Energy Roundup: Iron batteries vs. fossil fuels, nuclear vs. climate change, drought vs. life

Energy Roundup: Iron batteries vs. fossil fuels, nuclear vs. climate change, drought vs. life

Back when I was, unfortunately, working for the world’s largest coal company, employees were regularly made guinea pugs for the various propaganda pitches that the industry concocted to combat clear evidence that fossil fuels were generating enormous harm at all levels. One of those pitches what that coal-powered electricity was the only way to provide energy to Africa. The core of that pitch was simply this: Coal is cheap. Because it was cheap, it was the best option to get power to people who were currently without power. So, anyone who campaigned against coal was really campaigning to keep millions of people shut out of modern society, subject to living a pre-industrial age life, and consigned to cooking their meals over dung. 

I particularly remember the part about cooking over dung. One of the presentations had extensive statistics about how many people still used dung as a form of fuel.

Of course, it wasn’t as if someone was going to actually supply those people with electricity from coal. Coal plants come in only two sizes—enormous and Brobdingnagian—and actually getting the power where it wasn’t would mean building thousands of miles of transmission towers and switching stations. There was also the little matter of transporting the coal from mines in South Africa, Australia, or North America. No one was stepping up to make those investments. Everyone knew it wasn’t going to happen, but hey, why do you want sad children cooking over stinky dung fires? Africa-hater! was the refrain.

That was then. These days, new solar or wind installations cost less than just maintaining an existing coal-fired plant. That’s leaving aside the cost of building the plant. Or paying for the coal itself. Just keeping the plant running cost more than it does to do everything necessary to create renewable energy from scratch. Now you’re getting stories like this one from Renewable Energy World, on the Nigeria Rural Electrification Project, and how real funding is cropping up to connect thousands of people—who have never had electricity before—to renewable energy, distributed using micro-grids.

Coal is no longer a cheap solution. Renewables are. But don’t worry. I’m sure the propaganda wing of fossil fuel companies still has plenty of dung.

Iron batteries could transform electrical grids

Another week, another battery breakthrough. University labs and startup companies seem to announce a new battery technology every week, if not every day, and yet the real advances in battery storage have been agonizingly slow. That’s because efforts to squeeze in all the electrons possible often run into a set of problems. Some batteries are almost infinitely reusable, but can’t hold a lot of power. Some batteries are enormously powerful, but can only be cycled a few times before they begin to break down. Some batteries have problems with heat, or cold, that make them impractical in many situations. 

The batteries that are currently used in electric vehicles—using lithium, nickel, and generally some (though increasingly less) cobalt, are considerably better than the best that were available a decade ago, but they are also models of compromise, where power, size, usable life, weight, stability, and cost are all factors in finding something that can move a car or truck down the road. 

Many would-be battery barons who hope to find a new path to storing energy end up running afoul of some part of that equation, but the startup featured this week in The Wall Street Journal is just pitching out two factors entirely: size and weight. That’s because Form Energy Inc. doesn’t care if their batteries find a home in EVs. They’re going for something bigger. They’re going for taking fossil fuels out of the electrical grid.

Right now, coal and natural gas are often counted on to provide the primary source of power for many areas, thanks to concerns over the reliability of solar and wind. Some of those concerns are legitimate. After all, solar panels aren’t doing a lot for the grid at night. Those concerns are also driven in part by an effective propaganda effort from fossil fuel companies, as discussed above.

But Form Energy is working on batteries that use an extraordinarily common element—iron—to create energy storage that is bulky, and heavy, but less than half the cost, in terms of killowatt-hour, of the lithium cells that are not only available in vehicles, but used in the biggest battery storage units. Tesla has been delivering lithium-based storage around the world, and will happily sell you one a “megapack” via its website—7.6 megawatts of storage for $10 million. Though you’ll have to wait a couple of years for delivery at this point, because demand is high.

If Form Energy can deliver on the price they’re talking about, that same 7.6 megawatt-hours of power would run just $152,000 using their new technology (though it’s worth noting that the Tesla package is more than just raw batteries, but also contains all the power management, charging systems, and necessary hookups). By dropping the level of storage cost to below $20 per kilowatt-hour, Form is reaching a point where the total cost of a renewable system—both the wind or solar installation and the batteries necessary to provide power over an extended period when sun or wind aren’t cooperating—is enough to undercut any remaining need for fossil fuels on the grid.

Form isn’t the only one looking at iron as a basis for batteries. ESS has been deploying such batteries for years, through not quite so cheap or efficient as what Form is promising. In addition, iron batteries aren’t the only solution for this problem. Other companies are coming online with systems that store energy through physical means, such as lifting materials or putting inert gas under pressure. Just like all those would-be battery techs in EVs, all of them are yet to really face the marketplace and determine if they can really meet the promised price or performance. 

But so far, several of these companies look promising, and as the rapid replacement of coal with natural gas has demonstrated over the last decade, the energy grid can change much more rapidly than its size and cost might suggest.

The climate crisis is threatening traditional nuclear power

Nuclear power does not generate greenhouse gases. Nuclear plants also put less radioactive elements into the environment, and cause many fewer deaths, than do power plants using fossil fuels. As a result, nuclear power has gained a second look from many governments, and the support of advocates who also consider themselves environmentalists. 

Thanks to a new generation of plants on drawing boards around the world, nuclear may end up filling a significant portion of the gap created as fossil fuel plants vanish from the globe. Whether it’s thorium-based plants, or other forms of “intrinsically safe” reactors, new nuclear power may be staging a comeback.

However, at the same time the climate crisis is creating an opportunity for those working on the next generation of nuclear plants, it’s also creating a different kind of challenge for existing nuclear facilities. As a new study at Nature shows, the climate crisis is making nuclear power less reliable, and that effect is growing worse over time. Some of the issues may also extend to new facilities, as well as to any other form of electricity that counts on easy access to water as part of the power cycle.

That’s because droughts and heatwaves can leave the plants without access to the water they use in cooling, as well as in electrical production. France is just one of the locations where low river levels have resulted in nuclear plants going offline in times of high demand. 

In the western United States, both steam-based power plants of all sorts and hydroelectric generation is currently threatened by record low water levels. With Lake Meade at record lows, and Lake Powell following suit, lesser reservoirs are already being drained to keep water levels in the two massive facilities at a point where power can be generated. For now. 

In addition, because the water used for cooling nuclear plants re-enters streams and lakes warmer than went it went in, it can generate hot spots that are deadly to plants, fish, and other wildlife. With surface water temperatures warming, the damage created by those hot spots is increasing.

As the climate crisis spreads drought, heat, and increased weather variability, siting any plant that requires access to water becomes more difficult. Some nuclear plants may soon be sidelined expressly because of their need for more water access. Nuclear may form a valuable part of the energy picture going forward, but it’s unlikely that those nuclear plants will resemble those used today.

The Middle East is facing huge power outages

When thinking about the Middle East, one thing that might be an easy assumption is: There’s no problem with power. After all, the region is sitting on top of the world’s largest accumulation of rotten dinosaur juice (and yes, I know it’s not really dinosaurs). How could they possibly be short of power?

To begin with, few countries around the world, including in the Middle East, actually generate a significant amount of power by burning oil. That’s because oil is pricey. It’s always been cheaper to sell the oil, and either import coal or build a nuclear plant. But that’s not the root of the problem. The problem is that it’s also cheaper to under-build the grid, so that it’s unprepared for crisis situations. In other words—just like Texas. That’s true of even several nations that haven’t, like Lebanon, been through a multi-decade civil war, or, like Iraq, been invaded and battered from both within and without.

In many areas of the Middle East, the official grid is also supplemented by a entrepreneurial layer of generators, and the official power distribution system has frayed into a disorganized—and very, very unsafe—tangle of wires running off in all directions. That system has provided power to millions of residents, and also helped to paper over the shortages of the large-scale grid. It’s a problem that afflicts cities in many areas of the world. But in the Middle East, it’s just … hotter.

And in the face of record heat, this under-built, overly-patched system is falling apart.

As The Washington Post reports, a combination of climate crisis and economic disaster means that most of Lebanon has gone from what was already a scant three hours a day of electricity to a scant nothing. The official grid is dead. Generators are the only game in town. 

Iraq, which had been buying electricity on transmission lines from Iran—a not-so-great situation considering … everything—hasn’t been able to pay its national electric bill. So the nation’s power has been cut to zero, With the available power generation in the country vastly below what’s necessary, both homes and businesses are turning to generators. 

Why don’t these countries use oil to generate electricity? Because it’s much more expensive than other methods. What are people in these countries being forced to do because the electrical grids are failing? Generate electricity from oil. The result isn’t just an unreliable, unsafe, highly polluting source of power, it’s a very expensive source of power. But people are willing to pay that price because there’s no alternative. The official grids, which were already insufficient, have absolutely wilted in the heat.

And just because power isn’t flowing from Iran to Iraq doesn’t mean that Iraq has megawatts to spare.

In a cellphone video that went viral this month, an ICU doctor in Tehran claimed that patients in a critical care unit had died when power was cut to ventilators as a result of the outages. “We have encountered such scenes many times,” the doctor, Mohamadreza Hashemian, wrote in a social media post that was quoted by Iranian news outlets.

In the video, doctors use flashlights to navigate a mostly dark hospital lit by a few emergency lights and a faint glow from some monitors.

Dr. Hashemiyan provided this video from ICU section of a hospital in Tehran. Patients are dying because of power outage in this hospital. Who’s responsible? https://t.co/1yknwLsqah

— Yasaman (@YasamanFlower) July 5, 2021

Japan ups its targets for renewables

Japan is on a lot of televisions this week for that other reason—one that’s usually good, but this time around is also even more controversial than in a typical cycle. But forget that for a moment to consider this, because it’s good, start to finish.

As Reuters reports, Japan has doubled its targets for renewable energy over the next decade, going from a previous level of 18% to a new target of 36%. Despite the disaster at Fukushima, Japan’s energy mix still calls for significant reliance on nuclear facilities, but it also ups the use of both solar and wind.

The biggest cut comes in the place where it was most needed. As part of its plans for increasing energy availability in general, Japan has been planning a new generation of coal-fired plants that would engage technology to make them cleaner-burning, and capture a percentage of the carbon produced. But cleaner coal is still pretty dirty when compared to any other option, and the new plan calls for a decrease in those new plants. It would be nice to say Japan was shelving these plants entirely, but … less is better.

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland signals need to end fossil fuel exploration

As Sec. Deb Haaland tours the West this week, in a look at issues surrounding oil and gas leases on public land, she’s finding plenty of evidence that the answer to that issue should just be no, with drought being a big factor. As The Hill reports, Haaland didn’t exactly make it a secret where she will fall on this issue. 

“Drought doesn’t just impact one community,” Haaland said at an appearance in Colorado. “It affects all of us, from farmers and ranchers to city dwellers and Indian tribes. We all have a role to use water wisely and manage our resources with every community in mind.” In talking about the area around her own home, Haaland made the connection even more bluntly: “No water, no food. No water, no wildlife. No water, no life.”

Sec. Haaland drew a clear connection between the drought and the climate crisis. She called requests for more fossil fuel exploration “a grave mistake,” and insisted that “we must urgently confront the climate emergency and we should start now, by banning new leasing on public lands.”

One of the things often left out of stories about oil and gas exploration is that the fracking which has made natural gas much more available over the last two decades is also extremely water intensive. The fracturing of shale is accomplished by pumping high volumes of water into the ground, along with chemicals that can escape into surrounding aquifers. When proponents talk about allowing more drilling on public land, they’re often talking about using millions of gallons in areas that are already short of water and potentially damaging ground water supplies.

“In the North Fork Valley, there are more than 100,000 acres of oil and gas leases in the middle of the watershed and the county’s climate hotspot. The climate can’t afford any new fracking and drilling and Colorado certainly won’t have the water to support it.” — Sec. Deb Haaland

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