The government keeps an even tighter grip on lithium than it does on gas, its biggest export. YPFB, the state-owned natural-gas company, at least enters into joint ventures with private-sector firms. Since 2010 the right to extract lithium brine has been reserved for the state. Private firms can now do no more than gaze longingly upon the Uyuni salt flat near Potosí, the largest in the world…

Like Chile, Bolivia hopes to form partnerships with private firms to make value-added products, including batteries and electric cars, through a new lithium enterprise, Yacimientos de Litio Bolivianos. But the government’s insistence on keeping a controlling stake is discouraging potential investors. In 2016 Bolivia sold 25 tonnes of lithium carbonate to China, pocketing a princely $208,000.

The white gold rush: The lithium triangle, Economist, June 17, 2017