Scientific American: Solar And Wind Power Could Ignite A Hydrogen Energy Comeback

Hydrogen is flowing in pipes under the streets in Cappelle-la-Grande, helping to energize 100 homes in this northern France village. On a short side road adjacent to the town center, a new electrolyzer machine inside a small metal shed zaps water with electricity from wind and solar farms to create “renewable” hydrogen that is fed into the natural gas stream already flowing in the pipes. By displacing some of that fossil fuel, the hydrogen trims carbon emissions from the community’s furnaces, hot-water heaters and stove tops by up to 7 percent.

So begins my February 2020 feature article for Scientific American which explains why hydrogen energy — presumed dead after a round of hype and disillusion two decades ago — is roaring back. Renewable hydrogen is central to the European Commission’s vision for achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, for example, and a growing focus for the continent’s industrial giants. As of next year, all new turbines for power plants made in the European Union are supposed to ship ready to burn a hydrogen–natural gas blend, and the E.U.’s manufacturers claim the turbines will be certified for 100 percent hydrogen by 2030.

This time around it is the push to decarbonize the electric grid and heavy industry—rather than hope for fuel cell vehicles—that is driving interest in hydrogen. “Everyone in the energy-modeling community is thinking very seriously about deep decarbonization,” says Tom Brown, who leads an energy-system modeling group at Germany’s Karlsruhe Institute of Technology. Cities, states and nations are charting paths to reach nearly net-zero carbon emissions by 2050 or sooner, in large part by adopting low-carbon wind and solar electricity. Integrated energy models show that they’ll have a hard time keeping the lights on during periods of low wind and sunlight without hydrogen, and that hydrogen will pay for itself long before it solves that problem.

The Hot Mess of Hawaii’s Renewable Power Push

My first contribution to award-winning Hakai Magazine, which covers coastal science, ecology and communities

Moloka‘i is a bastion of sanity and understatement at the center of the Hawaiian archipelago. Just 40 kilometers of open water away from O‘ahu, the island is a far cry from Honolulu’s hectic tiki bars and tourists, universities, cargo yards, and warships. On Moloka‘i, agriculture and subsistence hunting and fishing still sustain many of the 7,500 or so residents, and visitors are few. Those tourists who do make the hop over rank mailing a coconut home as their top experience.

On the surface, nothing about this bucolic place suggests it as the central hub around which a cleaner, high-tech electrical future might be built. Yet the island could serve as a model for Hawai‘i as the state navigates transitioning its entire power supply to renewable sources.

Honolulu-based Hawaiian Electric, the investor-owned utility that controls Moloka‘i’s grid, must meet a mandate from the state legislature to convert the five island grids it operates to 100 percent renewable energy by 2045. No utility on Earth knows for sure how to accomplish that yet. Pushing Moloka‘i there first and fast, Hawaiian Electric decided, would provide insight and inspiration.

Hawaiian Electric’s idea was to get Moloka’i off diesel generation by 2020. Alas, it is little closer to shutting down the diesels three years later. Can a small Hawaiian island and its utility get along well enough to teach the rest of the world how to get off fossil-fueled electricity?

Read the story or listen to the audio version at HakaiMagazine.com

SPECTRUM: China Stumbles on Path to Solar Thermal Supremacy

In the final days of 2018 a 100-megawatt solar thermal generating station capable of running around-the-clock, 365-days-a-year connected to the Northwest China regional power grid. It was a race against time to commission the plant in temperatures as low as -20 celsius—and one that plant designer and builder Beijing Shouhang Resources Saving Co could not afford to lose.

“We must finish on time. Otherwise we may face a heavy financial problem,” says Chen Han, Shouhang’s director for international markets.

Shouhang was racing to beat the Chinese government’s December 31, 2018 deadline to secure a guaranteed price for the plant’s power. The deadline was part of an aggressive demonstration program launched in September 2016 to slash the cost of solar thermal power and catapult Chinese firms to the head of the global pack—much as China did with solar photovoltaics.

Alas, a little more than two years later, China has stumbled on the path to solar thermal supremacy. While Shouhang’s and two more of the program’s 20 approved projects met the deadline, four others were cancelled last year and the remaining 13 projects are in limbo. Continue reading “SPECTRUM: China Stumbles on Path to Solar Thermal Supremacy”

Scientists Get Political on Climate

It’s moving day at the Legislative Assembly of British Columbia on a sunny summer morning in Victoria, Canada, and climate scientist-turned politician Andrew Weaver is battling to retain an expansive leather sofa for his new basement office. Just a few weeks earlier, in May 2017, thousands of people in and around Victoria cast their votes for the British Columbia Green Party, which Weaver leads, growing the caucus from his one lonely seat to three. The wide sofa, he explains, will be crucial during long nights of debate and voting. “This is the one you can sleep on. And we need that.” Three seats in an 87-seat legislature might sound modest, but it’s enough to make Weaver — a professor at the University of Victoria — into a political kingmaker. The incumbent Liberal Party and the opposition New Democratic Party each garnered fewer than half of the seats, giving Weaver’s Green Party the balance of power. Weaver exercised his new-found influence in the weeks after the election to remove Christy Clark, the Liberal premier of British Columbia, who had championed fossil fuels, and to install a new government under climate-friendly terms. Now US researchers are daring to dream that they too can follow in Weaver’s footsteps, and tilt the political balance. … READ ON AT NATURE.COM

Electrification Finance Is Failing

For all of the excitement about using solar power to bring electricity to the more than 1 billion rural poor worldwide living without it, big picture trends provide a sobering reality check. In spite of innovative off-grid technology and business plans and high profile initiatives aiming to power remote villages in subsaharan Africa, for example, electrification there is still falling behind population growth. In 2009 there were 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa without power, and five years later that figure had risen to 632 million, according to the latest International Energy Agency (IEA) statistics. A deep-dive analysis of capital flows, released today by the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All program, shows that off-grid systems simply are not getting the support they deserve. “This research shows that only 1 percent of financing for electrification is going into this very promising and dynamic energy solution,” says SEforALL CEO Rachel Kyte, who calls the findings “a wake up call” for the international community. Continue reading “Electrification Finance Is Failing”

Palmetto State’s $9-bn Nuclear Boondoggle

“Public trust is at stake here, folks.” That’s how South Carolina’s top power industry regulator described the gravity of local utilities’ decision to walk away from a pair of partially-built nuclear reactors, according to Charleston’s Post and Courier. Public Service Commission chairman Swain Whitfield added that the reactors’ cancellation after $9 billion of investment — more than the state’s annual budget — “is going to shatter lives, hopes and dreams” in South Carolina. South Carolina-based Santee Cooper and SCANA’s abandonment of their pair of new reactors, announced on Monday, also have broader ramifications for the nuclear industry’s self-declared “nuclear renaissance.” The cost overruns and delays afflicting this project and a sister project in Georgia drove the reactor designer and builder Westinghouse Electric Co. into bankruptcy. Cost overruns and political concerns are also squeezing nuclear suppliers from France, South Korea, and Russia. Continue reading “Palmetto State’s $9-bn Nuclear Boondoggle”

Commentary: Photo Ops with Miners No Substitute for Climate Policy

President Donald Trump surrounded himself with coal miners at the EPA yesterday as he signed an executive order calling for a clean sweep of federal policies hindering development of fossil fuel production in the United States. The order instructs EPA to kill Obama’s Clean Power Plan and thus, according to Trump’s rhetoric, revive coal-fired power generation and the miners who fuel it. The electric power sector, however, responded with polite dismissal. What separates President Trump and some of his top officials from power engineers and utilities? The latter operate in a world governed by science and other measurable forces. Unlike President Trump, scientists, engineers, and executives suffer reputational and financial losses when they invent new forms of logic that are unsupported by evidence. And a world of fallacies underlies the President and his administration’s rejection of climate action. Continue reading “Commentary: Photo Ops with Miners No Substitute for Climate Policy”