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The New Generation

Issue 6 | March 2019


From the Editor

Dear reader,

Thanks for picking up the new edition.

Believe it or not, this will be my last issue after two years of working on the Journal’s committee. Humera, from Imperial, will be taking charge next year. ESCP has joined the group, and it looks like we’re even spreading beyond London. A lot has changed.

I guess it is perfect timing for our theme: ‘The New Generation’.

The world of energy is exploding at a pace that we (or, well, I) can barely keep up with, and the old technologies that we know very well are being tweaked and changed – sometimes beyond recognition. New technologies are introduced constantly, influencing future development and tearing down the world order that we once knew. The political barriers that new technologies face are immensely high or comically low. The politics is unstable. There are so many fluctuating factors involved that it’s hard to keep track.

So… I guess this is how you can keep track.

Have a great Easter, revise hard and good luck with all the project work/exam revision heading your way.

Kathryn Jaitly

Editor-in-Chief


Past Six Months


China’s LNG demand continues to soar in 2018, passing the 50 million metric ton milestone, a 43% increase from the previous year. The country’s LNG demand growth is expected to continue in 2019, boosting the investment outlook for the LNG sector. Globally, many large import and export facilities expect to receive a final investment decision (FID) this year, likely increasing the international capacity for LNG trade. The $40 billion FID given to the flagship Kitimat LNG project in Canada last year paved the way for this new wave of industry investment.

BP agreed to support a call by Climate Action 100+ Initiative for increased transparency regarding its Paris Agreement strategy. The company will present the resolution at its AGM in May. It calls for more transparency regarding investment in old and new tech, the carbon intensity of its products, and improved progress reporting. Chevron partially mirrored this measure, to avoid a shareholder rebellion. Though Royal Dutch Shell released plans in December to link executive bonuses to achievement of greenhouse emissions targets, BP’s plans may be the most extensive yet from the oil supermajors.

Enel’s earnings rose 4% in 2018 due to improving profitability of its renewables fleet in Europe and Latin America. The results demonstrated the profitability of its plan to decarbonise its generation portfolio. The company is the largest renewable energy business in the world, with an installed capacity of 43 GW.

Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E), the largest utility company in California, declared bankruptcy in January. Its power lines and other hardware caused more than 1,500 wildfires in the unseasonably hot, arid forests of California. Consequently, the company faces more than $30 billion in liability. The bankruptcy raises many issues for utility regulators. Will PG&E be allowed to pass this liability will on to its customers? Will the company still be obligated to pay the full rate for its PPAs? How can a utility account for such climate risks in the future? These issues will not be sorted out quickly; stay tuned.

The U.S. imposed oil sanctions on Venezuela to pressure President Nicolás Maduro. These sanctions will likely worsen economic conditions in the already struggling nation. Speculators continue to bet on the uncertainty of Venezuela’s oil exports, leading prices of “heavy-sour” crudes to surge. China and many other developing nations rely heavily on such crude oil for the production of asphalt which is crucial to the continuing rapid expansion of their infrastructure.

On February 7th, US congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez introduced the ‘Green New Deal’ (GND) resolution. It sets out an ambitious vision for climate change mitigation and economic justice. Though it is short on specifics, the resolution echoes Franklin Roosevelt’s “New Deal” of the 1930s. It has already gained support from several Democratic 2020 presidential candidates and has become a rallying cry for progressive activists. Yet, the GND is far from becoming law. Republicans are critical of the resolution, and many centrist Democrats are hesitant to support such major reforms.

Maersk, the world’s biggest shipping company, committed to cut its carbon emissions to zero by 2050. It will require the development of new fuels to power their shipping fleet, shifting the company away from the dirty bunker fuel that currently powers their operations. This commitment is perhaps the most significant of many recent corporate pledges to eliminate carbon emissions. Notably, Xcel Energy, the largest investor-owned utility in the US, also committed to produce 100% of its electricity from zero-carbon sources by 2050.

Drax has captured carbon emissions from wood pellets—a world first. The Yorkshire pilot plant could eventually scale up for commercial use at the Drax’s power station. This example of bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) has the potential for net negative carbon emissions. The IPCC cited the technology as necessary as part of a route to avoid 1.5 °C warming.

Hitachi has stated its intentions to cancel the construction of the Wylfa Newydd plant in Wales and suspended work on the Oldbury plant in Gloucestershire. This announcement came less than a week after Toshiba revealed the liquidation of NuGen. These hiccups in government’s plan to build additional nuclear capacity have called into question the future of the nuclear industry in the UK, amidst a dismal economic outlook for nuclear power.

Katowice, Poland hosted COP 24 in December. The summit led to the creation of the Katowice Rulebook, a common set of rules which enhance the NDCs of the Paris Agreement. However, the Rulebook is not complete. The parties delayed agreeing to rules on Article 6 of the Paris Agreement, regarding direct carbon cooperation of countries, until COP 25. The language recognizing the IPCC’s latest report was a major point of contention. The parties “noted,” but did not “welcome,” the report because of dispute from the US, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.



Focus: The Next Generation


Paving the Way for the 21st Century

Two Concurrent Stratagems, One Energy Future

Due to the popularity of innovation and media proliferation, an overwhelming number of people get dragged into thinking that through small-scale sustainable deployment and energy innovation alone the world will meet its sustainable goals in the fight against climate change*. Unfortunately, this is not true. “We need big gains” - Olivier Guersent, Europe's most senior official working on Sustainable Finance at the European Commission, stated during a conference at University of Oxford. The European Commission estimates that we need to spend 180 to 200 billion euros per year for the next 16 years to meet environmental targets in Europe [1]. Given the EU Climate Change policies established by the European Commission, the United Nations recommendations that emerged from the Paris Climate Agreement, and the social pressure to exponentially reduce our carbon footprint, the world is experiencing a massive deployment of large sustainable technologies such as hydro dams, nuclear power plants, and large offshore windfarms, amongst others.

In 2016, the Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated Afghanistan’s largest hydroelectric plant with the 42 MW Salma dam [2]. In China, the first month of 2019 has just seen the approval of a new upstream dam in the Yangtze River with 2 GW capacity, contributing to the existing 350 GW of total installed hydropower capacity in the PRC [3]. In 2015, offshore wind projects stood at 660 GW. This contrasts with 2018 figures where solar and wind reached 1,000 GW, showing the growth in renewable investment and deployment. Large-scale installation of these established alternative power sources is essential for mitigating the effects of climate change.


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Figure 1: Energy consumption in the United States (1776-2015).


Nuclear, hydroelectric and biomass technologies have been around for centuries (Figure 1). Considered to be the most reliable sustainable technologies, we rely on them today to cover most of our renewable energy production. For instance, hydropower provided 7% of the world primary energy consumption of 2015, whilst the other renewable sources only contributed to 2% [5]. In 2018, hydropower (2,195GW) contributed more than double the energy capacity of all other renewable energy sources combined (1,081GW) [6]. If non-hydro renewables’ capacity to generate electricity is half that of hydropower, why isn’t energy that is fed to the grid half as well? The explanation lies in the intermittency of solar and wind renewables which leads to instability and a threat to energy security. The sun doesn’t always shine, the wind doesn’t always blow, thus, the need for established energy storage technologies, currently with a capacity of 176 GW (2017), i.e. less than 2% of global power production capacity [7].

Large sustainable projects pay off in countries where renewable resources are vastly abundant. For instance, resources in Central and South America are vast in variety and quality. Today, Latin American countries do not require subsidies to utilise renewable energy. In less than 10 years, Uruguay has been able to supply 92.8% of their electricity from renewable energy, 41% of which comes from hydropower and 36% from wind [8], the latter figure getting close to Denmark’s leading production of 42%, according to the Global Wind Energy Council [9]. The runner-up countries are Portugal with 22%, Spain with 21% and Germany with 15%. Currently, Iceland is the only country who is able to sustain its electricity demand solely from renewable sources (87% from hydropower, 13% from geothermal) [10].

Countries like Costa Rica have been able to power their economy 100% fossil-fuel-free for 250 continuous days (two-thirds of a year), achieving 75% from hydropower, 12% from geothermal and 10% from wind and the rest from solar and biomass [11]. Their aim is to rely solely on renewables by 2021, whilst Nicaragua wants to achieve 90% renewable energy usage by 2020. On a parallel note, while China is currently the world’s largest polluter (9.5 billion tons of CO2, 26% of total world emissions), Chinese investments make up the largest share (32%) of ventures in renewable energy [12]. The overall trend is pointing towards growing activity in the renewable spectrum with no sign of abatement.

These efforts are in constant conflict with the increasing energy demand. In the name of achieving sustainable energy goals, investing in large projects with large capacities seems to be the main macro-focus and the way to go. But what about at micro-level? An established technology of the future could be an innovative technology of today.

The discussed technologies started small once and underwent lengthy periods of blood, sweat and tears to reach their current scale of implementation. They are still being developed to increase efficiency and promote mass adoption. It was in the mid-1880s in the UK that William Armstrong invented the high-pressure hydraulic cranes and machinery which later led to the first hydraulic accumulator, the basis for the hydroelectric plants [13]. In 1881, the first hydropower station, the Schoellkopf Power Station (named after its owner), started to generate electricity from the waters that would later stream into the Niagara Falls. Five years later, Charles F. Bush used wind turbines made from wood to generate 12 kW of electricity. Today an average onshore wind turbine has a capacity of 2.5-3 MW [14].

Fifty years after Alexander Becquerel enlightened the scientific community with the discovery of the photovoltaic effect in 1839, Charles Fritts developed a solar cell with less than 1% efficiency. Currently, the most efficient single-junction crystalline-Silicon solar cell stands at 26.7% and for perovskite cell, it’s 20.9% efficiency, the latter developed by Dr Jizhong Yao from Imperial College London and CEO of Microquanta Semiconductor [15]. The first battery, or “voltaic pile” as was then known, was created by Alessandro Volta in 1800 made of zinc, copper and cardboard damped in brine [16], creating the enabling mechanism for energy storage. These micro-scale initiatives were the key to entire shifts in the way we power our lives today.

One could say that the 19th century was really the ignition time for the renewable energy industry; but in parallel, more efficient contestants arose with the Industrial Revolution and received more attention given their ability for rapid development, cheap abundant resources and mass deployment. The 21st century can be the era of (1) large renewable projects deployment and (2) innovation in the sustainable field, hoping for an ensuing adoption which could happen in 10 years, 50 years, or in a century, depending on the technology impact, its degree of novelty, ease of adoption and policy support.

This focus on improving and utilising existing technologies shouldn’t stop scientists, entrepreneurs, connoisseurs, engineers, programmers, and academic researchers from exploring and aiming to develop new energy solutions, just like Bush, Becquerel, Fritts and Volta did. That is where the true energy innovation comes in. Take wind energy for instance. One might think that a three-bladed wind turbine, as currently established, is the only suitable design for harnessing kinetic energy from wind, with an optimal balance between the drag and lift forces. NASA, however, has developed the idea of aerial wind farms. These consist of a kite-mimetic concept where turbines would operate at great heights and send back the energy generated through nanotubes. These turbine-vehicles would not take up any land space, do not produce carbon or noise and could be controlled remotely [17]. In 2007, the Canadian start-up Magenn Power Inc developed a model of the turbine.


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Figure 2: Magenn model [18].


One doesn’t need to go as high as 9,000 meters to harness energy. We might have it right below our feet. PaveGen is a company that creates tiles that convert kinetic energy to electricity from human motion and collect data for walking-traffic patterns. It was founded in 2009 by Laurence Kemball-Cook, a graduate from Loughborough University. The floor tiles were used for the 2012 Olympic Games in London, in the Paris Marathon and in football fields in Rio de Janeiro in Brazil to power lighting when dark [19].

In Japan and the Netherlands, several dance floors have already installed energy-harnessing floors. Energy Floors is a Dutch company that have created a technology at TU Delf and Eindhoven University of Technology, where “every footstep or dance move on one of our floor systems generates electrical energy” [20]. They have provided their technology to Coachella festival for 3 continuous years and UNTOLD, Romania’s greatest musical festival, generated 3.68 MJ from this flooring, enough to wash half of the participating crowd’s sweaty clothes after the festival.

Let’s head north. In Stockholm Central Station, 300,000 travellers walk the floors daily [21]. Who would have thought that one could generate electricity from motion and body heat? Jernhusen is a Swedish real-estate company that believes we should not let this heat go to waste. They have installed heat exchangers that use the heat at the station to warm up water, supplying heating to a building adjacent to the station and reducing their energy costs by 25% [22].

Sweden seems to be on a streak in finding innovative ways of reusing energy. In a Swedish small town called Halmstad, after a crematorium underwent an environmental impact assessment, the director of the cemetery realized that the heat leaving the funnels could be reused to heat their premises and feed the district heating network [23]. The idea was taken on at the Durham Crematorium, where it could provide enough electricity to power 1,500 TVs, their chapel and its offices [24]. Redditch Crematorium for instance began heating water for the town pool and obtained the Green Apple award from Green Organisation [25]. Despite the environmental contribution, there have been some ethical issues. However, John Troyer, director at the Center for Death & Society (CDAS) from Bath University states that the process captures most of the heat from the gas used for combustion, and negligible amounts come from the cadavers themselves [26].

Trash – typically considered to be waste – can also be used to generate energy and consequently, it becomes a very interesting commodity. For instance, Oslo imports trash to generate heating and electricity [27]. This is also pursued in Uruguay, where 1,500 MWh are produced through this waste system each year.

Solar is no exception to innovation. From optimizing nanostructures for energy devices (something called quantum dot materials), to utilizing graphene in the design of flexible, low-cost and transparent solar PV cells, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is also innovating in novel ways throughout the electrochemical, materials and engineering spectrum [28]. Diving into the deep waters, algae and jellyfish release GFP, a green protein that allows them to emit fluorescent light, which has been discovered to increase the efficiency in photovoltaic cells by the Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden [29].

A bit of sci-fi and hundreds of kilometres up in the sky, we may soon find space-based solar power (SBSP). This concept is particularly enticing as capturing the sun’s energy before it hits the atmosphere would avoid significant diffusion losses, leading to much higher power yields. Research in SBSP is of particular interest for countries such as Japan, China, the US and Russia. In 1999, NASA developed the idea of a Suntower, where solar energy was collected and beamed down back to Earth for commercial use [30], but last year California Institute of Technology researchers created a SBSP prototype that worked in the Caltech lab [31].

On a more established scope, Tesla’s solar roofs are commercialized as high-end design roof tiles that are made of PV cells that can collect energy from your roof whenever the sun shines and are integrated with a Powerwall battery to efficiently manage energy and cost. Elon Musk claims that the tiles are durable for a life-time, albeit more expensive than conventional tiles.

Most of you will have also heard of the Tesla’s Gigafactory in Nevada, with 20 GWh per year of storage capacity in Lithium-ion batteries, claimed to be enough to produce 1.5 million Tesla cars per year [32], but perhaps not many would be aware of the liquid metal battery. Donald Sadoway, an MIT professor, visited Imperial College London in November 2018 and shared how he developed a new form of energy storage called the Liquid Metal Battery, commercialized as Ambri. It uses widely abundant materials so that it can be mass produced, preferably locally. It proves to be such a good alternative to Li-ion batteries and other established energy storage technologies that Bill Gates decided to invest in the company, followed by Khosla Ventures. Sadoway pointed out a very interesting point in a TED Talk he delivered in 2012. “The battery is the key enabling device here. With it we can draw electricity from the Sun, even when the Sun does not shine... And that changes everything.” [33]

Each of these innovative technologies relates to energy but presented as different forms of energy. The 1st Law of Thermodynamics states that energy cannot be created nor destroyed, it can only change form. The forms can vary from mechanical, thermal, nuclear, chemical, electromagnetic, sonic, gravitational, kinetic, potential, ionization energy, etc. For instance, this January 2019 at MIT, researchers announced the first device that converts energy from Wi-Fi signals into electricity [34]. It is truly up to the brilliance of the human mind, within its limitations, to discover new ways of allowing these forms of energy to interact with one another in a way that is convenient to us and in harmony with the environment. Whilst we need to continue investing in large projects to meet sustainable goals, it is also imperative that we add to the legacy that great minds like Becquerel and Volta have passed onto our generation, so that we may do the same for generations to come.


References »

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  13. The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica (2018). William George Armstrong, Baron Armstrong. Britannica. URL: https://www.britannica.com/biography/William-George-Armstrong-Baron-Armstrong-of-Cragside (last accessed 4th of February 2019)
  14. Third Planet Wind power. Wind Power History. URL: http://www.thirdplanetwind.com/energy/history.aspx (last accessed 4th of February 2019)
  15. Peleg R. 2018. Microquanta reaches 17.9% efficiency for perovskite solar mini-module. Perovskite-info. URL: https://www.perovskite-info.com/microquanta-reaches-179-efficiency-perovskite-solar-mini-module (last accessed 4th of February 2019)
  16. Neiger C. When was the first battery invented? Science How Stuff Works. URL: https://science.howstuffworks.com/innovation/inventions/when-was-the-first-battery-invented.htm (last accessed 4th of February 2019)
  17. Hodges J. An Answer to Green Energy Could Be in the Air. The Researcher News. NASA Langley Research Center. URL: https://www.nasa.gov/topics/technology/features/capturingwind.html (last accessed 4th of February 2019)
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The Emergence of a New Generation

A story of solar enhanced oil recovery

Perhaps a surprising fact about oil is that less than 30% [1] is forced out by pressure differences when a well is first drilled. Of course, the story doesn’t end there. ‘Waterflooding’, which is the process of injecting water into reservoir formations to sweep remaining oil into wells, has been the most widely used secondary oil recovery technique [2]. This further improves oil recovery; with this method, 30-50% [1] of the oil in a reservoir can be moved to the surface. But what of the oil that still remains underground? The narrative ends with enhanced oil recovery, or EOR, the traditional third stage of oil production [3]. It’s an umbrella term for many techniques that mostly involve the injection of fluids into the reservoir. The result of this can be explained by the term viscosity, which describes a fluid’s resistance to flow – water has a low viscosity while honey is more viscous. The fluids used during EOR reduce the viscosity of oil, allowing the oil to flow out more easily. Steam is the fluid of choice for thermal enhanced oil recovery [1]. This steam is often produced by burning natural gas. But in a world where there is an increasing focus on renewables, an important transition is being made. Countries like Oman and the USA are witnessing the birth of a new generation in thermal enhanced oil recovery - solar thermal enhanced oil recovery.

Solar thermal enhanced oil recovery, or solar EOR, makes use of mirrors to track the position of the sun. The mirrors reflect and concentrate sunlight onto devices that convert solar energy to heat, allowing water flowing in pipes to turn into steam that’s used for EOR [1]. Figure 1 shows the integration of solar EOR and existing thermal EOR infrastructure. The existing infrastructure is still needed to burn natural gas to produce steam at night. As an indication of scale, the biggest solar EOR project, a 1,021 MW facility is being built in Mirrah, Oman [4].


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Figure 1: Schematic of how solar EOR is incorporated into an existing facility [7].


The benefits of this technology are huge – natural gas doesn’t have be burnt by day to produce steam and thus, more gas is available for more economically favourable uses. John O’Donnell, the vice-president of GlassPoint, one of the companies pioneering solar EOR technologies, says that “the gas not burned at the oilfield can be diverted for export, power generation or to expand new industries, diversifying the economy” [4]. Furthermore, the installation, running and maintenance of this technology has the potential to boost economies. For example, it’s estimated that the rollout of solar EOR in Oman could lead to the creation of nearly 200,000 jobs whilst adding $7.52 bn [1] to the economy over the next decade, through a combination of additional oil revenue, gas exports and industrial projects. For a country whose GDP is around the $70 bn [5] mark, solar EOR’s potential contribution is clearly a significant number.

California is another region where this promising technology is taking shape. Aera, one of California’s largest oil and gas producers, adopted solar EOR because of “a combination of technology maturation and the economic opportunity created by policy decisions” [6]. For operators like Aera, it amounts to reduced spending on natural gas. O’Donnell estimates that “buying fuel makes up 60% of the operating cost of a typical heavy oilfield” and that “10% of global oil and gas production is consumed by the oil and gas industry itself” [4]. This surprising statistic highlights the potential impact that solar EOR, should it be feasible, could have. Thus, this seems to be a Goldilocks period for EOR’s new generation to flourish. Nevertheless, it’s interesting to think about the use of sustainable methods to improve oil production – is this relatively eco-friendly EOR technique simply perpetuating fossil fuel use? Time will tell. For now, it is evident that solar EOR is playing its part in conserving natural resources and lowering carbon emissions [9].

However, feasibility is solar EOR’s main drawback at the moment. One practical concern is that associated with solar energy in general – it cannot work around the clock. This perennial limitation currently restricts solar EOR’s use to regions that receive a large amount of solar energy per unit area [8]. However, such regions often have a desert environment and are prone to dust storms and high levels of humidity. Therefore, cleaning the mirrors (and any protective casing they may be enclosed in) is of vital importance to maintain system efficiency. This would require an automated washing and cleaning system [1]. Not only does this highlight the large initial investment needed, but it also emphasises the need for clean water, a scarce resource in such regions. Furthermore, the large capital outlay involved may be an obstacle in a turbulent industry, where many companies are still reeling from the oil price collapse.

Despite the limitations solar EOR, it seems that the industry is embracing this new generation. Companies like Aera are positive that they “will learn how to make this technology more effective going forward”, before being “able to deploy it elsewhere” [6]. Whether solar EOR manages to become a widespread technology remains to be seen.

References »

  1. Solar enhanced oil recovery An in-country value assessment for Oman [Internet]. Ey.com. 2014 [cited 8 February 2019]. Available from: https://www.ey.com/Publication/vwLUAssets/EY-Solar-enhanced-oil-recovery-in-Oman-January-2014/$FILE/EY-Solar-enhanced-oil-recovery-in-Oman-January-2014.pdf
  2. Waterflooding - Schlumberger Oilfield Glossary [Internet]. Glossary.oilfield.slb.com. 2019 [cited 8 February 2019]. Available from: https://www.glossary.oilfield.slb.com/Terms/w/waterflooding.aspx
  3. Tertiary recovery - Schlumberger Oilfield Glossary [Internet]. Glossary.oilfield.slb.com. 2019 [cited 8 February 2019]. Available from: https://www.glossary.oilfield.slb.com/en/Terms/t/tertiary_recovery.aspx
  4. Scott M. Shining a light on EOR [Internet]. eniday.com.[cited 8 February 2019]. Available from: https://www.eniday.com/en/sparks_en/enhanced-oil-recovery-solar-power/
  5. GDP (current US$) [Internet]. https://data.worldbank.org. [cited 8 February 2019]. Available from: https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.CD?locations=OM
  6. Zborowski M. California Becomes a Proving Ground for Solar EOR Technology [Internet]. Spe.org. 2018 [cited 9 February 2019]. Available from: https://www.spe.org/en/jpt/jpt-article-detail/?art=3721
  7. Oilfield Integration [Internet]. Glasspoint.com. 2019 [cited 9 February 2019]. Available from: https://www.glasspoint.com/technology/integration/
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Fusion Power and Helium-3

The “Star in a jar” fuel of the future

Energy is nature’s operating fundamental currency (Graham, 2014). It is unimaginable to live in a world without energy as it is ‘nearly as important as the air we breathe and the water we drink’ (Corcoran, 2017). The awareness of its importance and the existing concern of the finite supply of fossil fuel resources and uranium has led to the increasing amount of research into alternative energy generation systems (Chowdhury, Chowdhury & Coppez, G., 2010). As a result, fusion power has recently emerged as an inexhaustible energy source that could be the future of the energy sector.

Fusion power is a theoretical form of generating energy by recreating the core of the Sun i.e. by fusing (joining) nuclei to produce heat and, consequently, electricity generation. This “star in a jar” source of energy based on the “scaling down of the sun” is the future of the energy sector since it produces safe, clean and abundant energy (McKenzie, 2018). The following diagram shows the fundamental physical process on which it is based.


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Figure 1: Nuclear fusion is the key process of fusion power (Source: Personal collection).


Fusion power is the closest model to an ideal system of energy production. It is CO2 neutral and produces no greenhouse gases (ITER, n. d.). With respect to safety, it does not produce runaway chain reactions, which avoids meltdowns and the devastating consequences that this can have (Feltman, 2013). Furthermore, it has no chance of runaway explosions and it does not generate either long-lived radioactivity (O’Connel, 2016) or ‘large amounts of high-level radioactive waste that fission reactions do’ (Feltman, 2013). In terms of efficiency, at equal mass it releases ‘nearly four million times more energy than a chemical reaction such as the burning of coal, oil or gas and four times as much as nuclear fission reactions’ (ITER, n. d.). Besides that, it is not weather-dependent and is relatively abundant (Staedter, 2018). In fact, deuterium can be extracted from seawater and tritium can be secured through reactions with lithium, which is highly available in the earth’s crust (Rogers, 2015). Nevertheless, it also poses significant challenges.

In order to be technically feasible, a temperature of 100,000,000 ºC and a pressure of a similar calibre is required, to heat up the atoms to make plasma (a state of matter composed of free electrons and nuclei that fuels fusion reactions), and ensure fusion between the two atoms (Feltman, 2013). This helps to overcome the repulsive barriers between the relatively large positive electrical charges (protons) of the nuclei (ibid.). Hence, a material vessel that could ‘withstand high temperatures, high levels of radiation damage, high production rates of transmutation elements, and high thermo-mechanical stresses’ (Duffy, 2010) is needed. Additionally, although fusion power does not generate long-lived radioactive products nor large amounts of high level radioactive waste, there are still problems in the short/medium-term radioactive waste. Another problem in the same area, might be that the release of tritium into the environment could have disastrous consequences, such as making water slightly radioactive (CNSC, 2012).

One possible solution to many of these issues would be to switch to a fuel feed of Helium-3 and Deuterium, rather that Deuterium-Tritium. Helium-3 (3He) is an isotope of Helium that contains only a single neutron in addition to two protons in its nucleus. 3He atoms are therefore very light, making them extremely useful in nuclear fusion reactions. Nuclear fusion occurs when two light nuclei fuse to produce a heavier nucleus, which weighs less than the total weight of the original nuclei. This lost mass is converted to energy. The fuel most commonly used in such reactions consists primarily of Deuterium (D) and Tritium (T), both heavy isotopes of Hydrogen. Deuterium is fused with either Tritium or itself, to make 4He or 3He respectively, and a neutron. One of the key disadvantages to this reaction is the neutrons emitted, which damage and irradiate the internals of the reactor (Schmitt, 2004). These neutrons themselves have energy, and for a Deuterium-Tritium (D-T) reaction, up to 80% of the energy released is in the form of neutrons (Kulcinski, 1988). Helium-3 on the other hand, being proton-rich, gives off a proton when fused with Deuterium rather than a neutron (Schmitt, 2004) (Kulcinski, 1988).

Side reactions, such as the fusion of Deuterium atoms to form Tritium, may produce neutrons but depending on the reactor temperature and feed ratio, the energy in the form of neutrons would only make up around 1% of the total energy (Kulcinski, 1988). Not only does this mean that a fusion reactor running on a 3He-D feed would not suffer the same damage and irradiation as one on a D-T feed, which allows for a simpler reactor design. However, the protons emitted by the reaction could themselves be used to generate electricity directly, with an efficiency of up to 70-80%. In total, 1 kg of 3He would be able to provide up to 19 MW-years of energy (Kulcinski, 1988). That is 7 times the amount of energy 1kg Uranium-235 can produce and 20 million times the energy that can be extracted from 1 kg coal.

If He is so effective, why are fusion reactors not commonplace today? The answer is not because we lack the technology, but because we lack the fuel itself. Terrestrial supplies of the isotope are very limited, with the only production being from the decay of radioactive substances from nuclear weapons (Jefrey R. Johnson, 1999). The isotope is also used in many other applications besides energy, such as in neutron detectors and as a coolant, and since 2008 Russia has stopped selling 3He obtained from its nuclear weapon stockpile, leaving the world dependant on the US for the gas (Adee, 2010). Despite the scarcity of the isotope on earth, thousands of tonnes are emitted by the sun as a result of stellar fusion. The reason so little of the helium makes it to Earth (besides the relatively tiny size of Earth compared to the sun) is that the solar wind containing the isotope is repelled by our magnetic field (Jefrey R. Johnson, 1999). In order to make the development of this technology commercially viable, a source outside of what Earth can give is necessary, and this source lies within rocket distance: the Moon.


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Figure 2: The US Helium-3 Stockpile from 1990 – 2010 (Shea & Morgan, 2010).


Neil Armstrong was the first man on the moon in 1969 during the Apollo 11 Mission. During this mission, as well as the subsequent 6 Apollo missions that ran up until 1972, several samples of lunar regolith (soil) were recovered and returned to Earth for study. Analysis of this regolith by engineers at the University of Wisconsin in 1985 found 3He concentrations of at least 13 parts per billion (ppb) by weight, and in places this may go up to 20-30 ppb (Schmitt, 2004). The reason that the concentration of 3He on the Moon is so much higher is that, unlike Earth, the Moon has no strong magnetic field to repel solar winds. Furthermore, the Moon is subject to regular meteorite impacts which also introduce the isotope to the surface. This makes the Moon a rich source of the isotope, and with the price of 3He rising exponentially (Adee, 2010) many nations have made clear their intention of going to the Moon in order to mine the isotope.

In 2006, NASA released a list of lunar objectives, of which objective mLRU11 directly addresses mining 3He for use in fusion reactors to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels (NASA, 2006). The US is the leading country for 3He research (D’Souza, Otalvaro, & Singh, 2006), so it is quite possible that part of the US Moon Program will involve the exploitation of the isotope. Russia has also expressed its desire to return to the Moon to collect 3He, through a Russian aerospace company, Energiya (D’Souza, Otalvaro, & Singh, 2006).

In this new generation of the space race however, it is far more likely that the leading nations will not be the historic enemies of the cold war, but newly-developed East-Asian countries, such as Japan, India and China. China has been increasingly investing in science and technology since the 1990s, and in October 2000 the Chinese National Space Agency (CNSA) announced its plan to go to the Moon (Lele, 2010) (He, 2003). The Chang-E 1 orbiter completed a survey of the lunar surface in 2007, estimating around 5.5x108 kg of the isotope available within lunar regolith, and the Chang-E 3 lander touching down in 2013 equipped with a neutron spectrometer for the purpose of measuring 3He (and water) in lunar regolith (Fa & Jin, 2010) (Rincon, 2013) (He, 2003). India is not far behind, having announced their plans for lunar exploration and Helium-3 extraction in 2006 (Lele, 2010). Their Chandrayaan-1 orbiter successfully collected data about the lunar in 2008 (Indian Space Research Organisation, 2008), and their Chandrayaan-2 orbiter is scheduled to launch later this year, equipped with a rover which will land and take readings on the surface (Indian Space Research Organisation, n.d.). Japan also has a moon program, with their “Smart Lander for Investigating Moon” or SLIM (Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, n.d.).

One of the tricky things that these countries will have to consider is the question of who owns the moon, an object of such cultural significance (Milligan, 2013). An attempt was made with The Moon Agreement, which built on the Outer Space Treaty and claimed that the moon and its resources were the “common heritage of mankind”, however this agreement never got a lot of traction and the major space powers of the time – Russia, China and the US – never supported it (Delgado-Lopez, 2015). This means there is no strong legally-binding agreement holding these countries back; the moon is fair game and whoever gets there first will have the choice of the best (most Helium-3 dense) sites. Furthermore, whilst space exploration today isn’t a show of power as it was during the cold war, the first country to find a permanent, manned colony on the Moon will earn enormous prestige.

In conclusion, nuclear fusion promises a viable long-term solution to our dependence on fossil fuels, capable of providing tremendous amounts of power with next to no emissions or radiation. Despite the ethical problems that need to be overcome, research into this field is sure to provide an opportunity for ethical and technological innovation. Helium-3 provides one avenue of development, with our development of this technology limited only by the meagre amounts available to us on Earth, leading nations to now look to the moon. Several countries, notably developing countries in Asia, have already begun their plans to mine the moon for the isotope, and are set to return samples within the decade. Whichever country can return significant quantities of the isotope first will be one step ahead in developing a new generation of energy production, and space exploration.

References »

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Can the EU Achieve Security of Supply with LNG?

Within the European Union (EU), one of the key aspects of its energy strategy is to ensure the security of supply. This objective was introduced in the 2007 Lisbon Treaty, in its article 176A:

“The Union policy on energy shall aim, in a spirit of solidarity between Member States, to ... ensure security of energy supply in the Union” (1).

As a significant portion of the energy consumed in Europe is imported from Russia, it is crucial for the EU to reduce its dependency. This Lisbon Treaty vows to procure to the EU a roadmap to build a resilient energy network within its territory, as well to diversify import channels.

Currently, the European consumption energy mix is composed of 35% of liquid petroleum products, 23% of the natural gas, 15% of coal, 13% of the nuclear energy, as well as 13% of renewable energy (Figure 1). In 2016, 54% of the energy consumed in Europe was imported in the form of fossil fuel while the others 46% were produced domestically.


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Figure 1: U.S. LNG exports to Europe (in billion cubic meters) - European Commission, 2018 (5).


Since more than half of the energy needed in Europe is imported, it is necessary for the EU to diversify its suppliers of energy (2). Diversification of energy suppliers does not only bring security to the European energy market, it also allows a higher leverage to negotiate against suppliers to deliver energy at an affordable cost to its citizens (3).

Coincidently, diversification in European natural gas supply is made feasible thanks to the Shale Revolution in North America that has been occurring over the past decade. For example, in the Permian Basin, found beneath parts of Texas and New Mexico, levels of oil and gas output have surprised every oil market analysts’ forecast, including those within the U.S. Energy Information Administration (Figure 2).


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Figure 2: EU Natural Gas Consumption from Russia - Gas Infrastructure Europe, Reuters (6).


Today, the United States is the largest oil and gas producer worldwide, surpassing both Saudi Arabia and Russia. Due to the recent spike in American natural gas output, natural gas liquefication terminals are being built across the country to export gas to Europe and Asia. The first U.S. liquid natural gas (LNG) carrier arrived at the Port of Sines in Portugal in April 2016. Since then, the EU LNG imports from the U.S. have reached 2.8bcm, with more than 40 U.S. LNG tankers delivered to Europe. Nearly absent from the European market 20 years ago, the strategic importance of LNG in the European gas mix is growing year after year. In 2017, 55bcm of LNG were imported to Europe, making up 14% of that year’s total extra-EU gas imports in 2017, a growth of 12% in the sector compared to the level of importation in 2016 (4). However, the largest portion of European LNG imports are still coming from Qatar, Algeria and Nigeria.

The current spare capacity across the different LNG regasification plants is close to 150bcm and the projects that are under construction should add 15bcm more of capacity by 2021. As a result, U.S. LNG imports from U.S to Europe are expected to grow at an accelerated level, reaching 8bcm by 2022 (Figure 1).

By adding the U.S. as a new LNG supplier, the EU can improve the diversification of its supplies and build a more resilient market in the gas sector. Also, it shows the willingness of EU officials to welcome new economic partners in this particular sector in order to drive competition between the different suppliers, thereby stimulating other countries to follow this path.

“In July 2018, European Commission President Jean- Claude Juncker and U.S. President Donald Trump made a joint statement in Washington D.C. to reiterate the will to establish strong cooperation among the two parties and increase the level of LNG imports to the EU.”

From the European side, this relationship is implemented in order to strengthen its energy market and add more security by diversifying its gas supply. This strategy is directly followed by a support from EU Institutions to LNG infrastructure projects in Western Europe, with a commitment of over €638 million.

Although the LNG market is growing strongly in Europe, the level of supply from this resource is still low compared to the Russian gas imports. 32% of European petroleum products and 40% of European natural gas products are imported through pipelines from Russia, Europe’s main supplier of energy.

The Russian state-owned company, Gasprom, is committed to deliver natural gas across Europe, which is its biggest market. Indeed, the European gas consumption in 2018 reached a record high with more than 530 billion cubic meters (bcm), or 477 million tonnes of oil equivalent consumed. Despite a market of this scale (representing billions of dollars of revenue for Gasprom) a political crisis can occur which can temporarily interrupt natural gas supply. Such an instance occurred in 2009, when a conflict between Ukraine and Russia regarding the price of gas led to a shortage of supply across Eastern Europe. Therefore, EU dependency of Russian gas is perceived as a threat that has the potential to disrupt the stability of European energy market (Figure 2).

To avoid a repeat of 2009, new regulation was proposed in 2016 which encouraged regional solidarity by increasing overall gas reserves and further connecting the natural gas networks within the region. In the event of a gas shortage in one member state, the surrounding states would have the means to fill this deficiency, keeping the former’s economy running and its citizens content. These measures are aimed at bringing more resilience to the European gas market, as well as more interconnecting infrastructure between the countries (Figure 3) (2).


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Figure 3: Major Trade Movements in Gas Market - BP Statistical Review of World Energy. 2018 (7).


In conclusion, because the nearby Russian Federation can exert a hold over the EU with its natural gas imports, it is imperative for Europe to strive for energy security, as well as ensuring a competitive gas market. Many options are available for the EU. One of the key options, an external one, is to build a strategy around the Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) partnerships between the U.S. and the EU. This could reduce the share of gas imports from a single supplier. However, diversification of suppliers is deemed insufficient due to the large share of Russian gas imports. Therefore, it is important to pursue a second option simultaneously, focused on internal sustainability. The EU should seriously consider implementing article 176A of the Lisbon Treaty by modernizing gas infrastructure in Europe and by developing a more robust network, one that emphasizes solidarity, in case of a future gas shortage crisis. By pursuing both options, the threat to energy security within EU should began to dissipate.

References »

  1. EuropeanUnion. Treaty of Lisbon: Amending the Treaty on European Union and the Treaty Establishing the European Community: Office for Official Publications of the European Community; 2007.
  2. Towards Energy Union: The Commission presents sustainable energy security package [press release]. http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-16-307_en.htm2016.
  3. EuropeanCommision. Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions. Brussels http://ww w xploit-eu com/pdfs/Europe. 2014;202020:20.
  4. EuropeanCommision. LIquefied Natural Gas https://ec.europa.eu/energy/en/topics/oil-gas-and-coal/liquefied-natural-gas-lng2018
  5. EuropeanCommision. EU-U.S. LNG TRADE U.S. liquified natural gas (LNG) has the potential to help match EU gas needs. http://europa.eu/rapid/attachment/SPEECH-18-6640/en/EU_US_LNG_Trade_v15.pdf: European Commision; 2018.
  6. Kobzeva O, de Carbonnel A. http://tekmormonitor.blogspot.com/2017/08/russian-gas-pipelines-to-go-ahead.html: tekmormonitor. 2017.
  7. BP G. Bp Statistical Review of World Energy. 2018. https://www bp com/en/global/corporate/energy-economics/statistical-review-of-world-energy html (accessed on 4 September 2018) Sustainability. 2018;10(3195):17.

Missing Money

Wind and solar electricity are comprising an ever larger share of total power production. In 2017 the installed capacity of wind and solar energy grew by 10% and 32% respectively [1]. In the same year, investors poured more than $279 billion into renewable energy projects worldwide, and they’ve invested almost three trillion dollars in the sector since 2004 [2]. Experts project that this growth will continue. Even the International Energy Agency—often criticised for its conservative, inaccurate predictions of renewables growth—estimates that renewable energy capacity will grow 43% by 2022. Despite this rapid and necessary growth, the expanding role of intermittent renewable energy causes significant issues for traditional electricity market design.

To understand this issue, it is first necessary to understand competitive wholesale electricity markets. Governments around the world, including those in the UK, Germany and some regions of the United States, designed wholesale electricity markets on the basis of marginal cost. Electricity market operators conduct reverse auctions to buy energy from many generators for every hour of the day. Power plants bid into day-ahead and real-time electricity markets at their marginal cost, and the most expensive generator necessary to meet demand sets the market clearing price. All generators that bid below the market clearing price send power to the grid.

In these markets, wind and solar energy have a distinct advantage. Unlike fuel-burning sources of energy, renewables cost very little to operate, meaning that their marginal costs are close to zero. Renewables projects incur most of their costs upfront in development and construction. Accordingly, renewables bid below the cheapest forms of fuel-burning generators in marginal-cost-based auctions, pushing fuel-based plants out of the market and reducing the market clearing price. Market analysts have termed this the ‘merit-order effect.’

Payments from outside wholesale markets force renewable generators’ low marginal costs even lower. Wind and solar generators usually enter into long-term contracts to sell their electricity to utilities or other businesses looking to source carbon-free power called Power Purchase Agreements (PPAs). In addition, many countries have instituted subsidies for renewable energy in the form of tax credits or feed-in-tariffs (FiT). Often, due to these out-of-market payments, renewable generators actually have negative marginal costs.

For example, say the government (or a PPA counterparty) will pay a solar plant $25 per MWh. The plant could still earn a small profit by offering to pay the market operator $24 for every MWh exported to the grid (a bid of $-24). In some instances—when there is very little cloud cover, it’s particularly windy, or electricity demand is especially low—out-of-market incentives have led to negative market clearing prices.

Market dynamics and technological constraints can incentivise conventional, fuel-burning generators to run during periods of negative pricing, as well. Regulators support many older projects through cost-of-service payments. Other thermal plants are too inflexible to turn on and off during periods of high price variability. Perversely, these dynamics help to keep market prices below the actual cost of generating electricity.

In today’s market, few generators have the revenue certainty from the wholesale market alone to attract financing. The merit-order effect and low natural gas prices have pushed down wholesale electricity prices. As a result, market prices don’t reflect the full value of the generation needed to ensure grid reliability—known as the “missing money problem.” Generators require periods of “scarcity pricing” to earn a return, which generally occur when demand for electricity is high and supply from intermittent sources is low.


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Figure 1: Dispatch curve example with shift from renewables (RES refers to Renewable Energy Source).


But scarcity pricing events are, well, scarce. It’s like generators are playing a dice game where they only make a return when the market rolls double sixes. Consequently, generators—in collaboration with financial institutions—have created alternative ways to ensure returns. They’ve sold part of their payoff to financial institutions in exchange for greater certainty that they can make a return even when double sixes aren’t rolled. To do so, they enter into agreements such as power-price hedges, heat rate call options, tolling agreements, revenue puts and proxy revenue swaps.

In a (hopefully) not-so-distant future, low-marginal-cost renewable energy will power most of the electricity system. Unfortunately, this will cause the merit-order effect to grow, exacerbating the missing money problem. Wholesale electricity prices will likely remain close to zero if the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Scarcity pricing events will become even rarer. Market revenues will be too low and uncertain to provide enough revenue to generators, or their revenue-hedge counterparties. If in today’s market generators are rolling the dice and waiting for double sixes, in a renewables-dominated future they’ll need double sixes twice in a row for the same payout. Their return from the wholesale market will only become riskier.

Futures markets have already priced-in these looming market problems. Some wholesale electricity futures are in backwardation, meaning prices to deliver electricity in the short term are higher than in the long term [3]. More plainly: market actors expect wholesale power prices to collapse.

Electricity market operators are rightly concerned about these market dynamics. Many have attempted to alleviate the issue by layering a capacity mechanism on top of existing wholesale market structures. While they take many forms, all capacity mechanisms (or “capacity markets”) pay generators to connect to the grid and stand ready to produce electricity, thereby alleviating generators’ dependence on periods of scarcity pricing to earn a return. In theory, capacity markets reduce investment risk by guaranteeing a baseline of future revenue; they guarantee generators a minimum return, no matter what dice the market rolls and reduce the payout for double sixes. Much like hedges, capacity markets shift revenue risk away from electricity generators.

Yet, there is little evidence that capacity markets have improved the reliability of the grid. The American Public Power Association found that they have actually only raised prices for consumers, without meaningfully changing risk/return calculations for investors [4]. And recently the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled capacity markets across the EU were illegal. The ECJ determined that they constituted an illegal subsidy to greenhouse-gas-emitting generators.

So what other tools can we employ to fix the missing money problem? How do we design reliable, competitive electricity markets that support the urgent need to invest in clean energy? Generators, market operators, financial institutions and governments are working together to find solutions. Some have suggested moving toward long-term capacity markets, where grid operators procure all needed energy generation for the distant future through integrated resource planning, similar to a vertically integrated utility. Others have recommended relying solely on out-of-market payments to provide generators a sufficient return (e.g., PPAs with traditional utilities and subsidies), despite their distortionary effects on wholesale markets. Still others have suggested market operators implement “administrative reserve shortage pricing,” a policy that would make the operator akin to a buyer of last resort. And, of course, some have recommended staying the course and letting markets fix this issue. Unfortunately, there aren’t any clear answers.

In the midst of these conversations, though, it is important to not lose sight of long-term decarbonisation goals. Many of the proposed solutions to the missing money problem would support dirty, expensive generation for decades. Supporters of coal generation often invoke concern about long-term reliability to argue for policies that are effectively bailouts for their industry. The US Department of Energy, for instance, used a 2017 grid-reliability study as the pretext for a proposed coal generation bailout [5]. Any affordable solution to the missing money problem must account for the costs of climate change. Otherwise, it could hinder the march toward decarbonisation and entrench carbon-intensive electricity for a generation.

References »

  1. http://sdg.iisd.org/news/solar-energy-installations-in-2017-topped-gas-coal-and-nuclear-combined-amid-steady-growth-in-renewables/
  2. https://drive.google.com/file/d/1SmhaI-WAcmEMqR8R9oL5Fxn0cZ0kfY8Z/view
  3. https://www.cornwall-insight.com/newsroom/all-news/ppa-market-interviews-5-key-trends-in-the-renewables-market
  4. https://www.publicpower.org/policy/rto-capacity-markets-and-their-impacts-consumers-and-public-power
  5. https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/the-energy-departments-grid-study-is-a-rorschach-test-for-the-future-of-the#gs.1e73LaZL

Smart Buildings

The leading-edge of energy efficiency

Nearly one third of global energy consumption stems from buildings and it is projected to increase by 50% by 2050(1). Consequently, it is imperative that buildings be sustainably designed so as to improve their energy efficiency. Considering that people spend almost all of their daily life indoors, relying on heating, cooling, ventilation, domestic hot water, lighting, appliances and electricity production (2), the energy demand for the operation of buildings has been the largest component of global energy consumption (Cao et al., 2016). So, how can we make our buildings more energy-efficient?

The 4th industrial revolution of digitalization is ready to address the problem through smart building technology. Making buildings smarter means connecting the core building systems such as heating, ventilation and air-conditioning (HVAC) and lighting with automated control systems. According to a recent updated proposal of the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive (EPDB), building control systems should include the equipment for electronic monitoring, automation and control in order to streamline physical inspections (4). Indeed, Building Automation and Control Systems (BACS) compose the building’s brain, integrating the information from all the systems within the building, leading to an average energy saving potential of up to 30% by 2030 within the EU. In particular, the high-performance retrofit of non-residential buildings could save 67 billion Euros per year by installing automation, control and monitoring systems. (5).

Electronic thermostats, light-responsive sensors, automated valves, pump controllers are some of the devices required for building systems’ upgrade. Undoubtedly, the initial and operating cost of the additional equipment create a cost barrier to smart buildings’ industry. To get over it, the sensors provide fault detection and diagnosis opportunities based on real-time data, resulting to easier facility management and performance tracking. In this way, breakdowns can be prevented and rapidly fixed, increasing occupants’ comfort level.

Building automation and control systems (BACS) comprise all products and engineering services for automatic controls, monitoring, optimization , human intervention and management to achieve energy efficient, economical and safe operation of building services (6). In view of their voracious energy consumption, large commercial buildings are in urgent need of BACS to limit energy demand.

According to (4), buildings with a total energy use of over 250MWh per year, shall be capable of:

  1. connecting building systems with other appliances inside the building so as to be interoperable
  2. Continuous monitoring and adjusting energy usage
  3. Creating benchmarks of building’s energy efficiency
  4. Detecting energy-losses of building systems
  5. Informing the facility manager for opportunities of energy efficiency improvement

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Figure 1: IBM Cognitive Building Infographic.


BACS comprise several devices in the same building, each of which contributes to the operation of a building in a different way. These devices are provided by various suppliers using individual embedded platforms and technologies. This has led to the establishment of specific standards for communication and information transmission. The flow of data can be classified on three levels according to BACS’ functionality: the field, automation and management levels (7). To perform BACS functions, the information should be exchanged within each level and also between the different levels. On the field level, devices are found – e.g. sensors for collecting data, and actuators for controlling the process – which communicate with each other using field bus technology. The automation level includes control and regulation devices for the optimization of energy consumption, while at the management level, visualization via monitoring and operating devices is carried out. Large amount of data need to be transferred between the levels, especially on the higher levels, therefore communication is managed through networks such as local area networks (LANs) (Merz et al., 2009).

In the recent years of digital revolution, the “Internet of Things” (IoT) has been introduced as the future evolution of BACS and building systems interoperability (9). In a IoT network, systems communicate wirelessly beyond the bounds of a single building; all the devices of BACS are incorporated into a global information network. The enormous amount of data which is currently “trapped” in standalone building management systems can be available in a cloud. As a result, facility managers will be capable of urban scale energy management, enabling more efficient energy distribution policies (10). However, the interconnection of buildings creates challenges for cyber security and possible hackers’ abuse. Moreover, occupants can access detailed energy consumption information through smartphones and be informed about the underperforming devices. They can also provide feedback about their comfort, introducing a new era of self-learning BACS. Undoubtedly, IoT paves the way for data analytics to optimize BACS and improve occupants’ comfort.


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Figure 2: BACS architecture (7).


The role of data in the performance of a building increasingly attracts the attention of BACS engineers. Indeed, real-time data acquisition can make a significant contribution by detecting the operational faults and therefore improving the energy performance (11). The detection of malfunctioning is accomplished through continuous monitoring and provides facility management with useful information on energy saving. However, data can be error afflicted, e.g. due to inaccurate sensor calibration or faulty calibrations. Thus, data-driven diagnostic approaches are applied in order to mitigate this problem (Miller et al., 2015).

Beyond error diagnosis, data mining provides BACS with occupants’ feedback, based on their comfort levels, incorporating the human factor into building thermal control (13). For example, (14) proposed an HVAC control system relying on user participation through a smart phone application – directly connected with the building management system – in which they can input feedback at any time and configure their preferences. The objective function of the process was to minimize the energy costs under satisfying the majority of occupants.

The difference between real-time and predicted energy use of HVAC systems – referred as energy performance gap – has been a major issue in building’s operation. Data analytics – via performance tracking – can enhance the continuous commissioning towards bridging the gap (15). In this direction, (Aste et al., 2017) underlined the importance of performance tracking for the global energy efficiency and indicated that utility bills, BACS metering and performance benchmarking should be combined and produce identical results in order to promote performance tracking. Undoubtedly, the contribution of data analytics to BACS’ optimal operation is substantial and can lead to further improved energy efficiency.

The internet is about to change the way of communication among building systems, creating connections among different buildings and incorporating them in a global network. This trend has provided a large amount of data related to building energy consumption, facilitating a new era of smart facility management as well as a prospect of bridging the energy performance gap. In addition, data analytics provide buildings with benchmarking techniques and integrate the human factor into the control-loop. Among all these different aspects, there is an obvious shared feature: the energy saving potential through smart buildings operation.

Globally leading companies such as IBM, Intel, Microsoft are currently developing IoT technologies in buildings while Siemens, Honeywell, Schneider Electric, Johnson Controls try to incorporate them in BACS. Thus, it is clearly perceived that buildings are conforming with the rapid progress of technological advancements and smart solutions, are urgently needed to meet the goal of a more energy-efficient building sector.

References »

  1. IEA. Transition to Sustainable Buildings - Strategies and opportunities to 2050 [Internet]. 2013. 2013. 290 p. Available from: http://www.iea.org/publications/freepublications/publication/Building2013_free.pdf%5Cnwww.iea.org/etp/buildings
  2. EPBD. Implementing the Energy Performance of Buildings Directive - Featuring Country Reports 2012 [Internet]. 2013. 1 p. Available from: www.epbd-ca.eu
  3. Cao X, Dai X, Liu J. Building energy-consumption status worldwide and the state-of-the-art technologies for zero-energy buildings during the past decade. Energy Build. 2016;128:198–213.
  4. European Commission. Evaluation of Directive 2010/31/EU on the energy performance of buildings. 2016;(Article 8):18.
  5. Ecofys. Optimising the energy use of technical building systems – unleashing the power of the EPBD’s Article 8. 2017;1. Available from: http://www.ecofys.com/files/files/ecofys-2017-optimising-the-energy-use-of-tbs-final-report
  6. EN-15232. Energy performance of buildings— impact of building automation, controls and building management. 2012;(3. Terms and definitions):9.
  7. Brooks DJ, Coole M, Haskell-Dowland P, Griffiths M, Lockhart N. Building Automation & Control Systems An Investigation into Vulnerabilities , Current Practice &. 2018;(August).
  8. Merz H, Hansemann T, Hübner C. The Basics of Industrial Communication Technology. In: Building Automation: Communication systems with EIB/KNX, LON und BACnet. 2009. p. 27–49.
  9. Gubbi J, Buyya R, Marusic S, Palaniswami M. Internet of Things (IoT): A vision, architectural elements, and future directions. Futur Gener Comput Syst. 2013;1645–60.
  10. Ronzino A, Osello A, Patti E, Bottaccioli L, Danna C, Lingua A, et al. The energy efficiency management at urban scale by means of integrated modelling. In: Energy Procedia. 2015.
  11. Zucker G, Habib U, Blochle M, Wendt A, Schaat S, Siafara LC. Building energy management and data analytics. 2015 Int Symp Smart Electr Distrib Syst Technol [Internet]. 2015;462–7. Available from: http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/lpdocs/epic03/wrapper.htm?arnumber=7315253
  12. Miller C, Nagy Z, Schlueter A. Automated daily pattern filtering of measured building performance data. Autom Constr. 2015;49(PA):1–17.
  13. Gupta SK, Kar K, Mishra S, Wen JT. Collaborative Energy and Thermal Comfort Management Through Distributed Consensus Algorithms. IEEE Trans Autom Sci Eng. 2015;12(4):1285–96.
  14. Purdon S, Kusy B, Jurdak R, Challen G. Model-free HVAC control using occupant feedback. Proc - Conf Local Comput Networks, LCN. 2013;84–92.
  15. Friedman H, Crowe E, Sibley E, Effinger M. The Building Performance Tracking Handbook. Calif Comm Collab [Internet]. 2011; Available from: http://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:The+Building+Performance+Tracking+Handbook#0%5Cnhttp://scholar.google.com/scholar?hl=en&btnG=Search&q=intitle:The+Building+Performance+Tracking+Handbook%234
  16. Aste N, Manfren M, Marenzi G. Building Automation and Control Systems and performance optimization: A framework for analysis. Vol. 75, Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews. 2017. p. 313–30.

Electric Vehicles

Our Next Generation’s Cars?

From the gasoline fuel car revolution in the 1970s to the adoption of smartphones in the 2000s, the timing of technological revolution can be hard to predict, but when it does happen, it is both diffused and of great consequence.

The coming of battery-powered cars has a long history. In 1799, the Italian Alessandro Volta established the scientific principles regarding storage of electricity in electrochemical form by putting two different types of metals—electrodes and the electrolytes—into contact, which led to the creation of the first electric cell. In 1859, the French physicist Gaston Planté developed the first acid battery. Electric vehicles (EVs) appeared with the advent of the automobile and accounted for one third of vehicles in the United States in the 1900s, before being displaced by more competitive internal combustion engines (ICEs) (1).

In recent years, there has been a rekindling of interest in EVs, as governments look to tackle carbon emissions from transportation sectors, contributing over 20% of total global emissions (2). The quest for energy independence and technological ownership are also factors driving government support for EVs (3). Norway and California have implemented subsidy programs towards such ends. The United Kingdom and France have recently announced that they will ban the sale of fossil-fuel automobiles after 2040 (2). Car manufacturers that were initially sceptical about electric vehicles have now publicly announced plans related to the development of EVs.

For instance, Volkswagen is planning to develop 80 new EV models by 2025, while Toyota aims to develop 10 new EV models by 2020 (2). Others, including Chrysler and Subaru, have announced that they will phase diesel cars out of their production lines by 2020 and 2022 respectively.

As a result, global sales of EVs have soared over the last decade, reaching 1.1 million units sold in 2017, compared to only a few thousand in 2010 (4). Although EVs still represent less than 1% of total new car sales, there are reasons to believe that we are entering a phase of EVs usage. Bloomberg New Energy Finance (5), a consultancy firm, predicts that sales of EVs will increase to 11 million by 2025, surging to 30 million by 2030.

“China is poised to lead the EV transition, with sales expected to account for 50% of the global EV market by 2025” - BNEF, 2018 (5)

Even forecasts from big-oil companies have been revising their prediction for electric vehicles year over year. OPEC has raised their expectations: in 2016 they predicted 100 million EVs to be on the streets by 2040, but by 2017 that number now stood at 266 million (6). These revisions are based on the remarkable technological improvements achieved in lithium-ion battery capabilities, as well as optimism regarding room for further improvement. Will this mean that EVs will replace ICEs in the future? This article aims to analyse the development of EVs by shedding light on the most recent technological advances on their battery performance (in terms of energy density and cost efficiency) as well as on the challenges ahead.

Before looking at recent developments of EV battery technology, it is important to understand the importance of the battery pack as a key component in their cost structure. EVs use electricity stored in a battery pack which contains electric cells to power an electric motor, thereby turning the wheels. According to the Boston Consulting Group, this electric powertrain—which includes electric motor, power electronics, and battery pack—accounts for 50% of an EV’s cost. By comparison, the ICE powertrain accounts only for 16% of a vehicle’s cost (Exhibit 1.) The battery pack itself constitutes the major cost, accounting for about 35% of the overall EV cost.

“Companies seeking to reduce the cost of EVs must look to reductions in the cost of battery packs in order to close the competitive gap with ICEs” - BCG, 2018 (7)

There are several types of EV batteries on the market which are classified in terms of their chemical composition, but the most widely used for the production of EVs are lithium-ion batteries, the same used for laptops and mobile phones. This type of battery has a highest energy density (storage per kilogram) and durability (the number of discharge and recharge cycles) when compared to the other types of batteries.

The first commercialization of lithium-ion batteries was in 1991 by the Japanese manufacturer Sony. Initially used for the making of electronic components, lithium-ion batteries are now used to make EVs as well as stationary storage. As a result, the demand for lithium-ion batteries has increased dramatically. As competition between big battery manufacturers has intensified and battery supply capacity has increased, resulting in a rapid decrease in the price of lithium-ion batteries. From 2010 to 2016, battery pack prices fell roughly by 80% from $1,000/kWh to $227/kWh. Nevertheless, despite that drop, battery costs continue to make EVs more costly than comparable ICEs. Current projections put EV battery pack prices below $190/kWh by the end of the decade and suggest the potential for pack prices to fall below $100/kWh by 2030 (3).


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Figure 1: BEVs are 35% More Expensive than ICE Vehicles (7).


It is difficult to predict exactly the “breakeven” price, namely, the battery price at which EVs will become competitive with ICEs. Data sources are still difficult to obtain, especially as it exists many different segments of cars and batteries. Therefore, a price of $100/kWh for batteries is often presented as the objective to reach cost parity with ICEs (excluding incentives) (1).

In view of recent achievements in terms of battery price reduction, there seem to be a clear path towards a future EV uptake, which could eventually lead to the removal of government subsidies. Other factors, such as better batteries, could help surging the demand for EVs by better satisfying customer preferences. Even still, there are still some technological challenges to be overcome.

At the moment, some EV models, such as the Nissan Leaf and the BMW i3, are limited to 100 miles per charge, while Tesla’s Model 3 has a range of 310 miles, albeit on a more expensive variant. Large amounts of R&D investments are being made to improve battery power density and durability. Battery manufacturers are seeking ways to tackle the fear expressed by EV users of running out of fuel during long distance trips, also known as the “range anxiety” problem. Developing better battery range (the total range per charge) at an affordable price is difficult to achieve. Additionally, many attempts to improve battery range have resulted in an increase in the size of battery packs thus rendering them heavier and bigger (8). Therefore, battery makers are currently focusing on reducing the size of batteries for smaller vehicles.

In February 2019, Tesla acquired the San Diego based battery company Maxwell for over $200 million to incorporate dry electrodes technology into its lithium-ion cells. This new technology will allow Tesla to improve its battery cells’ power capacity retention by 90%, thus significantly improving its durability (9). In addition, Tesla and Panasonic have recently developed a cell named “2170” that will be “the most energy-dense battery on the market” according to Elon Musk (10). It is important to note, that part of the range problem could also be solved through the wider deployment and greater efficiency of the charging infrastructures networks. Unfortunately, this is a topic that is beyond the scope of this article.

At the present time, demand for EVs is falling behind that of EV battery production. Yet, battery makers keep adding new production capacities to achieve economy of scale while complying with governments’ production targets. Getting cheaper and better batteries increasingly leads to an overcapacity supply as big battery manufacturers—predominantly based in the Eastern hemisphere—following aggressively the Asian conglomerate model, sacrifice margins for market shares (11). Meanwhile, LG Chem is building a large-scale lithium-ion battery plant in Poland, and Samsung SDI and SK Innovation are investing in Hungary. Whereas, the American manufacturer Tesla is currently building its Gigafactory in Nevada and plan to build another in Europe. As a result, some predict that by 2021, 40 percent of production capacity will be unused worldwide; hopefully this will inevitably force battery manufacturers to slash their prices (7).

General Motors’ Chairman and CEO, Mary Barra recently stated that her company car production was going “all-electric” but added that EVs, with their limited demand, would not make money until "early next decade(12).” Beyond lithium, there are other metals to consider. Lithium-ion battery cells contain not only lithium but also other raw material components, including cobalt and nickel. Currently, a new “scramble for resources” is under way among battery manufacturers to secure enough raw material for a rapid expansion of production (6). These metals are highly sought to make EVs batteries, but also for stationary batteries. Although lithium supplies are still widely available, especially in South America (the world’s biggest reserves), new fields are being developed in Australia (13); however, other rare metals supplies are poised to become matters of strategic concern that could prevent further cost saving on EV batteries in the future.

As a result of this potential metal shortage, EVs car and battery producers are securing long-term contracts with metals producers. In 2017, Chinese carmaker Great Wall Motors signed a deal with Australian Pilbara Minerals to secure supply of the lithium for five years (13). Many hedge funds have also begun to take a keen interest in rare metals investment. Cobalt27, for example, a Canadian hedge fund, has invested billions of dollars in rare-metal stockpiles, expecting their prices to increase drastically in the future (14). Additionally, it would be interesting to keep an eye on the Democratic Republic of Congo’s economic development. Among the world’s poorest country, it contains more than 60 per cent of the planet’s cobalt reserves (15).

Nevertheless, EV battery makers are looking to reduce their reliance on rare metal use in their electric cells, while continuing to improve overall performance. A UK-based sustainable technology company, Johnson Matthey, has recently developed a battery material with higher performance using lithium and nickel but less cobalt. Another potential solution available is to recycle the raw materials present in old batteries. Significant R&D investments have been expended globally to outperform lithium-ion battery cells. Recently, new chemistries have identified a potential to advance solid-state batteries technologies, such as lithium metal and lithium sulphur (16).

The EV revolution is well underway. EVs have become more affordable with the decrease of the cost of battery packs, despite not having reached cost parity with ICEs. There will still be speed bumps in the future. Today, the main challenges for car and battery makers are to lower the price of batteries further while improving their technological performance in terms of density and durability. In the future, raw material supply constraints will be the biggest challenge to the development of EVs.

References »

  1. Mathieu C. EUROPE IN THE GLOBAL RACE FOR ELECTRIC BATTERIES. 2017.
  2. IEA. Global EV Outlook 2018. International Energy Agency; 2018.
  3. Knupfer SM, Hensley R, Hertzke P, Schaufuss P, Laverty N, Kramer N. Electrifying insights: How automakers can drive electrified vehicle sales and profitability. McKinsey & Company. 2017.
  4. Bunsen T, Cazzola P, Gorner M, Paoli L, Scheffer S, Schuitmaker R, et al. Global EV Outlook 2018: Towards cross-modal electrification. 2018.
  5. McKerracher C. Electric Vehicle Outlook 2018. BNEF; 2018.
  6. TheEconomist. The death of the internal combustion engine. The Economist. 2017.
  7. Küpper D, Kuhlmann K, Wolf S, Pieper C, Xu G, Ahmad J. The Future of Battery Production for Electric Vehicles. Boston Consulting Group; 2018.
  8. Berjoza D, Jurgena I. Effects of change in the weight of electric vehicles on their performance characteristics. Agronomy Research. 2017;15(Special Issue I):952-63.
  9. Lambert F. Tesla acquires ultracapacitor and battery manufacturer for over $200 million. Electrek. 2019.
  10. Lambert F. Tesla releases rare details about Model 3’s battery cells, claims highest energy density and less cobalt. Electrk. 2018.
  11. TheEconomist. After electric cars, what more will it take for batteries to change the face of energy? The Economist. 2017.
  12. Ferris R. GM is going 'all-electric,' but it doesn't expect to make money off battery-powered cars until early next decade. CNBC. 2019.
  13. TheEconomist. Australia is the new frontier for battery minerals. The Economist. 2017.
  14. Cobalt 27 Completes $200 Million Strategic Private Placement Offering [press release]. globenewswire2018.
  15. Sanderson H. Electric cars: the race to replace cobalt. Financial Times. 2018.
  16. Thakore M. Speed bumps on the road to electrification. Financial Times. 2018.

Ion Propulsion Technology

Powering the Aircraft of the Future

By the time you finish reading this article, global aviation will have emitted roughly 16 million kilograms of CO2 into our atmosphere . Add to this our rapidly dwindling fossil fuel reserves and noise concerns surrounding ever-expanding city airports, the future of sustainable aviation begins to look rather bleak. But what if we could build planes that don’t release greenhouse gases, while flying almost completely silently?

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have recently done just that. Their paper, published in Nature (by Xu et al.) in November 2018, outlines how they built and successfully flew the world’s first aeroplane without moving parts in its ion-drive propulsion system, enabling it to fly almost silently, and crucially, without emissions of any kind. While it has a wingspan of only 5 metres and is for now little more than a model aircraft, the plane’s propulsion system is a breakthrough in ion-drive technology, and could eventually lead to the decarbonisation of aviation.

Unlike conventional jet or propeller planes, the aeroplane uses ionic propulsion technology to provide thrust, accelerating ions to generate an ‘ionic wind’ that drives the plane forwards.


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Figure 1: A blueprint of MIT’s ion propulsion plane (Image credit: MIT Electric Aircraft Initiative).


Weighing a mere 2.54 kilograms, MIT’s ion-drive plane managed to maintain level flight for around 10 seconds, covering a distance of 40 to 45 metres. This provides a momentous proof of concept for ion-propulsion and its ability to successfully power aircraft.

The concept of an ‘electric wind’ has been documented as early as the beginning of the 18th century. A qualitative theory of the manipulation of air flow electroaerodynamics (EAD) was formulated in 1838 by Michael Faraday (Robinson, 1962, p. 368); even the idea of exploiting the phenomenon as a method of propelling planes has been proposed for some time, but it was generally dismissed on the basis that it would never be able to achieve a sufficient power-to-weight ratio. However, by using extremely light-weight components and through meticulous design optimisation, the team has shown that ion-drive is in fact a viable system, and that sustained flight of an aeroplane with solid state propulsion is indeed possible. Not only is this technology a beautifully elegant innovation, but it has the potential to completely revolutionise the way in which aeroplanes operate and use energy.


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Figure 2: Computer Visualisation - Christine Y. He MIT.


The propulsion mechanism consists of a central compartment housing the battery, and an array of electrode pairs that hang underneath a conventional wing (see image). The electrode pairs consist of a thin wire at a high positive charge of around + 20,000 Volts, followed by a small aerofoil which is coated in conducting aluminium foil carrying a large negative charge of ¬-20,000 Volts. This large electric potential is applied using a 160-225V lithium-ion polymer battery pack.

Step 1 - Ionisation: Nitrogen molecules in the air surrounding the positive electrode are ionised as electrons in its close proximity are torn from their molecules by the strong electric field. These electrons are attracted by and accelerated towards the positive electrode, knocking electrons out of neutral molecules on the way, thus generating even more ions (a phenomenon known as corona discharge).

Step 1 - Generation of ionic wind: The nitrogen molecular ions (each having had one of their electrons removed) are left with a positive charge, and are thus strongly attracted to the negative electrode (aerofoil), causing them to rapidly accelerate towards it. However, there are many air molecules (mainly nitrogen and oxygen) in the way, resulting in collisions with ions, which in turn causes them to accelerate in the direction of travel of the ions. Many air molecules are thus propelled in the reverse direction. The resulting flow of air, known as an ionic wind, is what provides thrust in the forwards direction (i.e. opposite direction to the flow of ions and neutral air molecules).


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Figure 3: Diagram showing positively charged Nitrogen ions (in white), moving towards the negative electrode and colliding with air molecules (blue), thus generating ionic wind. The air is propelled in the direction from right to left, meaning the plane would be forced to the right.


In order to achieve the lowest possible weight and electrical power supply requirements, the design of the plane was optimised using a method known as geometric programming. The computer takes into account aerodynamic, structural, electronic and other constraints to solve for a set of 90 free design variables. Thus, the optimum design can be efficiently determined (Xu, et al., 2018).

One of the key difficulties with ion drive is generating such high voltages while using extremely light-weight components; power to weight ratio is the name of the ion-propulsion game. In order to generate high voltages, the team had to design an ultra-lightweight high-voltage power converter specifically for the job, which would step up the output voltage of the battery to the required level of 40,000V while minimising added weight. A custom battery stack was also developed in-house for the same weight-saving reasons.

If (and as yet it is still a very big if…), the system could be scaled to power larger planes, it would have numerous significant advantages over the current propulsion methods. Firstly, the propulsion mechanism uses solid-state technology (i.e. no moving parts), therefore the parts no longer need to be able to withstand the enormous strain of spinning at 150 revolutions per second. As such, they can be made much lighter, increasing the efficiency of the aircraft. At the same time, maintenance costs are drastically reduced, since there are no intricate combustion engines that require frequent servicing. Additionally, the plane operates almost silently as it has no noisy jet engines or propellers ploughing through the air. This trait gives the technology a huge advantage over current systems; it means the planes could operate 24 hours a day, serving inner-city airports which currently have stringent flight restriction rules to limit noise impact on the area. In the more proximate future, the technology could be used to power drones, where it has the potential to provide a silent alternative to the persistent hum of whirring rotors that will soon fill our skies when delivery, surveillance and security drones become ubiquitous.

The greatest advantage of ion drive over current aircraft propulsion, however, is its complete lack of greenhouse gas emission. This is assuming that the electricity used to charge batteries is obtained from a clean renewable source, but even if only 50% of its energy were to come from renewables, ion-propulsion’s environmental impact would be a tiny fraction of that of current propulsion mechanisms. This is because the technology has zero emissions at the point of use compared to kerosene burning jet engines, whose greenhouse gas and particulate emissions are far more potently damaging to the environment when released at such high altitudes.

Such implications for both the environment and the energy sector are clear; if aeroplanes of the future run on electricity by employing ion drive technology, demand for fossil fuels would sink, potentially accelerating the transition to renewables and clean energy. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), limiting global warming to around 1.5°C would require us to cut our net global CO2 emissions by a staggering 45% from 2010 levels by 2030 (IPCC, 2018), underlining the importance of developing carbon-neutral alternatives across the board.

Technological innovations lead to novel applications in other areas; potential applications of ionic propulsion outside of aviation could include cooling electronic devices such as laptops, by creating an airflow without the need for moving fans.

Although it may have revolutionary potential benefits, the technology is still in its infancy and there are multiple issues surrounding upscaling.

“This design may be useful for applications where low noise and no moving parts are critical, but it is not yet competitive against conventional aeroplanes at similar scale in metrics such as range, endurance and payload capacity.” - (Xu, et al., 2018, p. 535)

The most difficult problem to overcome will be increasing the thrust density (amount of thrust the system can provide per unit area), which is currently only around 30% of that of a typical conventional unmanned aerial vehicle, a mere 0.3% of a civil airliner (Xu, et al., 2018, p. 535)

To fly greater distances, the battery must be able to maintain the high voltages for longer periods of time and therefore needs to have increased capacity. However, using a larger battery increases the mass, meaning more thrust is required. A possible solution could involve the combination of ion drive with photovoltaic technology. Furthermore, to increase the size and payload of the plane, its mass and area must be increased, which increases air resistance. Again, this requires more thrust, which necessitates the use of more electrodes. However, the array of electrodes itself causes drag, meaning one cannot simply employ a larger array of electrodes to increase thrust. According to Xu et al., ‘a viable propulsion system must produce sufficient thrust without a large weight or drag penalty. This sets limits both on the power requirements (that is, the thrust-to-power ratio) and on the frontal area (that is, thrust density) of the EAD system.’ (Xu, et al., 2018, p. 532)

Until the technology is further developed and scaled, the propulsion system could be used in ‘hybrid’ systems that use ion propulsion as a secondary mechanism which supplements primary electric motors in drones for example.

The plane had a total mass of 2.54 kilograms, a wingspan of just over 5 metres, flight velocity slightly over 11 miles per hour and it flew an average distance of around 45 metres. Clearly, the technology isn’t quite ready to replace the likes of an Airbus A380 carrying 850 passengers across the Atlantic at 560 miles an hour.

However, up until around 10 years ago, mainstream use of electric cars was also considered totally unfeasible since battery technology was simply not advanced enough to provide anything like the kind of range and reliability of its combustion-engine counterpart. Fast forward to today, according to the International Energy Agency, the number of electric vehicles (EVs) on the roads exceeds 3 million and this number could be as high as 220 million by 2030, with targets for a 30% market share of all vehicles (except two-wheelers) for EVs by the same year (IEA, 2018). In one short decade of R&D in battery technology, piston-engines are rapidly being outpaced by EVs, both on the road and in production growth figures. The precariousness of our global environmental situation demands ingenuity, vision and optimism; we cannot afford to dismiss new innovations on the basis of their limitations today, rather, we have to envision a tomorrow in which we overcome them. With those 16 million kilograms of CO2 now spewed into the atmosphere and contributing to global warming, there must be hope that given a couple of decades of research and development, clean and silent ion propulsion may revolutionise aviation and shake up the energy sector in a similar way.

References »

  • ATAG, 2018. Air Transport Action Group. [Online] Available at: https://www.atag.org/facts-figures.html [Accessed 26 January 2019].
  • IEA, 2018. Global EV Outlook 2018. [Online] Available at: https://www.iea.org/gevo2018/ [Accessed 26 January 2019].
  • IPCC, 2018: Summary for Policymakers. p.14 In: Global warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty [V. Masson-Delmotte, P. Zhai, H. O. Pörtner, D. Roberts, J. Skea, P.R. Shukla, A.
  • Pirani, W. Moufouma-Okia, C. Péan, R. Pidcock, S. Connors, J. B. R. Matthews, Y. Chen, X.
  • Zhou, M. I. Gomis, E. Lonnoy, T. Maycock, M. Tignor, T. Waterfield (eds.)]. World Meteorological Organization, Geneva, Switzerland, 32 pp.
  • Robinson, M., 1962. A History of the Electric Wind. American Journal of Physics, 30(5), pp. 366-372.
  • Xu, H. et al., 2018. Flight of an aeroplane with solid-state propulsion. Nature, Volume 563, pp. 532-535.


Guest Articles


Is it Smart to Manage Electric Vehicle Charging?

Electric Vehicle (EV) uptake is expected to surge in the coming years, which will put considerable strain on the electricity networks. Simply put, once a critical point of EV uptake is reached in a particular area, if everyone tried to charge their cars at the same time, the local distribution network could fall over. Our analysis suggests that there is a risk of shortfalls in network capacity at the low voltage level by 2025, even under moderate levels of clustering.

Assuming we want EV uptake to continue to accelerate, with the environmental benefits it brings, there are two basic ways to deal with this: reinforce the network (which will cost a lot and may not be feasible in time to meet demand), or be smarter about when we charge our cars.

If EV charging was shifted away from popular times (such as after work, between 7-9pm) to times of lower demand (such as overnight) we would avoid high peaks and therefore reduce the need for reinforcement. This could save consumers between £1-4.5bn by 2050, according to the analysis we undertook as part of the Energy Technologies Institute’s Consumers, Vehicles and Energy Integration project (CVEI) [1].

In the UK, two distribution networks, Western Power Distribution (WPD) [2] and Scottish and Southern Electricity Networks (SSEN), have led trials to understand how consumers would respond to incentives that attempt to move their EV charging away from peak times, and requests to pause their charging temporarily to protect the network. Results so far have shown a material response from consumers, who were found to change their charging behaviour in response to incentives, and often accepted requests to pause charging when they didn’t need their car fully charged.

However, these trials have divided opinion, as in each case the distribution network had control of assets at the point of EV charging giving them the ability to unilaterally switch off EV connections in the event of network overload – a ‘big red button’. If the distribution networks take ultimate control of EVs in this way, they would become monopoly controllers of EV battery flexibility, could reduce customer choice, and could limit opportunities to utilise that flexibility elsewhere on the system.

An alternative vision is to open up the coordination of EV charging to the market – “smart charging”. New, innovative companies are developing new products, using sophisticated optimisation technologies to assess when is cheapest for their customers to charge their cars, taking into account driving needs and wholesale prices, and in some cases utilising battery flexibility to sell balancing services back to the grid and save them more money. A third trial, the central part of the CVEI project, is currently underway, with a focus on mass-market customers, testing their response to this type of proposition.

Without a clear blueprint for smart charging, many permutations of who does what, and what services are offered, are being explored. The big question is whether the market alone can coordinate EV charging, or whether the distribution networks require a ‘big red button’ to intervene in emergency situations where market mechanisms cannot account for all factors, and the network starts to overload. A key barrier to investigating this is that in the UK there are currently no price signals in the market to reflect local DNO network conditions for 3rd parties to take account of – and it’s the DNOs who would need to provide these.

If DNOs are to demonstrate whether a ‘big red button’ is needed, the alternative will also need to be explored, with DNOs providing price signals to the market to enable 3rd parties to manage network constraints. If network operators can get comfortable that market-based mechanisms work, then this would remove a potential barrier to connecting EVs ahead of any reinforcement that might be needed further down the line. The race is on for the market to deliver a workable solution that can avoid unnecessary duplication, or redundancy, of technology in a way that keeps a firm focus on customer experience and requirements. If it does so, the big red button could turn out to be a big red herring.


Timing for new technologies

Over the past fortnight I have been fortunate to present the Sky Scenario to a number of different audiences in Doha, Delhi, Singapore and Canberra. Irrespective of the audience and location, questions always emerged around rates of transition in Sky and more often than not the question referred to the emergence of a hydrogen economy. In all cases, there was surprise that the emergence in the scenario is not as fast as expected.

Hydrogen is an important energy carrier in Sky and its presence solves many issues associated with hard to abate sectors. This includes aviation, heavy industry and road freight. For example and as noted in a recent post, hydrogen can be used instead of coal for reducing ores to metals in the metallurgical industry. But within Sky, these solutions take some decades to emerge and don’t really grow to meaningful scale until well into the second half of the century.

This then raises the question of the rate of deployment of a new energy technology. Historically, new energy technologies can take 30 years to move from first application to meaningful deployment, which in turn may be as little as one percent of the system. It is only when such a level is reached that the true future potential of the technology starts to become apparent. The analysis behind this finding was conducted by members of the Shell Scenario team back in 2008-2009 and subsequently published in Nature magazine (No Quick Switch to Low-Carbon Energy – Nature 462 – 3 Dec 2009 – Kramer and Haigh).

As an example, solar PV (photovoltaic cells) started its long journey back in the late 1970s and is only now building towards 1% of global energy demand, although within the electricity sector its contribution is approaching 4%. That is a 30+ year journey to scale. Wind has followed a similar path. Electric vehicles have had many false starts, including a large scale false start around the turn of the last century which was soon eclipsed by the Ford Model T. The pathway for nuclear was exceptional; it emerged from projects in the Second World War and developed quite rapidly from the early 1960s, but has remained largely static during this century at 5% of the global energy mix. The time from the first nuclear reactor in 1942 to 1% of global electricity generation was only 20 years.

But why so long? Take for example the potential application of hydrogen in iron ore smelting instead of the traditional use of coal. The chemistry of the process is well understood, but not a single demonstration of the process exists. However, a consortium of northern European companies have announced the planned construction of a pilot plant, with a view to have an operational process by 2035. Should this be successful, the first commercial scale plant may then be considered, which in turn will take some time for design, funding, decision and then construction. Future deployment by other companies may rest on a ‘wait-and-see’ decision following the start-up of such a first facility.

While the number of large blast furnaces in the world is in the dozens, it would still take many years to replace them all. In Sky, the heavy industry sector that utilises hydrogen begins to emerge after 2045, which aligns with the above consideration of suitable process designs being ready by the late 2030s and construction proceeding from that point in time. Between 2055 and 2080 the sector grows by a factor of six, which represents a rapid transition to the new technology.


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Figure 1: Sky Scenario Hydrogen Economy (Shell).


The same may be true of a sector such as aviation, but possibly with an even later start. Aviation is completely dependent on energy dense hydrocarbon fuels, although there is some discussion of electric planes for very short haul routes. Hydrogen might emerge as a fuel for longhaul aviation and in Sky, we imagined that this would be the case. There has been some research over the years, but apparently very little at the moment. A Google search in the UK throws up a 2010 BBC report that notes hydrogen propulsion had been shelved completely by plane makers in favour of biofuels and continued efficiency improvements, although the same search also reveals a company in Singapore attempting development of a small test plane. While synthetic hydrocarbon fuels of some description may win the day in aviation, there is always the possibility of another contender emerging, but probably not yet. In Sky a first intercontinental hydrogen prototype flies in the 2040s, but scaled investment and use of hydrogen in aviation doesn’t commence in earnest until the 2050s. This is perhaps the earliest such deployment could be envisaged given the current state of development.

The thinking around transition timing discussed above is built into the Sky scenario, but it has also been pushed where possible to obtain the fastest possible transition. Big systems take time to change and major investments in emerging energy technologies come with caution and a lower appetite for risk. One aspect favouring this transition is the potential fragmentation of the energy system into smaller systems, including microgrids, local processing of waste and biomass (where local collection favours a smaller scale business model) and perhaps even technologies such as small modular nuclear reactors. Each of these can be built with smaller individual investments, negating the more cautious big investment approach.