Renewables and the Future of Oil Companies

by John Brian Shannon.

It may surprise you to know that the world’s oil companies see renewables as an unstoppable force. Some oil companies have issued landmark reports informing us that by 2100 at the latest the world will be getting 90% of its energy from renewable energy, indicating this could happen as early as 2060 under certain geopolitical conditions.

Although oil companies were initially hesitant to embrace renewable energy, in recent years their position has changed somewhat, as the many positive attributes of renewables began to convince senior oil executives that changes were on the horizon and their choice was to either embrace that change or accept an ever-declining energy market share. By their own admission only 10% of late-century energy will be met by petroleum.

In the final analysis, energy is energy after all, and it is the energy business that the oil companies are in.

So, rather than cede energy market share to up-and-coming renewable energy companies, big oil decided to become involved in renewables, first with biofuel, then solar, and later, wind. Some oil companies even purchased solar companies with their already installed and operating solar farms to gain experience in the new frontier.

The Oil Industry: Early Oil

In the early 20th century it was all about the oil, but in the later 20th century it was all about refining it into diverse products and the oil industry then morphed into a much larger entity named the petrochemical industry which created billions of tons of plastics, fertilizers, liquids, products and even medicines every year. The petrochemical sector includes the natural gas segment and thousands of miles of pipelines exist on every continent except Antarctica to move methane from gas wells to processing facilities and then forward it as usable natural gas to the end users.

A much larger industry had sprung up out of the original oil industry, one that was far larger than the one that had merely pulled oil out of the ground and refined it for transportation use.

The High Cost of Oil

Almost all countries heavily subsidize their oil and natural gas industries, and the United States is a great example. Oil companies there get over $4 billion dollars per year (yes, every year) to ensure stable petroleum supplies, compliance with regulations even in difficult drilling locations, and to help levelize gasoline prices across the country.

It is commonly reported that the petroleum industry (worldwide) receives over $500 billion dollars worth of subsidies and tax breaks every year. The worldwide oil and gas subsidy reported by the EIA for 2012 was $550 billion dollars and 2013 will have a similar subsidy figure attached to it.

Besides the massive taxpayer funded subsidy scheme for oil and gas are the externalities associated with the burning of all those long dead and liquefied dinosaurs. For each ton of gasoline burned, 4.5 tons of CO2 are created. If you add up all the billions of tons of gasoline that have been burned since the first Model T Ford rolled off the assembly line on August 12, 1908, it totals an incredible amount of CO2. Not to mention the billions of tons of non-CO2 airborne emissions created by our petroleum burning transportation sector since that date.

All this burning has a significant healthcare cost for nations (look at China, for example) and pollution-related damages will continue to affect the agriculture sector and cause damage (spalling) to concrete structures like buildings, bridges and some roads.

Although an excellent source of energy for motive power with high output per unit, the necessary high subsidies and unfortunate climate-changing externalities have conspired to considerably shorten the age of oil.

Natural Gas, the ‘Bridge Fuel’ to a Renewables Future

The oil companies are ahead of regulators on this one. Knowing that emission regulations were getting stricter every decade, petroleum companies knew that they had to pull a rabbit out of a hat, as gasoline and diesel can burn only so cleanly without prohibitively expensive technology. This is why we hear every day about ‘Natural Gas the Bridge Fuel to the Future’ and how natural gas will revolutionize our power generation segment and transportation sector.

Convincing regulators, utility companies, and automakers to switch to natural gas became the new mantra of oil company executives in order to meet increasingly stringent emission targets in developed and emerging nations.

The ‘Bridge Fuel’ will peak between 2040 and 2045 in most published oil company scenarios and somewhere between 2060 and 2100 natural gas itself will be almost completely replaced by renewables.

Although natural gas is hundreds of times cleaner burning than other fuels, it still emits plenty of CO2, but emits only minute quantities of toxic gases — and, importantly, no airborne soot or particulates.

By mid-century or 2100 at the latest, cleaner burning natural gas will be replaced in order to meet emission targets, and natural gas would lose out to renewable energy anyway — even without emission regulations — for the simple reason that solar and wind have zero fuel cost associated with their operation, while natural gas will always have a fuel cost and a separate delivery cost per gigajoule.

Imagine all of the costs involved in prospecting for and siting natural gas fields, purchasing the land, drilling, installing pipelines, processing methane into natural gas and adding even more pipelines to deliver natural gas to the end user. It all adds up, and even the most efficient gas producers/processors/pipeliners must cover their overhead.

There are no comparable ongoing fuel or distribution overheads with renewable energy.

What will we miss in the Clean Energy Future?

Once a solar or wind power plant hits completion all it needs is for the Sun to rise or the wind to blow. No drilling, no processing, no pipelines, no supertanker spills or pollution, and no CO2 sequestration required. Just plenty of clean renewable energy.

For all the right reasons, renewables are making progress. Economics, human health and our environment are the factors driving this energy change-up.

Let’s hope in our energy future that oil companies and gas companies, simply yet profoundly, morph themselves into energy companies and upon actualizing it, become renewable energy companies in the process.

For further renewable energy reading:

World Cumulative Solar Photovoltaics Installations,  2000-2012
The world installed 31,100 megawatts of solar photovoltaics (PV) in 2012—an all-time annual high that pushed global PV capacity above 100,000 megawatts. There is now enough PV operating to meet the household electricity needs of nearly 70 million people at the European level of consumption. Image courtesy of the Earth Policy Institute
World Cumulative Installed Wind Power Capacity 1980-2012
Even amid policy uncertainty in major wind power markets, wind developers still managed to set a new record for installations in 2012–with 44,000 megawatts of new wind capacity worldwide. With total capacity exceeding 280,000 megawatts, wind farms generate carbon-free electricity in more than 80 countries, 24 of which have at least 1,000 megawatts. At the European level of consumption, the world’s operating wind turbines could satisfy the residential electricity needs of 450 million people. Image courtesy of the Earth Policy Institute.

Home Battery Systems, the Next

by John Brian Shannon.

Originally posted on JBS News

Home Battery systems augment your energy needs

Home Battery systems can collect and store electricity from rooftop solar panels, lower utility bills, and provide electrical power during utility company power outages.

Ever since lower priced solar panels hit the market it has become obvious that home battery systems are the next step for our modern, but still evolving, energy grid.

Installing solar panels on your rooftop has never been easier as panel prices have fallen by 80% over the past two years and installation rebate programs are generous in many jurisdictions. But getting all that free daytime energy from the Sun won’t do you much good unless you can store it for later use.

Having a home battery system allows you to store the energy that your solar panels collect every day.

Solar power can make economic sense in many locations. But solar with a battery system will rock your world! OK, maybe not rock your world, but it makes a lot of sense if such a home energy storage system can be had for a reasonable price.

Home Battery Systems can make sense even without solar panels

Without a home battery, you can still sell your excess solar generated electricity to the grid if your utility has a net-metering programme. But some of your profit is eaten up when you must buy back some of that electricity after the Sun sets, at a higher price. Yes, every day of the year.

For homeowners, having home energy storage means you could save a lot of money over ten or twenty years if the system is cost-effective to begin with — and a battery system is a wonderful thing to have during utility company power outages.

If you live in a jurisdiction where you can buy electricity from your utility company at a very low rate during certain hours and store that energy with your home energy storage system for later use, that can work for you — regardless if you have solar panels or not.

Peak rates can be $0.38 per kWh (or higher), while off-peak rates can be $0.08 per kWh (or lower) making the peak rate about five times more expensive in this example, than the off-peak rate.

Prognosticating ten or twenty years out, who’s to say what electricity rates may be? There always seems to be a reason to hike the rates.

Your home or business can run on the power from your stored electricity during high electricity rate periods, and sometime past midnight, your system can be scheduled to automatically connect to the grid and recharge itself at the lowest possible rate.

Home Battery systems protect you during power outages

Apart from collecting solar energy all day, or saving money due to electricity rate fluctuations, (or both), having a stored energy system can protect you from utility company power interruptions, especially for those in rural areas or other areas where power outages are common.

For homeowners in rural areas and who may be subject to frequent power service interruptions, having battery backup can make sense, particularly during storms, typhoons, or very hot or cold weather.

Of course, the old standby has always been an expensive-to-fuel diesel generator and the noxious fumes that go along with it.

Emergency service providers, schools, and other important government buildings and businesses could also benefit from such in-situ battery systems. We can look at a veterinary clinic or other examples where uninterrupted electrical power is important. With stored energy backup, electrical power is automatically restored within a few seconds and the vet can continue with the days’ operations on her four-footed patients — just that easy!

SolarCity and Tesla combine forces to offer home energy solutions

It is interesting to note that Tesla is working with Solar City to offer home batteries, using their proprietary Electric Vehicle (EV) battery technology. A fascinating development and one that holds game-changing promise.

 

Home Battery System by Tesla.
Home Battery System by Tesla and SolarCity.

Recycled Electric Vehicle batteries still have 70% life

GM wants to use old Chevy Volt batteries and give them a second life as home batteries. GM says that even after ten years of powering your electric vehicle, an EV battery still has at least 70% of the power it had when it was assembled.

In many cases, when an EV battery has reached the end of its life in an automotive application, only 30 percent or less of its life has been used. This leaves a tremendous amount of life that can be applied to other applications like powering a structure before the battery is recycled. — Pablo Valencia, GM senior manager of battery lifecycle management

Innovations like recycled EV batteries will pave the way forward to a viable and affordable distributed energy future and are an efficient second-use of this technology.

EV batteries store a huge amount of power, enough to easily power a home for two or three days in the case of a service interruption — and in the case of storing energy for everyday use during peak rate periods, would be well within their capabilities.

Stay tuned, because this story is just beginning.

See also: Tesla Shifts Gears to Enter Utility Industry

Distributed Energy – The Next Logical Step

by John Brian Shannon

Distributed Energy adds capacity to the electrical grid during the hours that electrical demand is highest, adding to grid stability and lowering costs for consumers

Over the centuries, different kinds of energy and energy delivery systems have been employed by human beings. In the Neolithic Period some 10,000 years ago, our ancestors sat around campfires for the light, warmth and security that a fire can provide. Neolithic people mostly ate their food raw, but are known to have cooked meat and occasionally grains over a fire.

For many centuries that general energy usage pattern continued and the only difference was the kind of fuel (coal later replaced wood and straw) and the size of the fire and the number of people it served.

New ways of using energy

The Industrial Revolution changed all that for people in those suddenly developing nations. New energy technology offered huge economies of scale — whereby the larger the power plant, the more efficiently it could produce affordable power for large numbers of people.

The first electrical grids were then formed to transport electricity from large-scale coal power plants or hydro-electric dams to population centres.

Since then, every decade shows larger and more efficient power plants and ever-larger populations being served by this wonderfully efficient grid system. Huge power plants and sprawling electrical grids delivered electricity to citizens over very long distances and at reasonable rates, while investors, utility companies, and power producers received reasonable rates of return on their investment.

It was (and still is) an excellent model to employ, one which brings electrical current from remote power plants to electricity users at an energy price that works for everyone. Except for the fact that some power plants produce unimaginable amounts of pollution and are necessarily and massively subsidized by taxpayers, this has been a winning energy model for a number of decades. And this very successful and reliable model will continue to provide our electricity for many years to come.

But there are serious drawbacks to grid power

Utility-scale power generation requires huge power plants, each costing tens of billions of dollars in the case of nuclear power plants, billions of dollars each in the case of hydro-electric power plants, and hundreds of millions of dollars in the case of coal power plants.

All coal and nuclear power plants were heavily subsidized by taxpayers, or they couldn’t have been built in the first place

It doesn’t end there, as coal fired power plants use hundreds or even thousands of tons of coal every day of the year at a cost of $50. to $160. per ton, not to mention the huge infrastructure costs required to build the ports and rail lines to transport the coal — paid for by taxpayers. And then add to that, the freight costs paid to the shipping companies and the railway companies to transport that coal to the power generation site. Most of the coal that Asia burns comes from North America and Australia. Even within coal rich North America, thousands of miles of railway tracks were laid down to transport North American coal to North American coal power plants.

Let’s not forget the environmental costs associated with all that toxic smoke either. China and the U.S. each produced 7.2 billion tons of coal fired CO2 in 2010 and that number is rising every year. Not to mention the many toxic oxides of nitrogen and sulfur, along with soot and airborne heavy metals that are produced wherever power plants burn coal.

Nuclear power plants likewise, use expensive to produce nuclear fuel rods or pellets and simply could not survive without massive government subsidies. Then there is the storage problem, as the so-called ‘spent fuel’ is highly radioactive and must be securely stored for up to 20,000 years in temperature-controlled conditions. Again, massive taxpayer funded infrastructure must be provided to store the world’s ever-growing pile of spent fuel.

Other than costing billions of dollars and disrupting river flows and fish habitat, hydro-electric power is a benign and good electrical generation solution. If only there were enough rivers to provide all the electricity that 7.1 billion people require! With almost every possible river already dammed on the planet, hydro-electric power plants provide only 16.2% of the world’s electricity.

An even better energy model has arrived in the form of distributed energy

Simply stated, distributed energy is created when many homes or businesses place solar panels on their rooftops or wind turbines on their properties — and then connect it to the electrical grid. Either solar panels or wind turbines can be used in the distributed energy context.

With progressive policies designed to strengthen and balance existing electricity grids, distributed energy can play a large role in ameliorating our present energy challenges.

Distributed energy is the opposite of utility-scale electrical power generation in three very important ways

  • Distributed energy emits no measurable pollution.
  • Distributed energy assists the grid operator to locate the energy source close to electrical demand centres.
  • Unimaginably large and expensive national utility grids crisscrossing the countryside are not required in the case of distributed energy.

Connecting distributed energy to the grid results in many positives for micro-energy producers, homeowners, businesses, and the grid operator. During the daytime, solar panels may produce more electricity than the homeowner or business can actually use — although during that same time of day, the utility company power plants may be straining to produce all the electricity that the grid demands during those peak hours.

Net-Metering to the Rescue!

Therefore, energy-sharing takes place via the use of a net-metering system allowing the homeowner or business owner to sell their surplus electricity to the utility company. Net-Metering allows homeowners and businesses to sell their excess electricity to the grid at a profit, while retaining all the benefits of grid connection. Installation of a net-meter at each home is the essential part of a distributed energy grid.

New financing options are becoming available to homeowners and businesses to install rooftop arrays — and even renters are able to purchase renewable energy through innovative programmes designed to boost the market share of renewables.

Some auto assembly plants in Germany and in the U.S.A. have installed wind turbines on their properties, or on nearby land purchased specifically for that purpose. Both BMW and Volkswagen are famous for building great cars, and for being distributed wind producers that have installed wind turbines near their factories, to ensure more reliable power and to avoid energy price spikes. Many ‘world citizens’ admire their environmental commitment.

IKEA, WalMart and Walgreens are famous for installing solar power plants on their store rooftops and warehouses, and WalMart, Google and Apple Computer and others, have purchased wind farms in an effort to Go Green and to alleviate the energy price spikes which are so common in the U.S. and Europe. Well done.

Distributed Energy pays off!

In California, homeowners with solar panels on their rooftops are receiving cheques for up to $2000. — or even larger amounts in the case of larger rooftop solar installations — from their utility company every January, to pay for all the surplus electricity they’ve sold to the utility company during the course of the year. California law mandates that distributed energy producers be paid up-to-date by February 1 of each year and other energy policies in the Great Bear state prove their commitment to a

In Australia, many thousands of homes with solar panels on their rooftops have dramatically added to overall grid capacity and stability by curtailing the power outages common there during peak demand hours, and some coal power plants have shut down while other coal plants are now planning for decommissioning.

Understandably so, the heavily subsidized coal and nuclear industries fear the rapidly growing distributed energy model, although coal exports to China from coal giant Australia continue at a frenetic pace.

Turn down the burners — the Sun is up!

Natural gas and hydro-electric power producers cautiously embrace distributed energy as an augmentation of their efforts to provide reliable electricity to the grid — as they can all exist as energy producers at different hours of the 24 hour day — and for very different reasons none of them are able to eclipse the others.

Distributed energy typically produces its power during peak demand hours, and is known for reducing electricity costs across-the-board due to the Merit Order effect, which is a ranking system utility companies use to decide which energy generator to employ (in real-time) throughout the day and night.

In fact, distributed energy is all about adding peak demand power to the grid — resulting in a stronger, more reliable power grid while displacing dirty energy in the process — and monetarily rewarding citizens for their surplus electricity.

WWF report: China can shift to 80% Renewables by 2050

by Guest Contributor: Chris Conner.
Originally published on World Wildlife Fund.

By embracing conservation measures and renewable energy, China can transition to an 80 percent renewable electric power system by 2050 at far less cost than continuing to rely on coal, according to a new report from World Wildlife Fund (WWF).

As a result, China’s carbon emissions from power generation could be 90 percent less than currently projected levels in 2050 without compromising the reliability of the electric grid or slowing economic growth.

Image Credit: China Solar Cells via Wikimedia Commons.

The future of renewable power is solar power in the distributed energy scenario. China Solar Cells Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The China’s Future Generation report was prepared by the Energy Transition Research Institute (Entri) for WWF and uses robust computer modeling to simulate four scenarios based on today’s proven technology: a Baseline, High Efficiency, High Renewables, and Low-Carbon Mix scenario.

To develop its findings, Entri examined China’s electricity supply and demand on an hour-by-hour basis through 2050 using its advanced China Grid Model forecasting system.

“By fully embracing energy conservation, efficiency and renewables, China has the potential to demonstrate to the world that economic growth is possible while sharply reducing the emissions that drive unhealthy air pollution and climate change,” said WWF’s China Climate and Energy Program Director Lunyan Lu.

“This research shows that with strong political will, China can prosper while eliminating coal from its power mix within the next 30 years.”

In addition to ramping up development of renewable power sources, the world’s most populous and energy-hungry nation will need to simultaneously pursue aggressive energy efficiency initiatives to reduce electricity demand.

These efficiencies, including bold standards for appliances and industrial equipment, can reduce annual power consumption in 2050 by almost half, which would set the gold standard for these products globally and make the shift to a renewables-based power system possible.

“This research allows Chinese leaders to put the questions of technical feasibility aside and economic viability aside. Instead, it is time to focus on how to enact the right policies and establish the right institutions to ensure that China’s citizens and economy are receiving clean, renewable electricity,” said Lu. “The report shows that today’s technology can get China within striking distance of WWF’s vision of a future powered solely by renewable energy.”

The analysis also describes recent Chinese regulatory efforts and challenges to increasing the percentage of renewable electricity in the country, while providing a set of targeted recommendations for Chinese leaders and policy makers on energy efficiency, prioritizing low-carbon electricity supply investments, allowing price changes to reflect the true cost of service, and prioritizing collection and analysis of key power usage data.

“Both China and the United States are at a crossroads where leaders need to choose between a future where healthy communities are powered by clean, renewable energy or a future darkened by air pollution and the dangerous effects of climate change.

This year, as all countries develop new national climate targets in advance of talks in Paris, our leaders need to choose that brighter future.

For Chinese leaders the choice is simple. This report shows that renewables are doable. China can meet bold new targets with today’s technologies while cutting energy costs.” — Lou Leonard, WWF’s US vice president for climate change.

Three islands powered by 100% Renewable Energy

by John Brian Shannon.

One of the best ways to measure the successful application of renewable energy are on those islands which are not connected to any other electrical grid.

Getting mainland grid power to islands can be an expensive proposition, making it impossible for many islands to receive electricity from the mainland. In the past, islands survived (or subsisted) on expensive diesel power units and obscene quantities of diesel fuel, in order to provide electricity for island residents. Rarely was any kind of renewable energy employed except for some Pacific islands that burned relatively small quantities of coconut oil or palm oil in their diesel generator.

However, islands now have the choice between clean, renewable electricity generation and diesel generator power. Solar power and wind power are the two main ways to have renewable energy on islands, but biomass and in some places, geothermal can provide residents with reliable electrical power.

Renewable Energy Powers At Least Three Populated Islands

At least three populated islands exist in the world that can legitimately be called ‘100% powered by renewable energy’ and more are soon to follow, as islands can now significantly benefit from renewable energy.

Samsø Island, Denmark. A 100% Wind Powered Island

Samsø Island, Denmark. A 100% Wind Powered Island

Samsø Island, Denmark is a 100% wind-powered island whose 4100 residents receive all of their electricity from 21 wind turbines and are able to sell their considerable surplus electricity to the rest of the country via an undersea cable system.

Note, Samsø does not import electricity from the mainland grid, rather, they export Samsø Island’s renewable energy to the mainland.

In less than ten years, Samsø went from producing 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide per person per year — one of the highest carbon emissions per capita in Europe — to just 4.4 tonnes (the U.S. is at 17.6), and has proven that running on 100 percent renewable electricity is possible.

The island now heats 60 percent of its homes with three district heating plants running on straw, and one which runs on a combination of wood chips and solar panels. People outside of the heating plants’ reach have replaced or supplemented their oil burner with solar panels, ground-source heat pumps, or wood pellet boilers.

Eleven onshore wind turbines provide 11 megawatts of power, enough to power the entire electrical load of the island (29,000 MWh per year). And 10 offshore wind turbines produce 23 megawatts, enough to compensate for the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the island’s transport sector.

This was all accomplished within eight years, two years ahead of schedule. — Rocky Mountain Institute

Tokelau, South Pacific is an island nation made up of three tiny atolls which has been powered by 100% solar power since October 2012.

Previous to that, the Pacific nation was powered by diesel generators which frequently broke down and cost $800,000 per year just for fuel. That is quite a burden for a nation whose population amounts to a grand total of 1500 citizens.

Tokelauans only had electricity 15 to 18 hours per day. They now have three solar photovoltaic systems, one on each atoll. The 4,032 solar panels (with a capacity of around one megawatt), 392 inverters, and 1,344 batteries provide 150 percent of their current electricity demand, allowing the Tokelauans to eventually expand their electricity use.

In overcast weather, the generators run on local coconut oil, providing power while recharging the battery bank. The only fossil fuels used in Tokelau now are for the island nation’s three cars.

New Zealand advanced $7 million to Tokelau to install the PV systems. But with the amount of money saved on fuel imports — the system will pay for itself in a relatively short time period (nine years with simple payback). — CleanTechnica.com

Iceland has produced 100% of its electrical power from renewables since 1980. The country’s hydroelectric dams provide 74 percent of its electricity — geothermal power produces the remaining 26 percent. Some wind turbines are now being installed to meet anticipated future electrical demand.

The aluminum industry was attracted to Iceland to take advantage of the low renewable energy electricity prices on the island nation, which provides an economic boost to Iceland generally, and employment for some Icelanders.

Despite a land area of 100,000 km², only 300,000 people inhabit the island, two-thirds of those in the capital Reykjavik. Yet, Iceland shows what can be done when a nation puts its mind to the task of eliminating fossil fuels.

Until the extensive development of the island’s hydro and geothermal resources, the country was dependent upon coal and oil for providing transportation, fueling its fishing fleet, and heating its homes.

The latter is not something to take lightly in a nation just south of the Arctic Circle. Iceland’s older residents can remember a time when coal smoke, not steam from the island’s famed [volcanic] fumaroles, shrouded the capital.

Iceland is a leader in geothermal development and exports its technical expertise worldwide. The country, along with the Philippines and El Salvador, is among countries with the highest penetration of geothermal energy in electricity generation worldwide.

On a per capita basis, Iceland is an order of magnitude ahead of any other nation in installed geothermal generating capacity. — RenewEconomy.com.au

Perhaps moreso than anywhere else, island residents can reap the benefits of renewable energy. The high cost of shipping fossil fuels to islands, not to mention the high cost of the fossil product itself, can make the transition to renewables an economic and environmental benefit for island residents.

Other 100-percent-renewable-powered islands include Floreana in the Galapagos (population: 100) and El Hierro in the Canary Islands (population: 10,000+).

Islands with 100-percent-renewable-energy goals include: Cape Verde, Tuvalu, Gotland (Sweden), Eigg Island, Scotland, and all 15 of the Cook Islands.

By switching to renewable energy, island nations reduce their reliance on imported fuels, keep money in the local economy, provide their residents with reliable power, and lower their carbon emissions. They can also serve as “test beds” for adoption of new technologies and models of what can happen on a larger scale.

And island nations are helping us learn what needs to be done. —  Laurie Guevara-Stone.