Monday, February 20, 2023

Technology (Not More Mandates) to the Rescue

The “you didn’t build that” crowd hates to admit it, but the solutions to our energy and environmental problems won’t be created by the government. Solutions will be found by free people working in a free market. It will be researchers and entrepreneurs working in small labs.

One such entrepreneur/scientist is Sam Weaver. Dr. Sam has an impressive list of inventions. From the process to make carbon brakes used on most Boeing aircraft to the ceramic press that turns out the world’s thinnest aluminum cans for a brewery in Golden Colorado, you see Sam’s handiwork all around.

What he and his Proton Power team have been working on for the last number of years may just be the energy game-changer we need. In a lab just west of Knoxville, Dr. Weaver and his team began figuring out how to efficiently separate hydrogen from plant-based (biomass) material. They accomplished that and Wampler’s Farm Sausage plant nearby has been running on clean-burning hydrogen rich syngas for several years. In effect, they remove the carbon before burning the hydrogen.

That’s good, but their story gets better. Almost by accident, they discovered that the black powder carbon byproduct is rich in what they now call PPI Graphene. It has many of the same chemical properties of pure graphene. Graphene represents the holy grail of material scientists. It sells for as much as $2500 per gram. The Weaver team can upgrade this renewable and sustainable version from the carbon the biomass plants removed from the air for just fifty cents per gram.

Now it becomes truly disruptive!

Pure, layered graphene is both amazing and very expensive. Light as a feather while unbelievably strong. It has incredible electrical properties as well. The last few years the Weaver team has focused on producing batteries using their graphene. Imagine a battery that charges much faster, holds that charge longer, is impervious to cold and contains no lithium or rare earth materials. Oh, and it lasts longer; 800,000 cycles compared to 1,000 cycles in today’s batteries.

All of a sudden everything from electric cars to large scale storage of “green” power for the grid begin to actually make sense. This is being accomplished without mandates, the heavy hand or even much help from the government.

Imagine that.


Europe’s Lesson in Green Hydrogen

Politicians love to say that green hydrogen is the carbon-neutral fuel of the future. If only it were true. A series of policy fights in Brussels is highlighting the perils of the new “hydrogen economy” even as political enthusiasm for it reaches a new peak.

It’s hard to overstate how much the green agenda relies on hydrogen’s alleged promise. It holds out the prospect of carbon-free transportation even if electric-vehicle battery technology never improves. Hydrogen also could be used in industrial processes that can’t easily be electrified to run directly on renewable power.

There’s one problem: physics. Hydrogen atoms don’t appear in isolation in nature so they must be produced, usually by splitting water molecules via electrolysis. A lot of energy is lost in this process, and hydrogen is only as green as the electricity used to electrolyze it.

Enter Brussels. The European Union has set an ambitious target of incorporating 20 million metric tons of clean hydrogen into the continent’s energy mix by 2030. Current consumption is about 6.5 million metric tons, most of that used in industry and produced from fossil fuels. Brussels wants 10 million of those 20 million metric tons to be produced in Europe. Now it wants to make sure hydrogen will be produced the green way.

The first step is a regulation proposed this week by the European Commission setting out what counts as “renewable hydrogen.” Brussels would require that by 2028 hydrogen is electrolyzed using power only from newly installed renewable sources such as windmills or solar panels. This would prevent countries from powering hydrogen electrolysis with existing renewable power and then adding new fossil-fuel generation to meet other demands.

This “additionality rule” brings into focus the extraordinary demands hydrogen will impose on electric grids. Producing one million metric tons of hydrogen would require 11 gigawatts of installed capacity for offshore wind, 22 gigawatts of onshore wind, or 52 gigawatts of solar, according to S&P Global Commodity Insights. The numbers are different to account for the intermittency of those sources. Installed capacity in Europe today is 17 gigawatts for offshore wind, 188 gigawatts for onshore wind and 196 gigawatts for solar.

Put another way, meeting the EU’s domestic clean-hydrogen production target in 2030 would require about 500 terawatt-hours of electricity. That’s roughly equivalent to Germany’s current annual power consumption. Since renewable power production across the EU currently measures 1,100 terawatt-hours, making so much hydrogen would require increasing renewables by 44%.

Nuclear is the obvious solution. Due to its ability to produce near-constant power, only seven gigawatts of installed nuclear capacity are required to produce one million metric tons of hydrogen. But Brussels, egged on by nuclear skeptics in Germany’s government and elsewhere, is dragging its heels.

The commission agreed to exempt countries from parts of the new additionality rule if total carbon emissions from electricity generation fall below a certain level—a sop to nuclear-intensive France. But a second regulation is expected determining which forms of hydrogen qualify for the most generous green subsidies. The risk is that nuclear-powered hydrogen will be excluded—guaranteeing subsidies go to unreliable renewables.

Politicians haven’t warned voters about this when touting hydrogen, implying instead that it’s a simple matter of exploiting atoms found in water to replace the gasoline in your car. The public is about to discover that hydrogen doubles down on all the costs of renewables—skyrocketing prices, unstable electric grids, and dependence on China for rare-earth metals. Hydrogen shows again that green climate promises always exceed what can be delivered. \


Coal is making a comeback, and Australia is supplying a lot of it

Coal supplies a quarter of the world’s energy, oil and gas account for a half, and renewables – in spite of vast subsidies everywhere they are built – comprise just 7 per cent.

While Germany is being ridiculed for re-opening coal mines, even tearing down a wind farm to do so, it is claiming this is only a temporary departure from its decarbonisation transition.

Such assurances are not being given by the fastest-growing developing nations.

Indeed, Bloomberg reports, regretfully, that coal is making a comeback almost everywhere except in the US, which has stacks of gas, and Russia which, denied its European markets, has an unexpected gas surplus. India’s government, while having said it will phase down coal, is urging the owners of existing stations to keep them open. India, together with China, consumed 67 per cent of the world’s coal in 2022, up from 35 per cent in 2000. China itself claims to be moving toward a renewables future but their new coal generator build is proceeding apace. It hosts over half of the world’s coal plants and this is likely to increase since China accounts for over two-thirds of plants listed as planned or under construction.

Even some failing states are building new coal-generating facilities. These include Pakistan, in the face of steep gas price increases. And South Africa, a darling of the US/EU greenaid donors, is indefinitely shelving its planned transition from coal in the face of energy shortages.

Indicating a sound future for coal notwithstanding specious, ill-informed attacks on fossil fuels globally, 2022 saw 26,000 megawatts of old coal plants being retired offset by 45,000 megawatts of new plants commissioned, and 60,000 megawatts starting or resuming construction.

Australian coal energy generation is a little over 1 per cent of global capacity, a share that has been falling as new plants are opened overseas. As a result of increased State and Commonwealth government discrimination against domestic coal use, the latest such measures being price caps and forced redirection of exports to the domestic market.

Australia’s coal developments more generally have been under attack from government actions, Woke regulatory bodies like the Queensland and NSW Land Courts and, of course, green activists. Themselves ladened with green baggage, politicians have installed like-minded officials to reinforce their prejudices. This was evident in Senate hearings when Senator Antic expressed surprise that climate change was a priority for the Department of Home Affairs. Mike Pezzullo, the Departmental Secretary, responded, ‘I am not sure if you’ve noticed the increasing frequency and severity of weather events.’ Unfortunately, nabobs like Pezzullo have swallowed the climate con without troubling themselves to delve into the statistics, which show no increase in hot and cold spells, floods and droughts, or any other severe weather events.

In spite of politico-legal impediments, the quality of Australia’s coal reserves, their ease of mining, and the skills developed have catapulted Australia into becoming the world’s leading coal exporter.

This cannot be taken for granted and faces increased challenges from political intrusion.

Understandably, Tanya Plibersek excoriated the Greens for their decision to block additional carbon taxes on businesses via the so-called ‘safeguard’ mechanism unless the government goes the Full Monty and bans all new fossil fuel developments. The government would have assumed that its decision to ban Clive Palmer’s Rockhampton mine proposal would have earned sufficient greenie points to push through the additional imposts on domestic coal use. After all, she punished an opponent loathed equally by Labor and the Greens on the spurious grounds that the mine might harm the Great Barrier Reef, which is over 100 kilometres away. And, in any event, as Dr Peter Ridd from the Australian Environment Foundation has demonstrated the Reef, contrary to claims of rent-seeking scientists, is in pristine condition.

The heightened politically charged approval processes evident in the Palmer mine’s decision builds on countless other regulatory measures that have stunted the industry’s growth. The effects of previous interventions are already evident. Thus, even in nominal dollars, coal mining capital expenditure is below its level a decade ago and mining spending as a whole is down by a half. That spending is the backbone of future living standards. In the case of coal alone, political interventions inhibit the development of an industry that currently provides nearly a quarter of our exports. ?


The future of Australia's electricity supply is blowing in the wind

The events of the past few weeks have brought Australia’s energy future into sharp focus – we won’t have one. Green enthusiasts who dominate the public debate have insisted that much of the east coast’s reliable power supply must cease operating by about the middle of next decade, but there may not be anything to put in its place.

Those same activists insist that a vast network of renewable energy projects can take over the role of coal plants, ignoring considerable evidence that they cannot. However, state governments are relying on private investors to create this dense network, despite investment in the area having tanked.

Unless policymakers come to their senses, consumers who want to use electrical appliances, or even turn on the hall light in perhaps twelve years or so, may have to make their own arrangements. They might still be able to turn on gas stoves but not gas heaters (these still require power for fans), although policymakers are also doing their best to reduce gas supplies.

This heroic attempt at ruining Australia’s power supply is all the more remarkable for occurring during an international energy crisis and with the policymakers apparently oblivious to the notable failure of renewable energy to make much of a contribution to the overall energy supply, despite decades of investment.

As previously noted in The Spectator Australia (‘Engineering disaster’, 29 October 2022) a combination of billionaire activist Mike Cannon-Brookes and the state governments of Queensland and Victoria have organised the closure of the bulk of the reliable coal-fired power supply of the eastern half of the continent. At the same time the Victorian and Queensland state governments in particular, have been encouraging investment in renewable energy as well as pumped-hydro storage projects.

To date the response has been disappointing. Figures on renewable energy projects compiled by the Clean Energy Council show that just seventeen were completed and commissioned in 2022, representing 1,248 Megawatts (MW) of installed capacity, as opposed to forty-eight completed in Covid-stricken 2021 adding up to 4,589 MW, and 3,205 MW worth of projects in 2020. These figures are even less impressive when it is remembered that wind projects typically have an average output of about one-third of stated capacity. The average output for photovoltaics is somewhat less, but it is better for projects using the likes of solar concentrators.

There is no indication investment is improving. Wind farms under construction listed by the Victorian Department of Transport and Planning amount to just 864 MW in installed capacity – an effective average output of perhaps a paltry 300 MW or so.

One reason for investment in this area falling off a cliff, despite all the talk, is that markets did not do well generally in 2022. A count of initial public offerings on the securities exchange by professional services firm HLB Mann Judd shows that the number of new IPOs fell by 48 per cent in 2022, and total funds raised collapsed 91 per cent.

Another perspective is provided by lobby group WindEurope, which in January declared that orders for new wind turbines in Europe fell by 47 per cent, or nearly half, in 2022 compared with the previous year.

WindEurope complained about government interference in the European markets, but also noted that ‘inflation in commodity prices and other input costs has raised the price of wind turbines, by up to 40 per cent over the last two years’. Revenue had not kept pace with costs.

Despite the different conditions in Europe, the result was much the same as the investment market in general and renewable energy projects in Australia in particular, in that investment collapsed notably in the second half of 2022.

But then decades of talk about renewable energy and investment in all sorts of wild and wonderful projects has barely shifted the dial on renewable energy’s contribution. A control panel for the National Energy Market (the eastern Australian grid) compiled by the Australian Energy Market Operator shows that in the past 12 months just short of 70 per cent of electricity came from black and brown coal plants, and just short of 20 per cent from solar and wind. Another 7 per cent came from hydro (which counts as a renewable) and a few per cent from gas.

This does not seem very different from the energy mix of preceding years, but the really bad news for activists is the total energy mix figures for Australia compiled by the International Energy Agency. This analysis adds in the use of fuel in domestic and freight transport, gas for cooking and industrial use plus the power required for electrical generation. In 2021, despite all the talk about net-zero emissions, wind, solar and biomass collectively amounted to just a few per cent of the total energy task.

As for gas, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission released a gas inquiry interim report in January which forecasts a 12 per cent shortfall in supply for the east coast this year, although the problems may really start about 2027 or so. The commission then makes the far from surprising suggestion that governments could reduce the barriers faced by producers seeking to bring new gas supply to market.

But governments and environmentalists have reacted to the obvious problems by doubling down on discouraging the industry. The federal government reacted to price increases for gas by instituting a mixture of price controls and reserving gas for domestic consumers. As a result, producers including Senex Energy, Beach Energy, Cooper Energy and ExxonMobil have stalled or put under review proposed investment in new gas supplies.

In addition, environmental activism and the late-2022 court decision which required Santos to consult more extensively with indigenous groups over the $4.7 billion Barossa project it plans north of the Tiwi Islands (north of Darwin), have imposed delays of up to two years on a range of gas projects. To top off all of this, a project to build an LNG gas import terminal at Newcastle in NSW, which could have supplied 80 per cent of the state’s needs, was axed in early February, with the South Korean developers citing volatility in gas markets. Another proposed LNG import plant in Victoria is facing endless delays in approvals.

Investment in green energy projects may revive of course, but there is a long way to go and there are still the major problems of whether intermittent power can replace coal plants, and of dismantling all the barriers blocking gas development. Australia’s much-vaunted energy transition may simply mean switching to no power at all.




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