Moving solar around

You might have seen solar panels ground-mounting on vacant land in Singapore. Today I was on a cab when the driver told me about this and thought it is such a waste of land in Singapore.

So I explained the idea that our government agencies had and the tender they designed. The projects are actually to maximise the use of land rather than waste them. In Singapore, there are plots which are left vacant for future development – they may not be empty for the full period of a solar farm, but at any one time in the island of Singapore, there should be enough space to hold a certain amount of ground-mounted solar. So the plan is to move the panels around to a vacant lot once an existing solar farm land is needed for development.

Such a model seems common sensical but requires a great deal of coordination and detailed thinking. But in the grand scheme of trying to produce more green electricity for our island state, this is not exactly a great solution. And this is an example of the challenge that Singapore faces when it comes to being innovative and scaling solutions. We have requirement for unique solutions that serves us well but probably no one else – nor are we able to easily adapt our solutions to other places.

Not sure who else would want to be moving their solar panels around.

Primitive technology

Had a chat with a friend who used to be in the oil & gas industry; well at least along the value chain. He was also a bit on the old school side of things and he calls solar PV technology primitive because compared to the gas turbines whose efficiency is 60% when using combined cycle, the efficiency of converting solar energy into electricity is only 15-20%.

I was a bit surprised at that idea given that inputs in terms of the energy from the sun is free whereas you might need to calculate the energy cost from the drilling, piping, even liquefaction and then gasification of gas. Nevertheless, the point is that turbine technology has been widely adopted and used for many more decades than the solar panels. So a lot more money, time, resources have been invested into that those technology compared to renewables. That is simply fact.

Yet if you consider which technology has more room for progress and can move us to a future that we want to live in, the answer is just as clear. The problem again, with the economic analysis undertaken is that they are all based on individuals considering Ceteris Paribus everywhere else. The energy transition, decarbonisation is more than just that an individual decision and it was never meant to be worthwhile done alone. It was something to be coordinated, actions taken together. Which is why we cannot allow all of these technologies like solar, wind, EVs, hydrogen to be as primitive as they are.

Making the transition III

I have written about green ammonia and hydrogen before. And I might keep talking about them because they are important candidates as energy vectors in a decarbonised world. They are quite likely what is considered as the end points of the transition for the world towards zero carbon or low carbon. What does it mean to transit to green ammonia or green hydrogen? What needs to take place, and who will move first? What should the players be looking out for in order to make the switch?

We need to start defining intermediate steps for the switch. There is actually very little doubts about the inevitability of the switch. Yes there are concerns that it might be energy intensive, the costs are high, and the market is not formed yet. But realistically, most new things are like that. When the Apollo mission took up 60% of the computing power of United States in order to perform its calculations for the project, there wasn’t anyone saying the industry is not formed yet we should wait for better computers before we send man to the moon. We just viewed the mission as a series of problems to be solved, within the budget constraint.

The transition needs a budget; it can be a small one or it can be a large one. The issue is that the businesses needs to take a stance and say that climate change and the transition is a mission I want to be on, and to explore the series of problems to be solved in order to complete the mission. And we don’t wait for costs to come down before we make the transition, we take active steps towards it. That is also what leadership is about. That is really the only issue people should be considering.

So for example, if you’re providing equipment for natural gas systems – be it power generation, cogeneration, for steam methane reforming, etc. You need to start thinking about the smaller pieces of things: are your valves able to handle hydrogen? Do the membranes in your cryogenic tanks work if it was to be filled with hydrogen? What about your manpower, are they able to be trained in the safe handling of the gas? All these to prepare for the transition. You won’t be able to make the transition overnight or achieve it through a single project. It takes much smaller steps.

So start making them now.

Making the transition II

Transition means being in an in-between state, crossing over to something which is supposed to be perhaps a less temporary state. The challenge, however, is that one can get stuck in transit. Natural gas as a fuel risk being in that state because it wasn’t really adopted fast enough as a transition fuel. And now renewable electricity from solar and wind has more or less leapfrog it in terms of cost advantage. Once battery or other energy storage technology moves along the cost curve and decline sufficiently, natural gas might even be bypassed.

So the world is in a somewhat confused state. When is it right to use gas? What should be counted as alternatives for decarbonisation? In any case, gas prices are spiking now so what does it mean? Should that mean we move forward into more renewables which might even be more expensive? Or we move backward into coal?

These decisions are not meant to be made in categorically; because the entire system needs to be considered. And what is at the margin in terms of choice needs to be clearly identified. If the additional unit of power that satisfies both energy security and the quantity demanded can be obtained through renewables, it should be used. Of course if that is not available, one might have to step back into more carbon-intensive processes. Availability can also be based on budget.

Natural gas itself, needs to be displaced by greener fuels without threatening the underlying combustion technologies that underpin the gas turbines. But that is perhaps for another day.

Solar as Future of Energy

The Economist ran a couple of stories about Solar Energy in the latest issue (16 April 2016); mainly touting the trends the industry has been facing in the recent years:

  1. Falling cost of panels
  2. Increasing interest, attention and commitment (in the form of Feed-in Tariffs)
  3. Falling levels of subsidy support and FiTs
  4. Increased avenues of financing and ambitious solar farm projects

Quite a couple of bottlenecks to the growth of solar still awaits solutions; and in the recent years, competition in this industry will be shifting into solving some of these problems holding back the development of solar energy.

  1. Land intensity of PV solar farms (need to improve efficiency and quality of PV cells) – land is an issue because of potential competition with arable land (plants need sunshine too) in certain places
  2. Intermittency of Solar power (a large dark cloud moving over a PV farm by can reduce generation significantly and abruptly – need for energy storage and some sort of balancing mechanism)
  3. Grid curtailment issues; inability of the grid to take in the power generated when at the peak generation capacity (especially with wind power thrown into the vicinity).

As a result, I believe these issues are going to drive the growth of this few industries/businesses:

  1. Data analytics combining weather/cloud forecasting with energy storage smart systems to optimise the operations of large scale solar farms
  2. Market platforms that helps with cost-balancing and electricity trading in order to smoothen demand and supply fluctuations from solar/wind power
  3. Improvements in both energy storage technologies as well as PV cell technologies.
  4. Further financial innovation in financing solar power deployments – including leasing of panels, leasing of rooftop space, usage-fee-purchase model, etc.

China’s Green Revolution

Green Leaf
Green Power

China, as an emerging superpower, is also said to be emerging as one of the biggest polluters of the environment. The industrialisation and modernisation of China in particular is of great concern for climate change / global warming, as China looks scheduled to overtake the United States as “the world’s biggest emitter of carbon dioxide”. Gary Dirks and David G Victor, in Newsweek’s Special Edition – Issues 2010, suggests that China is making attempts to go green, not just to allay global concerns but to allay domestic concerns as well.

China is concerned about its growth, not so much because it is bothered by how other countries (both developing and developed) perceive it. It is more because of the environmental problems that have plagued its growth that makes it realise the importance of being green. “Severe pollution and worries over dependence on fossil fuels” are just some problems of national security that concern the Chinese government, and it is doing what it can by enhancing energy-efficiency and attempting to move away from fossil fuels. It cannot probably move away entirely from coal because of its abundance and cheap price, but China is making efforts to make coal “less polluting”.

China is also investing in new technologies, such as clean renewable energy research, that could potentially open up a new market for such products as well as cement China’s position as an industrial leader in a new field that is yet untapped fully in most other countries. The Telegraph in an earlier article in May observes some changes to what China is doing in this new field. However, China would require the help of other developed countries in the West in managing its research and development.

All these will add up to “a massive impact on greenhouse-gas pollution”, and such efforts are certainly laudable and commendable. It is, however, important, for China to lead not just locally but globally. As a rising superpower, it is “ready to lead when it starts playing offense in climate talks as well as defense”, and China needs to prove that “it can cut emissions”, which will then assuage global concerns as well as debunk the West’s “excuse for doing nothing” because of “Chinese inaction”.

Other writers and newspapers have weighed it on China’s “Green Revolution”. The Guardian details some targets set by Chinese officials on adoption of renewable energy sources, while Thomas Friedman in The New York Times writes about how “red China” is becoming “green China”. There appears to be much regarding what China is doing for the environment, even if it might seem miniscule, so the United States should certainly do its part and contribute more than “business as usual”, given its current superpower status (which it might soon lose to China if it does nothing to stem the decline).