Transforming energy technology

Materials World magazine
3 Jul 2017

A new report on energy technologies released by the International Energy Agency looks at how technological advances could play out in the next four decades to reshape and drive the global energy sector forward. Natalie Daniels reports. 

President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the USA from the Paris Agreement on 1 June could be a huge blow to energy producers involved with international efforts to reduce carbon emissions and prevent the world’s temperature from increasing by more than 2oC this century. Despite the USA reducing emissions over the past few years because of the switch from coal to shale gas, the global target may become more challenging as withdrawal by the USA makes it harder for other countries to reach their agreed goals – currently the USA is responsible for around 15% of global emissions and has previously promised US$3bln to help other nations.

The Energy Technology Perspectives 2017 report released by the International Energy Agency (IEA) in June 2017 summarises that each country will need to scale up its R&D and support if they are to reach their energy targets within the next decade. According to the IEA analysis, current government policies are not sufficient to achieve long-term global climate goals, with only three out of 26 assessed technologies, which include carbon capture and storage (CCS) and nuclear energy, on track to meet climate objectives. The three deemed to be on track are electric vehicles, energy storage and variable renewables (solar PV and onshore wind), which have all met or exceeded targets. Although more than 190 countries agreed to phase out greenhouse gas emissions this century, governments' failure to support large-scale deployment has called for improved policies to support these agreements. While the picture may appear disappointing, the IEA reported in 2015 that no sectors were on track, and in 2016, only electric vehicles showed slight improvement.

The report states, ‘Both incremental and radical innovations are needed to transition to a new energy system,' noting that governments have an important role in ensuring predictable, long-term support in all stages of innovation from basic and applied research through to development, demonstration and deployment phases. This will enable more technical innovation in the energy sector in a cost-effective way.’ 

Key recommendations for policy makers involve the need for governments to develop a vision for a sustainable energy future that tracks progress and sets goals, collaboration and support throughout the objective and innovation cycle, new business models and a better understanding of the opportunities and challenges that arise from increasing digitalisation of the energy sector. Technologies such as bioenergy and CCS will require more policy support and attention in the near term if they are to contribute to future energy and climate objectives.

Results showed that in 2016, renewables supplied half of global electricity demand growth and overtook coal as the largest source of power generating capacity globally, while nuclear net capacity reached its highest level since 1993. The number of electric vehicles on roads worldwide also increased to a record high of two million in 2016. In 2015, the number of electric cars, including battery-electric, plug-in hybrid electric and fuel cell electric passenger light-duty vehicles, was one million, but despite this increase, improvements are still to be made. ‘They have a long way to go before reaching numbers capable of making a significant contribution to greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. In order to limit temperature increases to below 2oC by the end of the century, the number of electric cars will need to reach 600 million by 2040,’ the IEA has said. Further R&D into more efficient, cheaper and greener ways to produce batteries will play a huge part in helping to increase the number of electric vehicles on the road. 

The energy sector could even become carbon neutral by 2060 to limit future temperature increase to 1.75oC by 2100, if technology innovations are pushed to the limit. ‘But to do so would require an unprecedented level of policy action and effort from all stakeholders,’ the report notes. The IEA believes the Paris Agreement is technically feasible with existing technologies and those in development, without the need for breakthrough innovation. But it is world leaders’ lack of political will that stands in the way of meeting these targets. Only when this is addressed will R&D in the energy sector significantly expand. 

Sunshine and wind forecast

Renewables have generated more electricity than coal and gas in the UK for the first time, supplying 50.7% of the UK’s electricity. The National Grid reported that on 7 June at 12:00, power from wind, solar, hydro and wood pellet burning reached 35.4GW. This is the first time that renewable energy and nuclear power combined has produced more power than gas and coal plants. Nuclear power made up 23.2% of the energy mix while gas-fired power plants were lowered to 20.8%. Emma Pinchbeck, Executive Director at RenewableUK, said, ‘The incoming Government should be proud of what the wind sector has achieved in the UK, and work with the industry to ensure that these record-breaking days for wind energy generation become our new normal.’

Turning renewable energy into fuel

The lack of efficient and earth-abundant catalysts for splitting CO2 into CO and oxygen has been subject to extensive research to make renewables cheaper and more efficient, and now scientists at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, believe they have the answer after building the first Earth-abundant and low-cost catalytic system to convert renewable energy into hydrocarbon fuels.

The catalyst, developed by PhD student Marcel Schreier and postdoc Jingshan Luo, is made by depositing an atomic layer of tin oxide on copper oxide nanowires. The team then used Earth-abundant materials for the catalyst, which was integrated in a CO2 electrolysis system and linked to a triple-junction solar cell to make a CO2 electrolyser. The system uses the catalyst as a bifunctional electrode that both reduces CO2 into CO and produces oxygen through what is known as the ‘oxygen evolution’ reaction. The two products are separated with a bipolar membrane. ‘This is the first time that such a bi-functional and low-cost catalyst has been demonstrated. Very few catalysts – except expensive ones, such as gold and silver – can selectively transform CO2 to CO in water, which is crucial for industrial applications,’ said Schreier. Using solar energy, the system was able to convert CO2 to CO with an efficiency of 13.4%, with a Faradaic efficiency up to 90%.

Record month for Scottish wind energy

May 2017 proved a big month for renewables in Scotland as WWF Scotland revealed that wind power to the grid supplied 95% of Scottish households' energy for 11 days. It also found that in several parts of Scotland, homes fitted with solar PV panels had enough sunshine to generate more than 100% of the electricity needs of an average household.

The wind turbines provided 863,494MWh of electricity to the National Grid – up by around 20% on May 2016. Dr Sam Gardner, Acting Director of WWF Scotland, said, ‘Despite the disappointment of the announcement that President Trump is to pull the USA out of the Paris Agreement, the global energy revolution is unstoppable and continues at pace here in Scotland. On one day in particular, 15 May, output from turbines generated enough electricity to power 190% of homes or 99% of Scotland's total electricity demand. Month after month, renewables play a vital role in cutting carbon emissions and powering the Scottish economy.’

Waste plant to cut CO2 emissions

Gas made from household waste will provide heat to 1,500 homes or fuel 75 heavy goods vehicles after Air Liquide, UK, was awarded a five-year contract to provide high-purity oxygen to the Advanced Plasma Power and Cadent energy-from-waste facility under construction in Wiltshire, UK. 

The facility is due to deliver gas to the National Grid in the first half of 2018. Once operational, it is expected to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 5,000 tonnes per annum. The oxygen will be used to convert 10,000 metric tonnes per annum of household waste into 22GWh of biosubstitute natural gas. The company hopes this project will push the development of further bio-substitute natural gas plants.