How will the super-duper Tesla battery work? And more on the price of electricity

(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published July 19 2017)

Image: Thermo Fisher Scientific Inc.

I received an email the other day from the Australia Insitute. I don’t know how that happened, I’ve never heard of the organisation. Apparently it’s Australia’s most influential progressive think-tank (self-described) and apparently I subscribed to it recently while in a barely conscious state. All good.

Anyway the topic was timely: ‘Rising Energy Bills: Blame Gas’.

In a very recent post I quoted from a few apparently reliable sources on the reason for South Australia’s very high electricity prices. Unfortunately there wasn’t too much agreement among them, though at least none of them blamed renewable energy. But neither did any of them blame gas, though one did point a finger at wholesale pricing. The Australia Institute’s email put it thus:

Yesterday, we released the latest Electricity Update of the National Energy Emissions Audit for July 2017. The report revealed a stunning correlation between domestic electricity prices and gas prices — particularly in South Australia — despite gas making up only 10 percent of electricity generation.

So this is a subject I need to return to – in my next post. This post will focus on batteries and storage.

Neoen, a French renewable energy company, is building a 315MW, 99 turbine wind farm near Jamestown in South Australia. Connected to this project will be an array of Tesla’s lithium ion Powerpack batteries. According to this ABC News article:

The array will be capable of an output of 100 megawatts (MW) of power at a time and the huge battery will be able to store 129 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy so, if used at full capacity, it would be able to provide its maximum output for more than an hour.

It will be a modular network, with each Powerpack about the size of a large fridge at 2.1 metres tall, 1.3m long and 0.8m wide. They weigh in at 1,200 kilograms each.

It will have just slightly more storage than the next biggest lithium battery, built by AES this year in southern California.

But Tesla’s 100 MW output would be more than three times larger than the AES battery and five times larger than anything Tesla has built previously.

I’m no electrochemist, but a nice scrutiny of these sentences identifies a clear distinction between output and storage. And the output of this planned battery is the pioneering aspect.

So here’s a very basic summary of how a rechargeable lithium ion battery works. Each battery (and they vary hugely in size) is made up of a number of cells, each a battery in itself. On opposite sides of the cell are conductive surfaces, aka current collectors, one of aluminium and the other of copper. Inside and joined to these surfaces are electrodes, the positive cathode and the negative anode. The cathode is made from a lithium metal oxide such as lithium cobalt oxide or lithium iron phosphate, which needs to have the purest, most uniform composition for maximum performance and longevity. The negative anode is made from graphite, a layered form of carbon. The layered structure allows the lithium ions (Li+) created by the current to be easily stored at and removed from the carbon surface. Between these electrodes, filling the cell, is an electrolyte fluid through which lithium ions flow from one electrode to the other, which charges and discharges the cell. Again the purity of this fluid is a vital factor (research is being done to come up with a form of solid electrolyte). Between the two electrodes is an insulating plastic separator, essential to keep the electrodes separate and prevent short-circuiting. This plastic membrane allows the lithium ions to pass through it. The battery is charged when the lithium ions have passed through the separator and become attached to and stored in the layered graphite of the anode. The battery is discharged by reversing the flow.

Lithium ion batteries are found not only in Tesla Powerpacks but generally in electric car batteries and many other devices such as my own iPhone and iPad. They’re lighter and have much less energy density than lead-acid batteries. The technology of lithium ion batteries is described in a number of useful online videos, of which the most comprehensive, I think, is a webinar from the American Chemistry Society (ACS), essentially an interview with Dee Strand, a lithium ion battery specialist and expert. Her talk also provides interesting ideas on how these types of batteries can be improved.

So a fully-charged cell has stored energy, and a discharging cell is producing output. There are variations in lithium ion battery technology, for example variations in the electrode materials, the electrolyte composition and the like, so we don’t know precisely what Tesla will be using for the South Australian battery system, but we have a fair idea.

In any case, there seems no obvious reason why this proven technology can’t be scaled up to meet the sort of need that was identified after last September’s state blackout. Now we just have to wait and see whether Musk will lose his bet regarding completion time come December.

Refs and info

http://www.tai.org.au/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-07/what-is-tesla-big-sa-battery-and-how-will-it-work/8688992

https://www.thermofisher.com/content/dam/tfs/ATG/CMD/cmd-documents/sci-res/pub/comm/env/AR-Lithium-Ion-Battery-Degradation-RandD-Mag-042214.pdf

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-07-07/sa-to-get-worlds-biggest-lithium-ion-battery/8687268

Just type in ‘lithium ion battery’ in youtube

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the SA government’s six-point plan for energy security, in the face of a carping Federal government

(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published July 16 2017)

South Australian Premier Jay Weatherill, right, with SA Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis

The South Australian government has a plan for energy, which you can take a look at here. And if you’re too lazy to click through, I’ll summarise:

  1. Battery storage and renewable technology fund: Now touted as the world’s largest battery, this will be a storage facility for wind and solar energy, and if it works, it will surely be a major breakthrough, global in its implications. The financing of the battery (if we have to pay for it!) will come from a new renewable energy fund.
  2. New state-owned gas power plant: This will be a 250 MW capacity gas powered facility designed initially for emergency use, and treated as a future strategic asset when (and if) greater energy stability is achieved at the national level. In the interim the state government will (try to?) work with transmission and distribution companies to provide 200 MW of extra generation in times of peak demand.
  3. Local powers over the national market: The government will legislate for strong new state powers for its Energy Minister as a last-resort measure to enable action in South Australia’s best interests when in conflict with the national market. In addition, all new electricity-generation projects above 5 MW will be assessed as to their input into the state electricity system and its security.
  4. New generation for more competition: The SA Government will use its own electricity contract (for powering schools, hospitals and government services) to tender for more new power generators, increasing competition in the market and putting downward pressure on prices.
  5. South Australian gas incentives: Government incentives will be given for locally-sourced gas development (we have vast untapped resources in the Cooper Basin apparently) so that we can replace all that dirty brown coal from Victoria.
  6. Energy Security Target: This new target, modelled by Frontier Economics, will be designed to encourage new investments in cleaner energy, to increase competition and put downward pressure on prices. The SA government will continue to advocate for an Emissions Intensity Scheme (EIS), contra the Federal government. It’s expected that the Energy Security Target will morph into an EIS over time – depending largely on supportive national policy. Such a scheme is widely supported by industry and climate science.

It’s an ambitious plan perhaps but it’s definitely a plan, and definitely actionable. The battery storage part is of course generating a lot of energy already, both positive and negative, as pioneering projects tend to do. I’m very much looking forward to December’s unveiling. Interestingly, in this article from April this year, SA Premier Jay Weatherill claimed 90 expressions of interest had been received for building the battery. Looks like they never stood a chance against the mighty Musk. In the same article, Weatherill announced that the expression of interest process had closed for the building of SA’s gas power plant, point two of the six-point plan. Thirty-one companies from around the world have vied for the project, apparently. And as to point three, the new powers legislation was expected to pass through parliament on April 26. Weatherill issued a press release on the legislation in late March. Thanks to parliamentary tracking, I’ve found that the bill – called the Bill to Amend the Emergency Management (Electricity Supply Emergencies) Act – was passed into law by the SA Governor on May 9.

Meanwhile, two regional projects, one in the Riverland and another in the north of SA, are well underway. A private company called Lyon Group is building a $1 billion battery and solar farm at Morgan, and another smaller facility, named Kingfisher, in the north. In this March 30 article by Chris Harmsen, a spokesperson for Lyon Group said the Riverland project, Australia’s largest solar farm, was 100% equity financed (I don’t know what that means – I’ll read this later) and would be under construction within months. It will provide 300MW of storage capacity. The 120 MW Kingfisher project will begin construction in September next year. Then there’s AGL’s 210MW gas-fired power station on Torrens Island, mentioned previously. It’s worth noting that AGL’s Managing Director Andy Vesey spoke of the positive investment climate created by the SA government’s energy plans.

So I think it’s fair to say that in SA we’re putting a lot of energy into energy. Meanwhile, the Federal Energy minister, Josh Frydenberg, never speaks positively about SA’s plans. Presumably this is because SA’s government is on the other side of the political divide. You can’t say anything positive about your political enemies because they might stop being your enemies, and then what would you do? The identity crisis would be intolerable.

I’ve written about macho adversarial systems in politics, law and industrial relations before. Frydenberg, as the Federal Minister, must be well aware of SA’s six-point plan (found with a couple of mouse-clicks), and of the plans and schemes of all the other state governments, otherwise he’d be massively derelict in his duty. Yet he’s pretty well entirely dismissive of the Tesla-Neoen deal, and describes the other SA initiatives, pathetically, as ‘an admission of failure’. It seems almost a rule with the current Feds that you don’t mention renewable, clean energy positively and you don’t mention the SA government’s initiatives in the energy field except negatively. Take for example Frydenberg’s reaction to recent news that the Feds are consulting with the car industry on reducing fuel emissions. He brought up the ‘carbon tax’ debacle (a reference to the former Gillard government’s 2012 carbon pricing scheme, repealed by the Abbott government in 2014), declaring that there would never be another one, as if the attempt to reduce vehicle emissions – carbon emissions – had nothing to do with carbon and its reduction, which was what the carbon pricing scheme was all about. This is the artificiality of adversarial systems – where two parties pretend to be further apart than they really are, so that they can engage in the apparently congenial activity of trading insults and holier-than-thou tirades. It’s so depressing. Frydenberg was at pains to point out that the government’s interest in reducing fuel emissions was purely to benefit family economies. It would’ve taken nothing but a bit of honesty and integrity to also say that reduced emissions would be environmentally beneficial. But this apparently would be a step too far.

In my next post I hope to get my head around battery storage technology, and lithium-ion batteries.

References/links

https://ussromantics.com/2017/07/14/whats-weatherills-plan-for-south-australia-and-why-do-we-have-the-highest-power-prices-in-the-world-oh-and-i-should-mention-elon-musk-here-might-get-me-more-hits/

https://ussromantics.com/2011/06/25/adversarial-approaches-do-we-need-them-or-do-we-need-to-get-over-them/

http://ourenergyplan.sa.gov.au/

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-13/sa-gas-fire-power-station-gains-international-interest/8442578

https://www.premier.sa.gov.au/index.php/jay-weatherill-news-releases/7263-new-legislation-puts-power-back-in-south-australians-hands

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-04-13/sa-gas-fire-power-station-gains-international-interest/8442578

https://www.parliament.sa.gov.au/Legislation/BillsMotions/SALT/Pages/default.aspx?SaltPageTypeId=2&SaltRecordTypeId=0&SaltRecordId=4096&SaltBillSection=0

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-30/new-solar-project-announced-for-sa-riverland/8400952

http://www.investopedia.com/terms/e/equityfinancing.asp

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carbon_pricing_in_Australia

 

What’s Weatherill’s plan for South Australia, and why do we have the highest power prices in the world? Oh, and I should mention Elon Musk here – might get me more hits

(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published July 14 2017)

just a superhero pic to rope people in

I’ve written a few pieces on our electricity system here in SA, but I don’t really feel any wiser about it. Still, I’ll keep having a go.

We’ve become briefly famous because billionaire geek hero Elon Musk has promised to build a ginormous battery here. After we had our major blackout last September (for which we were again briefly famous), Musk tweeted or otherwise communicated that his Tesla company might be able to solve SA’s power problems. This brought on a few local geek-gasms, but we quickly forgot (or I did), not realising that our good government was working quietly behind the scenes to get Musk to commit to something real. In March this year, Musk was asked to submit a tender for the 100MW capacity battery, which is expected to be operational by the summer. He has recently won the tender, and has committed to constructing the battery in 100 days, at a cost of $50 million. If he’s unsuccessful within the time limit, we’ll get it for free.

There are many many South Australians who are very skeptical of this project, and the federal government is saying that the comparatively small capacity of the battery system will have minimal impact on the state’s ‘self-imposed’ problems. And yet – I’d be the first to say that I’m quite illiterate about this stuff, but if SA Premier Jay Weatherill’s claim is true that ‘battery storage is the future of our national energy market’, and if Musk’s company can build this facility quickly, then it’s surely possible that many batteries could be built like the one envisaged by Musk, each one bigger and cheaper than the last. Or have I just entered cloud cuckoo land? Isn’t that how technology tends to work?

In any case, the battery storage facility is designed to bring greater stability to the state’s power network, not to replace the system, so the comparisons made by Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg are misleading, probably deliberately so. Frydenberg well knows, for example, that SA’s government has been working on other solutions too, effectively seeking to becoming independent of the eastern states in respect of its power system. In March, at the same time as he presented plans for Australia’s largest battery, Weatherill announced that a taxpayer-funded 250MW gas-fired power plant would be built. More recently, AGL, the State’s largest power producer and retailer, has announced  plans to build a 210MW gas-fired generator on Torrens Island, upgrading its already-existing system. AGL’s plan is to use reciprocating engines, which executive general manager Doug Jackson has identified as best suited to the SA market because of their ‘flexible efficient and cost-effective synchronous generation capability’. I heartily agree. It’s noteworthy that the AGL plan was co-presented by its managing director Andy Vesey and the SA Premier. They were at pains to point out that the government plans and the AGL plan were not in competition. So it does seem that the state government has made significant strides in ensuring our energy security, in spite of much carping from the Feds as well as local critics – check out some of the very nasty naysaying in the comments section of local journalist Nick Harmsen’s articles on the subject (much of it about the use of lithium ion batteries, which I might blog about later).

It’s also interesting that Harmsen himself, in an article written four months ago, cast serious doubt on the Tesla project going ahead, because, as far as he knew, tenders were already closed on the battery storage or ‘dispatchable renewables’ plan, and there were already a number of viable options on the table. So either the Tesla offer, when it came (and maybe it got in under the deadline unbeknown to Harmsen), was way more impressive than others, or the Tesla-Musk brand has bedazzled Weatherill and his cronies. It’s probably a combo of the two. Whatever, this news is something of a blow to local rivals. What is fascinating, though is how much energetic rivalry, or competition, there actually is in the storage and dispatchables field, in spite of the general negativity of the Federal government. It seems our centrist PM Malcolm Turnbull is at odds with his own government about this.

So enough about the Tesla-Neoen deal, and associated issues, which are mounting too fast for me to keep up with right now. I want to focus on pricing for the rest of this piece, because I have no understanding of why SA is now paying the world’s highest domestic electricity prices, as the media keeps telling us.

According to this Sydney Morning Herald article from nearly two years ago, which of course I can’t vouch for, Australia’s electricity bills are made up of three components: wholesale and retail prices, based on supply and demand (39% of cost); the cost of poles and wires (53%); and the cost of environmental policies (8%). The trio can be simplified as market, network and environmental costs. Market and network costs vary from state to state. The biggest cost, the poles and wires, is borne by all Australian consumers (at least all on the grid), as a result of a massive $45 billion upgrade between 2009 and 2014, due to expectations of a continuing rise in demand. Instead there’s been a fall, partly due to domestic solar but in large measure because of much tighter and more environmental building standards nationwide as part of the building boom. The SMH article concludes, a little unexpectedly, that the continuing rise in prices can only be due to retail price hikes, at least in the eastern states, because supply is steady and network costs, though high, are also steady.

A more recent article (December 2016) argues that a rising wholesale price, due to the closure of coal-fired power stations in SA and Victoria and higher gas prices, is largely responsible. Retail prices are higher now than when the carbon tax was in place in 2013.

This even recenter article from late March announces an inquiry by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) into retail pricing of electricity, which unfortunately won’t be completed till June 30 2018, given its comprehensive nature. It also contains this telling titbit:

A report from the Grattan Institute released earlier in March found a decade of competition in the market had failed to deliver better deals for customers, with profit margins on electricity bills much higher than for many other industries.

However, another article published in March, and focusing on SA’s power prices in particular (it’s written by former SA essential services commissioner Richard Blandy), takes an opposing view:

Retailing costs are unlikely to be a source of rapidly rising electricity prices because they represent a small proportion of final prices to consumers and there is a high level of competition in this part of the electricity supply chain. Energy Watch shows that there are seven electricity retailers selling electricity to small businesses, and 12 electricity retailers selling electricity to households. Therefore, price rises at the retail level are likely to be cost-based.

Blandy’s article, which looks at transmission and distribution pricing, load shedding and the very complex issue of wholesale pricing and the National Energy Market (NEM), needs at least another blog post to do justice to. I’m thinking that I’ll have to read and write a lot more to make sense of it all.

Finally, the most recentest article of only a couple of weeks ago quotes Bruce Mountain, director of Carbon and Energy Markets, as saying that it’s not about renewables (SA isn’t much above the other states re pricing), it’s about weak government control over retailers (could there be collusion?). Meanwhile, politicians obfuscate, argue and try to score points about a costly energy system that’s failing Australian consumers.

I’ll be concentrating a lot on this multifaceted topic – energy sources, storage, batteries, pricing, markets, investment and the like, in the near future. It exercises me and I want to educate myself further about it. Next, I’ll make an effort to find out more about, and analyse, the South Australian government’s six-point plan for our energy future.

References and more reading for masochists

http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-03-10/tesla-boss-elon-musk-pledges-to-fix-sas-electricity-woes/8344084

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/business/sa-government-announces-who-will-build-100mw-giant-battery-as-part-of-its-energy-security-plan/news-story/9f83072547f41f4f5556477942168dd9

http://www.smh.com.au/business/sunday-explainer-why-is-electricity-so-expensive-20150925-gjvdrj.html

http://www.skynews.com.au/business/business/market/2017/03/27/accc-to-find-out-why-power-prices-are-so-high.html

http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/news/south-australia/south-australia-will-have-highest-power-prices-in-the-world-after-july-1-increases/news-story/876f9f6cefce23c62395085c6fe0fd9f

http://indaily.com.au/news/business/analysis/2017/03/07/why-sas-power-prices-are-so-high-and-the-huge-risks-of-potential-fixes/

http://www.theaustralian.com.au/opinion/columnists/graham-richardson/jay-weatherill-must-come-clean-on-elon-musks-battery-deal/news-story/f471b33ebdf140a71b41e0b0bea7894f

http://www.news.com.au/technology/environment/climate-change/why-higher-electricity-prices-are-inevitable/news-story/042712e35c08bf798ed993d13ee573ea

is wind power prohibitively expensive? apparently not

(this is reblogged from the new ussr illustrated, first published July 3 2017)

that’s a bloody big blade

Recently I heard retiring WA liberal senator Chris Back being interviewed, mainly on funding for Catholic schools, on ABC’s breakfast program. He was threatening to cross the floor on the Gonski package, but while he was at it he took a swipe at wind power, claiming it was heavily subsidised and not cost effective. Unfortunately I’ve not been able to find the whole interview online, to get his exact words, but as someone interested in renewables, and living in a state where wind power is prominent, I want to look more carefully at this issue.

On googling the question I’ve immediately been hit by link after link arguing that wind power is just too expensive. Is this a right-wing conspiracy? What are the facts? As I went deeper into the links – the second and third pages – I did become suspicious, as attacks on wind power spread to solar power and renewable energy in general. It seems there’s either a genuine backlash or there’s some manipulating going on. In any case it seems very difficult to get reliable, unbiased data one way or another on the cost-effectiveness of this energy source.

Of course, as with solar, I’m always hearing that wind power is getting cheaper. Thoughts off the top of my head: a standard wind farm of I don’t know how many units would be up-front quite expensive, though standardised, ready-tested designs will have brought per unit price down over the years. Maintenance costs, though, would be relatively cheap. And maybe with improved future design they could generate power at higher wind speeds than they do now. They seem to be good for servicing small towns and country regions. How they work with electricity grids is largely a mystery to me. There’s a problem with connecting them to other energy sources, and they’re not reliable enough (because the wind’s not reliable enough) to provide base-load power. I don’t know if there’s any chance of somehow storing excess energy generated. All of these issues would affect cost.

I also wonder, considering all the naysayers, why hard-headed governments, such as the Chinese, are so committed to this form of energy. Also, why has the government of Denmark, a pioneering nation in wind power, backed away from this resource recently, or has it? It’s so hard to find reliable sources on the true economics of wind power. Clearly, subsidies muddy the water, but this is true for all energy sources. It’s probably quixotic to talk about the ‘real cost’ of any of them.

Whatever the cost, businesses around the world are investing big-time in wind and other forms of renewable energy. In the US, after the bumbling boy-king’s highly telegraphed withdrawal from the Paris agreement, some 900 businesses and investors, including many of the country’s largest firms, signed a pledge to the UN that there were still ‘in’. The biggest multinational companies are not only jumping on the bandwagon, they’re fighting to drive it, creating in the process an unstoppable global renewable energy network.

The Economist, an American mag, had this to say in an article only recently:

In America the cost of procuring wind energy directly is almost as cheap as contracting to build a combined-cycle gas power plant, especially when subsidies are included…. In developing countries, such as India and parts of Latin America and the Middle East, unsubsidised prices at solar and wind auctions have fallen to record lows.

Australia’s current government, virtually under siege from its conservative faction, is having a hard time coming to terms with these developments, as Chris Back’s dismissive comments reveal, but the direction in which things are going vis-à-vis energy supply is clear enough. Now it’s very much a matter of gearing our electricity market to face these changes, as soon as possible. Without government support this is unlikely to happen, but our current government is more weakened by factionalism than ever.

Australia is 17th in the world for wind power, with a number of new wind farms becoming operational in the last year or so. South Australia’s push towards wind power in regional areas is well known, and the ACT is also developing wind power in its push towards 100% renewable energy by 2020. Australia’s Clean Energy Councilprovides this gloss on the wind energy sector which I hope is true:

Technological advances in the sector mean that wind turbines are now larger, more efficient and make use of intelligent technology. Rotor diameters and hub heights have increased to capture more energy per turbine. The maturing technology means that fewer turbines will be needed to produce the same energy, and wind farms will have increasingly sophisticated adaptive capability.

The US Department of Energy website has a factsheet – ‘top 10 things you didn’t know about wind power’, and its second fact is bluntly stated:

2. Wind energy is affordable. Wind prices for power contracts signed in 2015 and levelized wind prices (the price the utility pays to buy power from a wind farm) are as low as 2 cents per kilowatt-hour in some areas of the country. These rock-bottom prices are recorded by the Energy Department’s annual Wind Technologies Market Report.

As The Economist points out, in the article linked to above, Trump’s ignorant attitude to renewables and climate science will barely affect the US business world’s embrace of clean energy technology. I’m not sure how it works, but it seems that the US electricity system is less centralised than ours, so its states are less hampered by the dumbfuckery of its national leaders. If only….

Animal-friendly meat

some uncooked ‘Impossible’ patties, from plant-based ingredients, with various side dishes. Photographed by Maggie Curson Jurow

I’m not a vegetarian, and my feelings on the issue of meat-eating range from extreme guilt to resentment to irritation, but perhaps my views are of little account:

Some 41% of all arable land…. is used to grow grain for livestock, while one-third of our fresh water consumption goes to meat production. Add in the use of chemicals and fuel, and the meat we consume represents one of the largest contributors to carbon, pesticides and pollutants on the planet.

So writes ethical philosopher Laurie Zoloth in the most recent issue of Cosmos. And of course we must add to that the massive issue of animal exploitation and suffering. But happily, Zoloth’s article is all about promoting a possible solution, which isn’t about convincing 98% of the world’s population, the meat-eaters, to change their ways.

Synthetic meat. It’s been talked about, and produced in small quantities, for a few years now, and I’ve been highly skeptical from the get-go, especially as the first samples were phenomenally expensive and disappointing taste-wise, according to pundits. But Zoloth has introduced to me a new hero in the field, the high-flying biochemist and activist Pat Brown, formerly of Stanford University. Brown is well aware that there are, unfortunately, too many people like me who just can’t wean themselves from meat in spite of the disastrous (but still psychologically remote) consequences of our behaviour. So he and a team of some 80 scientists are committing themselves to creating  palatable meat from entirely plant-based sources, thus transforming our agricultural world.

Food is, of course, chemistry and nothing but. Top-class chefs may disagree, but really they, like expert cocktail mixers, are just top-class chemical manipulators. Even so, most producers of synthetic meat (aka cultured meat, clean meat, in vitro meat) have started with cells from the animals whose meat they’re trying to synthesise. A company called Memphis Meats has already produced clean chicken and duck  from cultured cells of these birds, which have apparently passed taste tests. However, Pat Brown’s new company, Impossible Foods, is going further with a plant-based burger based essentially on the not-so-secret molecular ingredient, haem. Haem is a molecule found in blood, a constituent of the protein haemoglobin, but it’s also found in soybeans, and that’s where Brown’s team gets it from, at least at the genetic level. With a lot of nifty chemical engineering, they’ve created a burger that sizzles, browns and oozes fat, and they’ve got some billionaire investors such as Bill Gates and Vinod Khosla onside. The so-called Impossible Burger follows up the Beyond Burger, from another company called Beyond Meat, also backed by Gates, but it looks like the Impossible Burger has more potential.

Haem (or heme in American) is what makes our blood red. It contains iron and helps in oxygenating the blood. Abundant in muscle tissue, it’s what gives raw meat its pink colour. It also contributes much to the taste of cooked meat. The ‘Impossible’ team transferred the soybean gene encoding the haem protein into yeast, thus ensuring an abundant supply. The associated massive cost reduction is key to Brown’s biosphere-saving ambitions.

Of course, it’s not just cost that will capture the market. Taste, mouthfeel, aroma, je ne sais quoi, so much goes into the meat-munching experience, and the team has apparently worked hard to get it all in there, and will no doubt be willing to tweak well into the future, considering what’s at steak (sorry). If they succeed, it will be something of a slap in the face, perhaps, to those romantics among us who want to believe that food is more than merely chemical.

Yet I fear that the biggest challenge, as with renewable energy, will be to win over, or overcome, those invested in and running the current ‘technology’. That’s the world of people and systems that raise cows, pigs, chooks, and all the rest, for slaughter. It’s an open and shut case from an environmental and ethical perspective, but that doesn’t mean people won’t fight tooth and nail to preserve their bloody businesses and lifestyles. It’s not as if they’re going to be rehired by biotech companies. And as to the religious among us, with their halal and kosher conceptions, that’ll be another headache, but not for me. It will certainly be another scientific stab at the heart of this pre-scientific way of looking at the world and will add to the ever-widening divide between pre-scientific and scientific cultures, with not very foreseeable consequences, but probably not happy ones.

But all that’s still well in the future. It’s unlikely that these new products will hit the market for a few years yet, and it’s likely the inroads will be small at first, in spite of the admirable ambitions of people like Pat Brown and his supporters. In any case I’ll be watching developments with great interest, and hoping to get a not-too costly taste myself some time. Such fun it is to be alive in these days, but to be young, that would be like heaven…

 

solar technology keeps moving toward the centre

thin-film solar modules - a more flexible solution

thin-film solar modules – a more flexible solution

I’ve been hearing that the costs of solar installations are coming down, making the take-up easier and faster, but I haven’t spent the time to research exactly why this is happening, presumably world-wide. So now’s the time to do so. I thought I’d start with something I heard recently on a podcast about revolutionary thin solar cells…

Thin-film solar cells have been around for a while now, and they’re described well here. They’re only one micron thick, compared to traditional 350 microns-thick silicon-wafer cells, and they utilise superconductor materials, usually silicon-based, which are highly efficient absorbers of solar energy. However, according to Wikipedia, this new technology isn’t doing so well in the market-place, with only about 7% of market share, and not rising, though with crystalline silicon being replaced more and more by other materials (such as cadmium telluride, copper indium gallium selenide and amorphous silicon) there’s still hope for its future.

This technology was first utilised on a small scale in pocket calculators quite some time ago but it has been difficult to scale it up to the level of large-scale solar panels. There are problems with both stability and toxicity – cadmium for example is a poison that can accumulate in the food chain like mercury. It doesn’t look like it’s this or any other technological development that’s reducing costs or increasing efficiency, though of course they may do in the future, with graphene looking like a promising material.

So let’s return to the question of why solar has suddenly become much cheaper and is apparently set to get cheaper still. Large manufacturing investment and economies of scale seem to be a large part of the story. This means that the costs of solar modules now make up less than half of the total cost of what Ramez Naam calls ‘complete solar deployments at the utility scale’, and these other costs are also coming down as the industry ‘scales’. His article in Renew Economy from August last year makes projections based on the idea that ‘doubling of cumulative capacity tends to reduce prices by a predictable rate’, though he’s also prepared to heavily qualify such projections based on a multitude of possibly limiting factors. If all goes well, solar electricity costs will become less than half the cost of new coal or natural gas in a generation – without factoring in the climate costs of continuing fossil fuel usage. The extraordinary rise in solar energy usage in China, set to continue well into the future, bolsters the prediction, and India is also keen to incease usage, despite problems with domestic manufacturing and trade rules. Most panels are being imported from China and the USA, while domestic production struggles.

It’s interesting that solar and other renewable technologies are now being spruiked as mainstream by mainstream and even conservative sources, such as Fortune and oilprice.com. Fortune’s article also usefully points out how the cost of different power sources to the consumer is heavily dependent on government policies relating to fossil fuels and their alternatives, as well as to the natural assets of particular regions. Even so, it’s clear that the cost of fossil-fuel based electricity is rising everywhere while wind and solar electricity costs are falling, creating an increasingly clear-cut scenario for governments worldwide to deal with. Some governments are obviously facing it more squarely than others.

US residential solar costs. Beyond 2013, these are estimates, but already out of date it seems

US residential solar costs. Beyond 2013, these are estimates, but already out of date it seems