Tag Archives: energy storage

EV tipping point is getting closer, and Exxon is beginning to worry

Last fall, I interviewed John Mitchell, an associate research fellow with Chatham House and a guy who knows his stuff when it comes to energy transitions. One quote I used from him — in an article I wrote for Corporate Knights— really stood out for me: “For oil, the Kodak moment will be when somebody produces a low-cost battery, as that will change the transport market profoundly.”

Mitchell didn’t mention a specific price-point, but a number I’ve heard tossed around as the likely tipping point is $100 per kilowatt-hour. At that price it’s believed electric cars can easily outcompete gas-fuelled vehicles by pretty much every measure. Tesla’s chief technology officer JB Straubel said last year that he expected that $100 target to be hit by the end of this decade.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance says it expects battery cell packs for battery-electric vehicles (BEVs) and plug-in hybrid vehicles (PHEVs) to average less than $120 kWh by 2030. Colin Mckerracher, BNEF’s head of advanced transportation, had a post on Twitter last week featuring an interesting slide from a Ford investor presentation. Ford, according to the slide, thinks its battery cells for BEVs can hit $120 kWh in 2020 and projects costs hitting $95 by 2025 and $85 by 2030. BNEF will be updating its price survey next quarter, Mckerracher tells me.*

Finally, we can’t let the week go by without pointing to the soon-to-be-launched GM Chevy Bolt, which we learned will have a range of 238 miles (383 kilometres) between charges. It has been reported that the batteries used in the Bolt come in at $145 kWh. The car will still be priced in the high $30,000 range, but the fact a mainstream carmaker like GM is hitting this range at this price point in 2016 is nothing short of phenomenal, and in my opinion should silence all the EV haters who have dismissed the technology and its potential. Did they really believe that EV tech as reported in 2010 would never change, never get better, never get more affordable?

electric_busAnd let’s not obsess over just cars. Buses and big trucks, previously considered off limits to battery technology, are now being eyed as potential markets. Elon Musk, in Part Deux of his Master Plan, cited plans in July for a “Tesla Semi” unveiling next year and a desire to get into “high passenger-density urban transport” — i.e. buses. A Michigan-based company called Nikola Motor Co. is coming out with its own electric drive semi-trucks fuelled by hydrogen, while Proterra has a bus that can go 350 miles (564 km) on a single charge.

No wonder Exxon Mobil has beefed up its anti-EV lobbying. The company is getting worried. It sees the trend line, and it knows what this means for its core business. The only stalling tactic it has at this point is to continue feeding the public an increasingly tired line: EVs and their batteries need further development and cost-reductions to be competitively viable on a large scale.

It’s hogwash, of course. At some point within the next decade, Exxon executives are going to have to turn to the camera and smile for their Kodak moment.

*Paragraph has been updated from earlier version.

Changes to Ontario’s green energy strategy make a whole lot of sense…

sarniasolar1Ontario Energy Minister Bob Chiarelli announced on May 30 that there would be a few major changes to the way the province procures renewable energy.

Here’s what the government is saying these days:

  • The province will develop a competitive procurement process for renewable projects over 500 kilowatts, which will no longer qualify for a feed-in-tariff.
  • These same projects will have to meet a higher community standard. Developers will need to work directly with municipalities to identify appropriate locations and site requirements.
  • Projects 10 to 500 kilowatts in size (a.k.a small FIT projects) will be given priority if a municipality is a development partner or leading the project.
  • The government will work with municipalities to determine a property tax rate increase for wind turbine towers.
  • Between now and 2018, a new block of 900 megawatts will be available for small FIT and microFIT programs. Annual procurement caps will be set at 150 megawatts for Small FIT and 50 megawatts for microFIT, a much more measured approach that will create more stability in the market.
  • The World Trade Organization has ruled that the domestic content mandate attached to Ontario’s FIT program was in violation of GATT rules. As a result, the government has decided to eliminate the local content requirement.

These are all good moves for a provincial green-energy strategy that has had its fair share of controversy and setbacks. First, I have to applaud the decision to treat small and large renewable energy projects differently. I have been arguing for more than two years now that the province needs to get back to a competitive procurement process for large wind and solar projects. The whole point of the FIT program, IMHO, was to make electricity production in Ontario more accessible to communities, homeowners, schools, farmers, etc… by creating a standard, long-term contract and process for selling green electricity into the provincial grid. Fact is, it’s expensive to participate in requests for proposals. Companies can spend millions as part of their bid only to walk away with nothing. Smaller developers don’t have the deep pockets to play that game, but big developers generally do. My only reservation about the new rules is that they set the cut-off point at 500 kilowatts, and there is no distinction between solar and wind projects. For solar projects, I would require any project over 1 megawatt to go through competitive procurement. For wind, I would require it for projects over 10 megawatts. Still, what’s contemplated in the new rules is an improvement.

The phasing out of domestic content rules is also good news, as they have served their purpose. Even with the WTO challenge, most people in the industry knew that it would take a while for the matter to get resolved. From my perspective, this gave plenty of time to developers in need of local content to lure some manufacturing (and associated jobs) into the province. True, some of those jobs might go away once the rules are phased out, but many now anchored here will decide to stay given that the market for product between now and 2018 will still be healthy (and the fact that the FIT will still exist for small and micro projects). Where this gets interesting is that developers of large projects can now source from outside of the province — including China. No longer can the domestic content rule be an excuse for higher costs. When bidding for projects, they’ll have to come in at the lowest price AND have to demonstrate a positive/collaborative relationship with the community in which they would like to build. This means, presumably, that most of the megawatts of renewable power that are built under the new rules will be much less expensive than what we’ve seen under the FIT program. The cost of solar modules has plunged. Wind turbines are getting more efficient. We’re generally getting more efficient at building these projects, driving down development costs. Ontario is now going to benefit from this trend in a more pronounced way than under the FIT program, where a two-year price review (and even the new one-year review) frankly couldn’t keep up with the pace of change.

Will we lose jobs by dropping the domestic content mandate? Probably, but there is more to “green jobs” than people standing around warehouses playing assistant to machines. This industry creates opportunities for lawyers, accountants, electricians, marketers, tradespeople, engineers, environmental consultants, truck drivers, etc…  and I’m convinced those jobs far outnumber the manufacturing jobs we’ve become so obsessed with in this province. And let’s face it, most of the “manufacturing” jobs we attracted to Ontario involved assembling components and integrating equipment that was made somewhere else. Bottom line: Employment in renewable energy is going to continue to grow in Ontario, even without domestic content rules and the domestic manufacturing jobs they helped create.

Meanwhile, the new emphasis on local participation is encouraging. Again, this goes back to the original spirit of the FIT program: to actively engage the population in the operation of our electricity system through direct participation. And as Germany and other countries have shown, the greater the participation (and associated benefits) the greater the acceptance of these new technologies. Impose something on people and their natural inclination is to resist. There will always be NIMBYs that can’t be reasoned with, but give members of a community more say and more to gain from such projects and you make champions out of opponents.

Before I sign off,  I will point out one more piece of good news in these proposed rule changes. Now that the largest projects will be selected through competitive procurement, this creates more flexibility in terms of how the Ontario Power Authority prices renewables. For example, it could set different rates for peak and off-peak wind and solar power. Not only does this more accurately reflect the cost of electricity in the wholesale market, but depending on the price spread it may create an incentive for developers to use energy storage as a way to maximize revenues from every kilowatt-hour produced. This motivation simply doesn’t exist under the current FIT program, which doesn’t discriminate between the time of day kilowatt-hours are produced. One can envision third-party energy storage providers and aggregators emerging in the marketplace to offer such services to developers, in addition to the many ancillary services that energy storage can bring to the grid.

Let’s keep in mind that the government recently put out a request for information (RFI) on the  “State of Energy Storage Technology in Ontario.” It is seeking to better understand the “potential of these technologies to provide value to Ontario’s electricity system” and the “barriers to realizing this potential.” That’s a good sign, and hints at the thinking going on in the background. Here’s hoping that this new thinking is reflected in the updated Long-Term Energy Plan, which is currently under review.

With renewable energy development in Ontario put a more sustainable path, the government should now re-commit itself to energy conservation, which has been all but ignored in recent years despite talk of creating a “culture of conservation” in this province.

(NOTE: I’m still hopeful that the moratorium on offshore wind will be lifted and the government will direct the Ontario Power Authority to accept bids for a demonstration/study project of no less than 10 megawatts. This is a step we must take to know for sure, through direct study in the field, the degree to which we would should develop offshore wind and what the rules should be.)

Wind power isn’t perfect, but it’s a hell of a lot better than the alternatives

Sorry, posting this a bit late. Have been swamped lately with work….

apple_energy_storageAn intriguing story emerged last week about an Apple patent that has absolutely nothing to do with wireless gadgets, digital music, touch screens or the Internet “cloud”.

The title of the patent, filed in June 2011, is “On-demand Generation of Electricity from Stored Wind Energy.”

Wind energy? Apple? Don’t be so surprised. Like Google, another technology giant increasingly obsessed with clean energy, Apple operates huge data centres that consume tremendous amounts of electricity, much of it based on coal.

Like most consumer-facing companies, it wants to be perceived as a responsible corporate citizen, meaning it’s eager to tap into low- or zero-emission energy alternatives.

In its patent, Apple describes a way to capture thermal energy resulting from the spinning of wind turbines and then use it to heat up a special fluid with a low boiling point. The heat “stored” in that fluid could then be extracted on demand to generate electricity, similar to how a solar-thermal power plant might operate.

The fact that Apple is looking for a way to “dispatch” wind energy highlights what is arguably wind’s Achilles heel: intermittency. It often blows when it’s required least, and often doesn’t when we have our highest energy demands.

This has left wind energy open to attack by those, for whatever reason, who don’t think wind turbines have a place in our electricity mix. Associated with those attacks is much misunderstanding about how wind energy interacts with our existing electricity system.

For example, the Star received a complaint about last Saturday’s Clean Break column, in which I highlighted the hypocrisy of Health Canada for comprehensively studying the health effects of wind farms but not the oil sands.

In addition to accusing me of being an investor in the wind industry and thus having a conflict of interest – which I’m not, and don’t, unless you include the emotional investment I have in dealing with climate change – the writer of the complaint made the following comment about wind turbines:

“Every one of them is equipped with a gas generator to produce power when the wind fails. Nobody I know in the wind industry has ever stated otherwise.”

This statement is consistent with others which claim that for every megawatt of wind capacity installed another megawatt of natural gas generation is needed as backup.

Because of this alleged dependence on back-up generation from natural gas, another individual asserted in an e-mail that “there is a net-zero environmental benefit” from adding wind energy to our grid.

With regard to the first comment, one can say with absolute confidence that wind turbines are not equipped with backup generators that run on natural gas. This isn’t to say that other energy sources, including natural gas, aren’t relied on as a backup for when the wind doesn’t blow.

“When we’re dealing with the variability of wind, we look at a lot of tools,” said Bruce Campbell, vice-president of resource integration at Ontario’s Independent Electricity System Operator, which manages supply and demand on our grid. “You have to look at this from a system basis. You can’t look at it as one individual technology.”

Often we’ll use electricity generated from natural gas plants to step in when the wind steps out, but it’s not coming from a single point. The grid is like a big tub of water, with a bunch of taps at the top (supply) and a bunch of drains at the bottom (demand).

The goal is to keep the water at the level we demand, meaning there will constantly be a different mix of drains and taps that are opening and closing.

Campbell said Ontario hasn’t yet had to increase its requirement for back-up reserves because of the introduction of wind power. The question to ask is: If the wind generation we have no longer existed, what would be there in its place? The answer is more power plants burning coal and natural gas.

If we were to stick with our coal phase-out strategy without wind, we would need to burn more natural gas. The reality is that when the wind blows it gives us the opportunity to burn less natural gas when it’s being used to displace coal. This is partially why greenhouse-gas emissions associated with electricity generation in Ontario have fallen by two-thirds since 2003.

The dismissers don’t believe it. They contend that fossil fuel plants run less efficiently when backing up wind because of the increased need to start up and cycle. In fact, they claim the inefficiencies are so great that they offset the benefits of wind power.

The efficiency argument contains a tiny kernel of truth, but the impact is negligible according to a detailed study published by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory. It appeared last March in the journal Environmental and Science Technology.

Using the state of Illinois as a case study, researchers found that the inefficient use of coal and natural gas plants and its impact on carbon dioxide emissions is hardly noticed until wind exceeds a 20 per cent share of electricity supply. At 40 per cent of supply, inefficiencies are more visible, but CO2 reductions of 33 per cent are still achieved.

To put this in context, wind was roughly 3 per cent of Ontario’s mix last year and the goal is to achieve 10 per cent penetration through a combination of wind and solar by 2015. We have a long way to go to get to 20 per cent, let alone 40 per cent.

It’s important to point out that the authors of this study didn’t account for the retiring of old, inefficient coal power plants as more wind is introduced to the grid, or the addition of more flexible and efficient natural gas turbines that companies such as General Electric have started selling as a complement to wind.

They also didn’t account for some of the other tools at the disposal of system operators, such as demand-response, dramatically improved wind forecasting, and energy storage, all of which will play a growing roles over the years in Ontario and other jurisdictions.

Who knows, maybe Apple will even make something of its wind-turbine storage patent. Could there be an iWind in our future?

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.

VRB Power terminates most of staff, calls outlook grim

VRB Power’s vanadium flow-battery technology might have held potential as a utility-scale energy storage system, but in the end the Vancouver-based company has failed to execute and is on the road to insolvency. The company released a press release this afternoon announcing that it has been unsuccessful in seeking a merger, sale or some kind of financing that can keep the company afloat. Continue reading VRB Power terminates most of staff, calls outlook grim

Why the future of wind power looks better and better

My Clean Break column today takes a look at a few startups that are trying to make wind farms more reliable and productive. Most of the companies I’ve mentioned in the past — Whalepower (blade design that mimics humpback whale flippers); Premium Power (utility-scale zinc-bromide battery storage cheap enough to couple with wind turbines/farms); and Catch The Wind (LIDAR adapted for integration into wind turbines). In the column I also discuss Vancouver-based ExRo Technologies, which has developed a new kind of generator with a built-in electronic transmission rather than an external mechanical transmission. This is a potentially game-changing innovation. Continue reading Why the future of wind power looks better and better