Renewables + Hydrogen = Industry Reimagined

By: Phil O’Neil

Hydrogen has been closely associated with key aspects of the new energy transition for many years. Its properties as a storage medium and energy carrier make it a key point in any serious discussion about energy storage, and its consequent role in increasing renewable penetration in energy generation, transmission and distribution. Hydrogen fuel cells are also high on the agenda for expanding the number of light electric vehicles on the road.

However, what we are discussing here, and the area that is starting to attract attention from governments and municipalities looking to reduce overall greenhouse gas emissions, is green hydrogen. This is defined as hydrogen that is produced from renewable electricity by electrolysing water, or from fossil fuels with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). It produces relatively pure hydrogen, with the added benefit of oxygen as a by-product.

Energy Efficiency

The idea of green hydrogen has been around for some time. But it comes with a number of inherent challenges, the most obvious of which is that it is not hugely energy efficient. The input energy required to power the electrolysis and produce end product is much greater than the energy output that can be liberated from it.

For example, our high-level analysis of the hydrogen supply chain and the export of renewable energy to South East Asian countries for use as transport fuel shows that, when hydrogen is converted to ammonia to make it possible to transport safely, only 30 per cent of the renewable electricity originally used to power the electrolysis actually ends up moving vehicles. Seventy per cent is lost in the various conversion processes.

However, this might be a case of allowing the search for a perfect solution to obscure the value of a merely good one. A key reason those South East Asian countries might consider green hydrogen in the first place is that many are relatively short of indigenous energy supply. For countries like Japan and South Korea, for example, with their energy-hungry economies that rely heavily on energy imports, green hydrogen could provide a low-carbon alternative to coal, natural gas and oil.

In the transport sector, hydrogen would be displacing comparatively expensive liquid fuels with relatively low thermal efficiency. And although this green hydrogen route is less efficient and more expensive than using electric batteries directly, it could provide the additional travel range that batteries are yet to achieve. That enables renewable-powered electric buses, trucks, ships and trains to transport passengers and goods over the long distances needed to make them a truly viable option. And of course there’s the added bonus of reduced air and noise pollution levels.

And in theory at least, hydrogen is transportable over long distances via shipping and could evolve into a liquid global market; the alternative being a commitment to import electricity via transmission lines to neighbouring countries.

To illustrate the point, South Korea has recently announced its commitment to convert 26,000 buses using hydrogen fuel cells instead of natural gas. South Korea has negligible renewable energy generation resources, and what it has is largely in the form of offshore wind – always more expensive than onshore. So it is in discussion with the Governments of other countries to provide green hydrogen.

Renewables Costs

However, to meet this kind of demand, South Australia would need to build approximately 17 electrolysing facilities; and to power these facilities it would need to develop around 8,700 megawatts (MW) of renewable energy projects. This is where we hit the next challenge around green hydrogen: the overall price. To date, renewable energy has not been available at a price to make this kind of installation commercially viable.

This is where we see the impact of the downward trajectory of renewable electricity prices, notably solar and onshore wind. The price used for renewable electricity in current modelling and projections is $60 per MW per hour (MWh). Technological advances have dramatically improved conversion efficiency of solar panels, as well as wind-farm capacity factors, and the price could conceivably fall to $30 or even $20 per MWh, particularly in areas with high levels of renewable energy resources.

Solar power auctions in Denmark, Egypt, India, and the United Arab Emirates last year were all priced below both fossil-fuel and nuclear alternatives, and in its latest round Mexico established the lowest price yet for solar power. For a plant producing 8,000MW or more that’s a transformative difference that makes green hydrogen competitive with, or even cheaper than, gas-powered sources of energy.

By the same token, Read more »

Canada Is Getting “Solar Power Benches” That Charge Your Phone



Don’t you hate it when you’re walking around downtown and realize that your phone is dying? But then, of course, there aren’t any outlets in the middle of the sidewalk. Yeah, that’s the worst.

Well, soon enough, this won’t be as much of a problem thanks to Soofa. What on earth is Soofa? I’m glad you asked.

Soofa is a tech-based company founded in 2014 by three female engineers from MIT that creates solar-powered benches that charge phones on the spot. That’s right you can take a seat with your friends in the middle of a park and charge your phone.

No more endless searching for outlets. Now, you can just look for a cool-looking solar-powered bench.

They have over 100 locations in the United States, and for the first time, they’ve expanded to Canada!

The Ontario town of Newmarket is leading the way for innovation in Canada and using data-based technology to improve quality of life. They got their first bench in 2016, and given its success, they just keep getting more and more.

This is a great way to help bring more attention to environmentally-friendly and sustainable energy sources, while also being useful for our somewhat tech-dependent society.

Somehow, Soofa actually does more than just charge your phones. The techy-benches also have sensors that detect the presence of smartphones and collect data to better understand the needs of the location.

Without invading your privacy, they are able to keep track of how public spaces are being used. This way, plans for the community and economic development will be better informed in the future.


Using Solar Power to Bring Clean Drinking Water to Remote Areas

By: William Weir

Using solar energy and nanoparticles to make saltwater drinkable, researchers from Yale and Rice University have developed a system that could potentially be used off-grid in remote areas or in domestic settings.

The system, known as nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation (NESMD), incorporates a porous membrane with carbon black nanoparticles. The nanoparticles use sunlight energy to heat water on one side of the membrane, which filters out salt and other non-volatile contaminants while allowing water vapor to pass through it.

The technology comes from the Center for Nanotechnology-Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), a multi-institutional engineering research center. Based at Rice, it includes Yale and several other partners from industry, government, and other universities. Funded with an $18.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF), NEWT was founded in 2015 to provide clean water to millions of people and make U.S. energy production more sustainable and cost-effective.

The nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation system (NESMD).

In the most widely used desalination process, saline water passes through a membrane and emerges, desalinated, on the other side. Known as reverse osmosis, the process is very energy-efficient, but doesn’t work well on water with very high salinity. Another commonly used type of desalination system involves thermal processes in which water is evaporated and then condensed. It’s effective, but this method uses a lot of energy due to the amount of heat required. Thermal processes are often situated near power or chemical plants that provide steam as the heat source.

There’s also membrane distillation, which uses both heat and membranes. It’s able to desalinate high-salinity water using low-grade or waste heat. It still requires an external heat source, however, which means that it needs to be connected to some form of energy infrastructure.

With the NESMD system, however, the heat source is in the membrane itself. The nanoparticles, embedded on one side of the membrane use sunlight to heat the water and drive the desalination process.

Instead of heating the water before it comes into the module, you heat it on the membrane surface itself,” said Akshay Deshmukh, a Ph.D. student in the lab of Menachem Elimelech, Yale’s Roberto C. Goizueta Professor of Chemical & Environmental Engineering. “One of the big advantages of this is that it can be used anywhere because it’s dependent on sunlight.”

The technology is still in its early stages, so the researchers are still considering a wide range of applications. Potential uses for the system include treating water produced by fracking and shale oil and gas extraction operations, and water used in households in less developed areas.

“The integration of photothermal heating capabilities within a water purification membrane for direct, solar-driven desalination opens new opportunities in water purification,” said Elimelech, a co-author of the new study and NEWT’s lead researcher for membrane processes.

Naomi Halas, professor of biomedical engineering, chemistry, physics, and astronomy at Rice University and the leader of NEWT’s nanophotonics research efforts, said NESMD also differs from traditional membrane distillation in that it benefits from increasing efficiency with scale.

“It requires minimal pumping energy for optimal distillate conversion, and there are a number of ways we can further optimize the technology to make it more productive and efficient,” she said.


How Drones Are Lowering the Cost of Clean Energy

By: Katie Fehrenbacher

Aerones This drone designed by Latvian startup Aerones is could help de-ice wind turbines and keep them free of bugs.

Hundreds of feet above a snow-covered field, a boxy black device covered in propellers hovers next to the enormous outstretched blade of a wind turbine. From a corner of the machine, a nozzle sprays a liquid across the surface of the blade in a rapid smooth zigzag motion like a rogue car wash in the sky.

The machine is a drone made by Latvian-born startup Aerones, and earlier this year the company tested it out de-icing a wind turbine blade at a wind farm in Latvia. The same unmanned aerial vehicle also can clean bugs and dirt off turbine blades, the sides of buildings and solar panels.

Next week, Aerones’ Latvian founders will stand before a room of potential investors and the media to give a two-minute pitch explaining their drone technology — as part of a gathering of the latest cohort of Y Combinator companies. The company, which is testing various applications for its powerful drones, recently was accepted into the influential Silicon Valley program. It will spend the next few months honing ideas and finding new customers with Y Combinator’s help.

Aerones’ wind turbine drone exemplifies a growing trend of drones being built and deployed for renewable energy companies to carry out tasks such as designing new power plants, monitoring and inspecting hardware and power lines, and (now) keeping renewable systems clean. The idea is that drones can do these jobs much more quickly and for a lower cost than they can be done by human workers.

Such computing technologies could help solar and wind development companies lower their overall costs to produce energy and compete more effectively with cheap fossil fuel-based energy options. The lower the cost of clean energy, the more mainstream and accessible it’ll be to companies looking to buy it to power operations, offset their carbon emissions or meet other corporate sustainability goals.

Solar Skies

Both wind and solar operators are beginning to show some interest in drones but in different ways.

According to a report from the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), solar developers are evaluating drones as a better way to operate and maintain utility-scale solar farms. These are the expansive solar panel fields that can stretch for miles in remote regions of some states such as California, Arizona and Nevada.

The cost of the solar energy is often low from these farms — in some places cheaper than coal and natural gas power— but companies are still trying to slash a couple cents per kilowatt hour off the costs. If drones can help alert solar farm operators when some solar panels aren’t operating, or if electrical wiring is overheating, then they’re worth paying to do drone flyovers.

“The idea is that drones can handle certain jobs, such as panel or turbine maintenance, much more quickly and for a lower cost than they can be done by human workers.”

The EPRI report found that the “low hanging fruit” for drones and utility-scale solar farms is infrared imaging. A drone equipped with infrared sensors can peer down at panels and gear and encourage such preventive maintenance.

Other solar companies such as solar project developer and panel maker SunPower are using drones to more effectively, efficiently and inexpensively design new power plants. The company has deployed a handful of drones that take surveys over undeveloped new utility-scale solar fields and use the aerial imaging to design panel layouts with the most efficient shapes.

Top of a Turbine

In recent years wind turbines have gotten taller and wind blades and rotors have gotten bigger. These factors have enabled wind farms to produce the cheapest wind energy in history and compete with fossil fuel energy in states such as Texas and Iowa.

But as these monster turbines reach farther up in the sky, there’s more reason to send a drone to the top to do inspections or change out parts.

SkySpecs Michigan-based startup SkySpecs automates the turbine inspection process.

A startup called SkySpecs has developed drone technology that automatically flies up to the high heights of wind turbine blades and does an inspection in just 15 minutes. The company says that in comparison to drone flights that are manually operated by a controller on the ground, its drone flights are much quicker (and thus cheaper).

Investors seem to be interested. Earlier this year, the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based startup raised $8 million in funding.

The wind turbine cleaning and de-icing drones from Aerones are a little more unusual than the standard drones you see hovering over parks.

Aerones co-founder Dainis Kruze said the unique design, increased power of the system, stabilization algorithms and tilting propellers enable his company’s drones to reliably and steadily fly up to 1,000 feet off the ground while spraying liquids and lifting up to 440 pounds.

The company’s drones are connected to the ground via a power cable and a cable for the liquids. Most drones are propelled by batteries (and sometimes mini solar panels), but with a cable connection to a generator on the ground, an Aerones’ drone can fly indefinitely.

“You need a lot of power to do the cleaning smoothly and steadily,” Kruze explained, adding that the drones “work differently than how other drones operate.”

Such a high-end drone isn’t cheap. But Aerones plans to sell wind turbine cleaning and de-icing as a service, instead of selling the drones outright.

The wind industry is just one market for Aerone’s high-tech drones. Other applications include firefighting, rescue, delivery and sports (such as drone wakeboarding).



Arsenal FC Using 100% Renewable Energy Via Startup That Aims To Shake-Up U.K. Market

By: Gaurav Sharma 

On the pitch things are not going terribly well for Arsenal Football Club, one of the U.K.’s elite soccer outfits and a global brand, as it languishes outside the English Premier League competition’s top four. However, off it, the club has become a different kind of a trailblazer winning plaudits for a signature move this season – its bold march towards renewable energy.

Last August, in a first for the League, Arsenal’s Emirates stadium – one of the most iconic sporting arenas in London with a 60,000-plus seating capacity – switched to 100% renewable energy.

Even more eye-catching was the fact that the club opted not to go with a global utility behemoth, but with independent supplier Octopus Energy; a startup that’s aiming to “shake-up” the market, according to its Chief Executive Officer and co-founder Greg Jackson.

Octopus Energy Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium powered by 100% renewable energy.

“Nothing behind our service provision and Arsenal’s commitment to 100% renewable energy is cosmetic or adulterated in any way. It is what it says on the tin. So when you see the stadium lit by its 3 megawatt lights for evening soccer, they are running completely on renewable energy generated in real-time from plants using anaerobic digestion,” Jackson says.

Octopus Energy and Arsenal first started talking in 2016 when the startup itself was in its operational infancy. “It was a breath of fresh air to find a club of Arsenal’s stature to be as keen on renewable energy as us. But what was a pleasant surprise for us was also one that makes sense for Arsenal’s brand.

“In the summer of that year, the club was approaching the end of its existing commercial electricity supply contract. Being a thought leader and global brand cognizant of its environmental footprint and responsibility to society, Arsenal contemplated the possibility of going for renewable energy and approached us.

“They wanted to make sure it was genuinely green energy that was financially sensible, i.e. supplied at not too dissimilar a price to their existing tariff. So we came together via a business partnership firmly believing that Octopus Energy as a supplier and Arsenal as a global sporting outfit can play a part in changing the world.”

It was an impact statement that went down well among English soccer fans of all stripes despite the fierce and intense rivalry the League is known for. “Going green extends beyond soccer turf wars. Arsenal fans are proud of the move, and other fans want their clubs to follow suit.”

And since Arsenal’s move, Jackson says “a least half a dozen” sporting outfits have approached his company.

“This is a sign of times. Large companies and site operators are aiming to go entirely renewable with a mission statement to lower their carbon footprint; for instance our typical customers such as hotels and mid to large offices.”

The company has big plans in the competitive U.K. market that’s dominated by its so-called ‘Big Six’ suppliers – namely British Gas (owned by FTSE 100 firm Centrica), EDF Energy, npower, E.ON UK, Scottish Power and SSE.

In such a setting, starting up needs deep pockets and Octopus Energy, since its launch in late 2015, has been backed by the Octopus Group, a £7 billion ($9.8 billion) global investment fund.

Jackson says his outfit’s agility and operational efficiency are crucial in the current market. “All our jobs from customer service through to trading are underpinned by digital, and unhindered by legacy estate and habits that our big competitors have. My dozen senior managers and colleagues are first among equals in a team of 100 people spread across two locations, with revenues of £160 million, that we have stacked up in a relatively short space of time.”

As the company continues to grow, Jackson says he is all in favor of a free market but opines that the U.K. energy market is fundamentally flawed as British politicians of all stripes call for energy price caps.

“People say energy price caps will interfere in a free market. My take is that ours is not a free market – rather it is a market rigged against consumers. After 20 years of post-privatization regulation, British consumers are still getting bad value, spending somewhere between £1.4-£1.5 billion too much, largely down to the pricing policies of the large incumbents.

“Afterall, the regulator (Ofgem) has to listen to someone when drafting or amending the rules, and who has most at stake? The incumbents. Rule changes almost always tend to suit them, so what we really need is heavy action to break that dynamic, and not just oversimplified ‘hot air’ over energy price caps.”

Jackson says the U.K. energy market could take inspiration from the country’s competitive supermarkets. “For instance, the lowest priced energy tariff should be within 6% of the highest priced tariff; it is something that John Penrose, Conservative Party legislator, put forward nearly 5 years ago.

“Such forward thinking, rather than a linear price cap at some set level, is what’s required. Its the price range we see in our supermarkets for goods on shelves and it’ll bring the level of competitiveness we see in the retail market to the energy market.”

As for Octopus Energy, Jackson says no matter how competitive the landscape is, its ‘Super Green’ tariff, which supplies 100% renewable electricity and full carbon offsets for gas, will remain its mainstay.

“We’re a challenger company, redefining energy service provision for customers aware of their carbon footprint. Its what we do and what keeps us going.” Just ask Arsenal.