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Finance Greening Central Banks’ Activities: A Possible Solution to Tackle Climate Change Levelized Cost of Electricity - Evaluated Contracts for Difference - Renewable Winners The Blockchain - The Technology which could Reshape the Future of Energy Innovation Airborne Wind Energy: Flying Wind Turbines Decarbonising Energy-Intensive Industries: Will Cement Become Carbon Neutral? Green installations: A more natural means of tackling air pollution? High-Throughput Material Modelling - The Key to Accelerated Discovery of Advanced Energy Technologies? Emerging Economies Developing Africa's Energy Mix: Towards a Sustainable Future Sustainable energy transition: the key to climate resilience for Small Island Developing States Microgrids and Mobile Phones - A Solution for Energy Poor Communities Guest Article The road to COP26: Are politicians thinking beyond the barrel?

Think Outside the Barrel

Issue 9 | Spring 2020

From the Editor

Editor-in-Chief: Humera Ansari

Editor-in-Chief: Humera Ansari

Dear Reader,

Welcome to the 9th edition of the Energy Journal. As we start moving towards a low carbon economy, society will be forced to ‘Think Outside the Barrel’, which is the theme for this issue. Feeding off the unique collaboration between all our member universities, we are covering a range of different topics. We are looking at the role of finance in driving the industry beyond fossil fuels, the innovation happening to help us get there and how emerging economies are coping with the changing landscape. Remember to also head on over to our blog, where we will continue the discussion on this important topic.

We are also pleased to announce that we have won the Bright Network Society of the Year Environment Award! We are extremely grateful for this recognition and we hope to continue to focus on the intersection between the energy industry and the environment for all our future publications. This is my last issue as part of the Energy Journal team. I have worked on the Journal for three years now, and I can definitely say it has been one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life. If you would also like to be a member of our team, please drop us an email, as we are looking to expand and would love you on board!

As always, we would love to hear what you think. Please head on over to our website and let us know your thoughts about the journal, its content, and anything else you would like to see going forward.

Thank you for reading the Journal!

Humera Ansari


News in Brief

Jan 2020 - Oil price jump

Oil prices rose sharply at the beginning of January, following the killing of Iran's most powerful military commander in a US drone strike. Brent Crude jumped by more than 3%, with BP up 2.7% and Royal Dutch Shell up nearly 1.9%. However, prices quickly fell again in the week after the incident and continued to drop for the rest of January.

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Jan 2020 - Mini nuclear reactors planned

Rolls Royce has announced plans to install and operate factory-built small modular reactors (SMRs) in the UK by 2029. While they initially plan to install them in former nuclear sites in Cumbria or Wales, the company thinks it will ultimately build between 10 and 15 of the stations in the UK.

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Feb 2020 - Oil hit by coronavirus

The cost of crude has hit its lowest level in a year, as Chinese factories, offices and shops were shut and travel restrictions imposed, resulting in a sharp drop in demand by the world's biggest crude oil importer. As the outbreak continues to spread, the market is expecting to cut production by at least 500,000 barrels a day.

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Feb 2020 - UK energy market regulator promotes plan to have 10 million EVs on the road by 2030

Ofgem, the UK energy market regulator, announced earlier this month its plan to support the growth of renewable energy in the UK, as well as having 10 million electric vehicles by the end of this decade -- in an effort to decarbonise the transport sector. The plan also includes the development of an offshore electric grid to increase offshore wind energy capacity four folds by 2030.

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Jan 2020 - Russia and Turkey launch natural gas pipeline TurkStream

Russia and Turkey collectively launched the natural gas pipeline TurkStream in January; the pipeline consists of two lines -- one to carry gas to the Turkish gas markets, and one to transport gas to the continental European market. This new pipeline strengthens Russia’s position on the Turkish and European gas market, while bypassing Ukraine -- which has had tensions with Russia since the annexation of Crimea in 2014.

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Feb 2020: Lebanon begins offshore drilling

Lebanon has started its much anticipated drilling in a number of sub-sea gas fields--including the Leviathan and Tamar fields located in Israeli waters--with the first results expected to be delivered within the next couple of months. If the exploration results turn out to be encouraging, the consortium of companies which are undertaking the exploration studies will rapidly move to the second phase of appraisal.

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Feb 2020: US Senators Introduce Bill to Support Low-Carbon Electricity Generation

Two top US senators have unveiled a bipartisan energy legislation package in an effort to promote nuclear power and renewables -- two major sources of low-carbon electricity generation. The bill includes measures to support renewables, energy efficiency, battery storage and carbon capture technologies. The bill still needs to be passed by the Senate and House of representatives, and signed by the president, before it can come into force.

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Feb 2020: PEMEX losses

Mexican national oil company PEMEX has had a rough start to the second decade. Its 2019 losses were nearly double of those in 2018, after reporting a failure to meet production targets. In total, PEMEX reported an actuarial loss of 658.1bn Pesos in 2019, as compared to 43bn Pesos in 2018. This is as it is fighting a second downgrading of its corporate debt to junk status.

Feb 2020: Odebrecht

Brazilian oilfield services and construction company Odebrecht has agreed to extend its monitorship under the US Department of Justice. The company has previously been involved in an extended monitoring process following a guilty plea agreement with the US DOJ regarding its role in a bribery scheme. Further, the company has filed for restructuring and bankruptcy protections in Brazil and under chapter 15 in New York.

Feb 2020: Heathrow Third Runway Blocked by Court of Appeal

Plans to build a third runway at Heathrow have been delayed after the Court of Appeal said plans should explicitly consider UK climate commitments like the Paris agreement. The case was brought by climate campaigners and the mayor of London Sadiq Khan. Under the ruling, the plans are postponed until Heathrow can prove the construction fits within environmental targets. The government has said it would not appeal, but Heathrow is likely to.

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Feb 2020: UK petrol car ban brought forward to 2035

The UK now plans to ban the sale of all new petrol and diesel cars by 2035 after bringing the deadline forward 5 years. The announcement was made as the country gears up to host the COP conference in Glasgow in November. The transition to electric and hydrogen mobility is expected to require a considerable amount of new infrastructure, including charging points and electric grid reinforcements.

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Jan 2020: Microsoft pledge to go carbon negative by 2030

Computing giant Microsoft have committed to going “carbon negative” by 2030. This means the company will have removed more greenhouse gases from the atmosphere than they put in across their full history. The exercise will require large-scale carbon removal from the atmosphere, partially using technologies that do not yet exist. As part of the plans, the company announced a $1b fund into research for carbon capture and removal.

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Greening Central Banks’ activities: a possible solution to tackle climate change?

"Grey, dear friend, is all theory, And green the golden tree of life.”

This quote from “Faust” by J.W. Goethe has served as introductory words by Yves Mersch, member of the Executive Board of the European Central Bank (ECB) during a workshop at the ECB on 27 November 2018 [1]. Greening central banks’ activities has been an important issue in the actual debate for tackling climate change. The recent appointment of Christine Lagarde, former director of the IMF, at the head of the ECB has revived the debate. In fact, the new director defends that central banks must play a central role in the fight against climate change, declaring that the mission was “critical”. This position, although popular, is not unanimous among economists and central bankers. The President of the Bundesbank, Jens Weidmann, for example, is very critical of attempts to use monetary policies to fight climate change, preferring to keep a traditional role for these policies [2]. The Federal Reserve (Fed) has also recently stated that environmental issues were not taken into account in its year-long strategic review. But the new ECB director is not known to think inside the barrel.

The traditional role of central banks is mainly to maintain price stability. For example, the objective of the ECB, decided independently from governments, is to maintain consumer price inflation around the target of 2% per annum. The objective of the Bank of England (BoE) is the same, except that it is decided by the government and not independently. The second objective is to maintain financial stability, particularly in times of crisis, by ensuring an efficient flow of savings and loans and by creating confidence in financial intermediaries such as banks.

Green is the golden tree of life. The actions that central banks can take for climate change are limited by their mandate, but can have a significant impact, especially on the energy markets. The first area of action concerns the integration of climate and weather-related risks for financial stability. Both the ECB and the BoE have the task of eliminating or reducing the risks to the resilience of the financial system. There are two types of risks linked to climate change: physical risks and transition risks (Figure 1) [3].

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Figure 1: Risks related to climate change – transition risk and physical risk.

The first category is linked to events such as bushfires or floods which have a direct or indirect impact on the economy [4]. Benoit Coeuré, in a November 2018 speech, said that extreme weather shocks were more and more frequent and that they had an effect on commodity prices and inflation, thus creating supply shocks [5]. The direct impact will concern the degradation of a property, and the indirect impact may concern the disruption of global supply chains. These events can decrease the productivity of agriculture, human labour or physical assets and lead to large financial losses. Therefore, these losses can destabilize the financial system in two ways. If insured, these losses affect the financial health of insurance companies. If they are not, the loss affects households and businesses, which affects the value of their assets and therefore reduces the value of investments held by financial institutions. These uninsured losses can create revenue losses through taxes and lead to increased tax expenditures, which can increase the risk of sovereign default of the most fragile economies. Insured losses have greatly evolved in recent decades, from $10 billion in the 1980s to $45 billion in the past decade.

The second category is more prospective. Transition risks concern the risk of disruption of the current structure of the economy. Mark Carney, Governor of the BoE, spoke of "climate Misky moment" , that is the risk of market panics linked to climate change which would suddenly run away investors from fossil fuel assets (or brown assets) and which would destabilize the energy market, and the financial market as a whole.

Green bonds represent < 5% of total bonds on the financial market

But grey is all theory The debate over what central banks can do is divisive. The first action a central bank can take is to incorporate climate risks, detailed earlier in the article, into their portfolio. Indeed, they generally manage very large amounts of foreign exchange, pension fund assets and capitals [7]. For instance, by targeting green bonds from renewable companies in secondary markets, adopting the role of buyer of last resort, they can make investment in green bonds more attractive. This idea of "green quantitative easing" seems to have been considered by Christine Lagarde, but it is also much criticized [8]. Villeroy de Galhau, Governor of the Banque de France, recently said in a speech [9] that monetary policies target macroeconomic objective (inflation) and cannot target a social or sectoral objective because it could create distortions in the market (and especially on energy markets), and thus overreach the mandate given to central banks. The idea of market distortion joins the idea of Mark Carney's "climate Minsky moment", with too rapid disruption due to a redirection of capital which can impact financial stability as a whole. In addition, according to Eric Chaney of the Institut Montaigne [10], 82% of ECB assets are government securities, which means that even by redirecting the remaining 18% of assets the impact on the green bond market would be limited. Although rapidly expanding on the European market (see Figure 2), green bonds represent less than 5% of the total bond on the financial markets.

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Figure 2: European green bonds market.

The second action concerns maintaining financial stability in the face of the risks of climate change. It is difficult to forecast the risks of climate change in the short term, even though the action of central banks on the issue is rather short term. For example, the Fed and the ECB forecast over a period of three years, and the BoE over a period of 4 years. Villeroy de Galhau in his speech recalled the need to anticipate the long-term risks of climate change by developing comprehensive climate stress tests in order to visualize the risks upstream. The BoE is taking two actions to maintain financial stability with regard to climate change [11]. The first is to promote security and soundness by cooperating with companies regulated on climate change. The second is to support an orderly market transition to a lower carbon economy.

Overall, the action of central banks is set to evolve in the coming months. The lively debate on the actions that their mandate allows to take should lead the central banks’ governors to make difficult decisions. However, these financial institutions have become aware of the importance of the risks linked to climate change, only the methodology is somewhere missing. An effective forecast of climate and weather risks is necessary in order to reduce the risks to financial stability, and a redirection of capital from brown bonds to green bonds could create an important stimulus for the energy transition, although this solution also involves financial risks.

References »

  1. Mersch Y. (2018) - Climate change and central banking. European Central Bank. Available from: https://www.ecb.europa.eu/press/key/date/2018/html/ecb.sp181127.en.html
  2. Arnold M., Storbeck O. (2019) - Weidmann opposes using monetary policy to fight climate change. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/60d9832c-fa3f-11e9-a354-36acbbb0d9b6
  3. Scott M., van Huizen J., Jung C. (2017) - The Bank of England’s response to climate change. Bank of England, p. 98-109.
  4. Scott M., van Huizen J., Jung C. (2017) - The Bank of England’s response to climate change. Bank of England, p. 98-109.
  5. Davies G. (2020) - Central banks begin to grapple with climate change. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/eafee5dc-2e52-11ea-bc77-65e4aa615551
  6. The Editorial Board (2019) - How central banks can tackle climate change. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/1eacda7e-fbd1-11e9-a354-36acbbb0d9b6
  7. Castelli M. (2019) - Central banks’ significant climate change role. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/6a3bdbe8-fa7d-11e9-a354-36acbbb0d9b6
  8. Temple-West P. (2019) - French central banker rejects ‘green’ asset buying. Financial Times. Available from: https://www.ft.com/content/037dc240-d96c-11e9-8f9b-77216ebe1f17
  9. De Galhau V. (2019) - The Role of Banking in a Sustainable Global Economy. Banque de France. Available from: https://www.banque-france.fr/en/intervention/role-banking-sustainable-global-economy
  10. Chaney E. (2020) - Shall the ECB Be Painted Green? Institut Montaigne. Available from: https://www.institutmontaigne.org/en/blog/shall-ecb-be-painted-green
  11. Scott M., van Huizen J., Jung C. (2017) - The Bank of England’s response to climate change. Bank of England, p. 98-109.

Levelized Cost of Electricity – Evaluated


Electrifying transport and heating while reducing high-carbon generation is likely to require considerable investment in new generation capacity, and this requires taking difficult decisions around what generation mix to use. Unfortunately, the metric frequently used to compare methods of energy generation (the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) metric) is ill-suited for comparing technologies in a low-carbon era. In this article we will explain how LCOE is used, its strengths and weaknesses, and whether there are better alternative metrics.

Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE)

Meeting the need for additional generation capacity requires governments and investors to choose between different technologies. This decision must take into account technical feasibility and the need to reduce emissions. It should also consider construction and operating cost, given the desire to minimise the cost of achieving emission targets. Comparing the costs between competing projects is challenging, with significant differences in plant lifetime, capacity and generation profile. For example, a large CCGT (Combined Cycle Gas Turbine) generator will cost far more than a small wind turbine, however this does not identify which would contribute to a lower overall system cost. This calls for a simple metric that allows us to compare competing projects.

Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) is a commonly used metric for comparing the costs of different electricity generation projects, in academia, policy and the media (for examples, see [2]-[6]). This metric, as typically represented in the equation below, calculates the total present value of all expected construction and operational costs over the project’s life, and divides by the total electricity production (usually also discounted to the present) [7]. This produces a cost per MWh of electricity generated. We might alternatively think of this calculation as providing the price per MWh at which we would need to sell the electricity in order to generate a positive net present value.

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Figure 1: Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) equation. Ct is the expected cost in year t (including construction, operation and fuel), r is the discount rate (cost of capital), and Et is the expected amount of electricity generated in year t of the plant's n year life.

As an example, in the table below, is an illustrative cost and generation profile for a 550MW CCGT generator and a 150MW onshore wind farm, both technologies used to generate a significant proportion of UK electricity. The LCOE was calculated using a discount rate of 5% per year. Assumptions have been taken from Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, November 2018 [8].

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Figure 2: Illustrative cost and generation profile for a 550MW CCGT egnerator and a 150MW onshore wind farm [8].

The calculation suggests that onshore wind already has a slightly lower cost per MWh than CCGT, however the question of which technology should be deployed is more complicated than this result.

Challenges and Limitations of LCOE

While LCOE provides a simple metric for comparing potential projects, there are a number of assumptions required in its calculation. The key assumptions are based on the estimates of construction, maintenance and site rehabilitation costs. Another assumption required is the expected productive life of the generator, as well as expected electricity generation each year. Solar, wind and hydroelectric generation projects are susceptible to meteorological uncertainties, as well as the relationship between wind/radiance and production.

Firm (dispatchable) electricity generation is not dependent on weather, however we should still consider how often the generator is likely to be operating. This creates a dependency on highly subjective assumptions about energy demand and other generation sources. For example, the LCOE of a nuclear generator will increase significantly if it is only operated for a small proportion of hours. The costs of firm generation also depend on assumptions about likely fuel costs. Finally, all LCOE calculations depend on the discount rate used, and whether it should vary according to the term and level of risk of each project.

A possible criticism of LCOE is that it does not explicitly consider the potential environmental harm associated with different generation technologies. For example, the Lazard LCOE calculation referenced above fails to take into account the non-financial environmental costs from fossil fuelled generation, nuclear waste or from building hydroelectric plants [9]. In order to compare technologies with different environmental costs, these non-financial costs should be incorporated into the calculation.

A major limitation of LCOE is that the cost is divided by total generation, irrespective of what time of day or year the generation occurs. For example, a solar PV generator might produce a large amount of electricity during the afternoon when demand is low, but none during the winter evenings when demand is highest. Similarly, the LCOE of a generator may reduce, counterintuitively, when given the ability to switch off during periods of low demand.

A further limitation is that LCOE is typically based on the expected cost and generation. As a result, LCOE does not reflect differences in flexibility between technologies. For example, a solar PV generator whose costs are primarily at the time of construction will have limited ability to reduce its costs should the opportunities for revenue fall.

These limitations do not affect LCOE’s usefulness for comparing technologies with similar production profile or flexibility, for example showing how PV costs have fallen over time. In practice, for these cases analysts tend to use even simpler metrics, such as cost per MW capacity. For cases where we are comparing different technologies, there is still a need for an appropriate metric.

the question of which technology should be deployed has a more complicated answer than the result of an LCOE calculation...

Improvements to LCOE

One potential improvement is suggested within Dieter Helm’s Cost of Energy Review for the UK Government. This report proposed the creation of an Equivalent Firm Power Capacity Auction, in which generators would be paid for providing capacity to the electricity system [10]. This proposal included a derating factor to reduce the payment made to non-firm generators, incorporating the likely correlation between unavailability and market demand.

We might create, along similar lines, an Equivalent Baseload LCOE. For generators that only generate when prices are high, the total cost could be reduced to reflect the gain they would make flattening their load, by selling some of their high-priced power and buying back in the low-price periods. Similarly, wind and solar could have their costs increased by the cost of buying in the high-priced periods when unavailable. One weakness of this approach is the difficulty and subjectivity in determining those costs or gains. A second weakness is that by including costs that would not in practice be incurred, it loses intuitiveness as a metric.

An alternative improvement to LCOE is to create and publish, alongside it, a Levelized Avoided Cost of Energy (LACE). This calculation, proposed by the US Energy Information Administration (EIA), aims to capture the cost of electricity that would need to otherwise be purchased; in other words, the value of the electricity [11]. An advantage of this measure is its consistency with investment rules: a project will have a positive net present value if and only if LACE exceeds LCOE. However, estimating LACE introduces significant subjectivity, given its dependence on assumptions of market electricity prices over the full life of the plant.

While reporting LACE as well as LCOE allows the value of the electricity produced to be taken into account, it still depends on assumptions about the most likely scenario to determine the expected volume of generation, costs and revenue. One could construct a number of plausible scenarios, in order to calculate and report volume, LCOE and LACE under each scenario, distinguishing technologies that perform well under multiple scenarios. However, this does not meet the aim of producing a simple single metric for each technology.


It must be concluded that reliably comparing between different electricity generation technologies is complicated and depends on many uncertain factors. The temptation is therefore understandable to stick with simple metrics, such as LCOE. It is hoped that the limitations of LCOE highlighted in this article can at least caution readers to the dangers of using LCOE to choose between technologies. Without considering the value of electricity generated, and without considering sensitivity to scenarios, we risk making the wrong decisions.

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References »

  1. National Grid, Future Energy Scenarios 2019, p113, http://fes.nationalgrid.com/media/1409/fes-2019.pdf
  2. Parrado, C., Girard, A., Simon, F., Fuentealba, E., 2016. 2050 LCOE (Levelized Cost of Energy) projection for a hybrid PV (photovoltaic)-CSP (concentrated solar power) plant in the Atacama Desert, Chile, Energy, Volume 94, p422-430
  3. Aldersey-Williams, J., Broadbent, I., Strachan, P., 2019, Better estimates of LCOE from audited accounts – A new methodology with examples from United Kingdom offshore wind and CCGT, Energy Policy, Volume 128, p25-33
  4. Foster, J., Wagner, L., Bratanova, A., LCOE models: a comparison of the theoretical frameworks and key assumptions, Working Paper, 2014
  5. Aldersey-Williams, J., Rubert, T., Levelised cost of energy – A theoretical justification and critical assessment, Energy Policy, 2019
  6. Valeri, L., INSIDER: Not All Electricity Is Equal—Uses and Misuses of Levelized Cost of Electricity (LCOE), August 2019, https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/08/insider-not-all-electricity-equal-uses-and-misuses-levelized-cost-electricity-lcoe
  7. Usher, B., Renewable Energy: A primer for the twenty-first century, Columbia University Press, 2019, Appendix A: Levelized Cost of Electricity.
  8. Lazard’s Levelized Cost of Energy Analysis, v12.0, November 2018, https://www.lazard.com/media/450784/lazards-levelized-cost-of-energy-version-120-vfinal.pdf, p17-18. Values taken are the midpoints of their ranges.
  9. Ibid., p19
  10. Helm, D., 2017. Cost of Energy Review, 2017, p115, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/654902/Cost_of_Energy_Review.pdf
  11. US Energy Information Administration, Levelized Cost of Electricity and Levelized Avoided Cost of Electricity Methodology Supplement, July 2013, https://www.eia.gov/renewable/workshop/gencosts/pdf/methodology_supplement.pdf

Contracts for Difference - Renewable Winners

In September 2019, the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) unveiled the results of the third and latest round of the UK government’s Contracts for Difference (CfD) auction. The CfD scheme is the government’s main mechanism for supporting new low-carbon electricity generation [1]. Eligible technologies include advanced conversion technologies (ACTs), anaerobic digestion (>5 MW), dedicated biomass with combined heat and power, geothermal, offshore wind, remote island wind (RIW), tidal stream, and wave. The scheme was introduced by the Energy Act 2013 in order to source an increasing proportion of electricity from renewable sources and replaces the previous Renewables Obligation scheme. The costs are funded by a statutory levy on all UK-based licensed electricity suppliers. Under the scheme, the share of renewables in the UK electricity market has grown considerably, but a focus on wind has stifled development in other eligible technologies. The government must think outside the barrel and address this issue if a diverse portfolio of renewables is to reliably supply the UK electricity market as the country continues to phase out fossil fuels.

A CfD is a private law contract between the developers of low carbon electricity (generators) and the Low Carbon Contracts Company (LCCC), a government-owned company. The contract works by fixing a ‘strike price’ for electricity produced by the generators and is intended to give prospective investors confidence and certainty to invest in low carbon electricity generation. If the wholesale (market) electricity price is lower than the strike price, then the generator is provided financial support to make up the difference. On the other hand, if wholesale electricity prices are higher than the strike price, the generator has to pay money back. Fixing the strike price incentivises investment by reducing exposure to volatile wholesale prices and protects consumers when electricity prices are high. The contracts are typically for a 15-year period, and the National Grid, the UK transmission system operator, is charged with both running the Capacity and the CfD auctions.

The first contracts were negotiated directly in 2014 and achieved strike prices of £95/MWh (onshore wind) and £140/MWh (offshore wind) [2]. The latter was almost three times the then electricity price. The scheme subsequently moved toward competitive auctions to bring down prices. The first auction round was held six months after the first contracts were agreed and achieved lower strike prices of £65/MWh (solar PV), £80/MWh (energy from waste with combined heat and power &s; onshore), £115MWh (offshore), and £118 (ACTs) [3]. Solar PV and onshore wind were removed from the list of eligible technologies for the second auction round following the low strike prices achieved in the first auction, as well as political pressure against investment in the technologies [2].

The second round of contracts were awarded in 2017 and dominated by offshore wind. The strike price achieved for offshore wind was £57.50/MWh [4], a 50% reduction since the first auction, and enabled the government to secure 57% more capacity (3300 MW) for 44% less subsidy. In 2019, the third round delivered a total capacity of 5800 MW and an average strike price of £40/MWh [5] for each contract. The strike price represents a 65-70% decrease since the first round for the price of offshore wind and advanced conversion technologies. The third round also delivered £0 budget impact because all agreed strike prices were below the reference price of electricity. As seen in Figure 1, wind projects dominated the contracts, winning 10 of 12 contracts. Six were offshore wind, and four were for onshore wind projects in the form of Remote Island Wind (RIW), newly eligible for the CfD scheme following public consultation [6]. The remainder of the projects were advanced conversion technologies.

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Figure 1: CfD third auction round winners.

Third Auction Round: Offshore Wind

The location of offshore wind leads to a number of added infrastructure challenges. In order to export energy, turbines must be connected to an offshore platform and a mainland substation through submarine interconnecting cables. In comparison to onshore wind farms, offshore wind farms accrue larger capital costs due to the nature of their location. Additional costs accumulate due to the submarine structure, the higher specification materials needed to resist the corrosive sea environment and increased electrical connection costs to deliver energy from the generating station to the substation.

The capacity factor of a wind turbine is the ratio of the actual energy output to the maximum possible energy output, and is a measure of reliability. Factors which effect the capacity factor include the design of the turbines, the location of the wind farm, and weather conditions. The position of offshore wind farms means higher average wind speeds are accessible, and therefore relative to onshore wind farms, higher capacity factors may be achieved.

The Dogger Bank project is a joint venture between SSE Renewables and Equinor, which comprises three separate contracts: Dogger Bank Creyke A and B, and Dogger Bank Teeside. Each project has a capacity of 1200 MW, which would make Dogger Bank the largest offshore wind farm in the world [7]. The 1400 MW Sofia Offshore Wind Farm, formerly known as Dogger Bank Teesside B, will also be located on Dogger Bank in the North Sea, and is being developed by innogy. SSE Renewables is also the developer of the 454 MW Seagreen Wind Energy wind farm, to be located off the coast of Firth of Forth. The CfD contract covers only 42% [8] of the planned capacity of the wind farm, and once completed, the development will be Scotland’s largest offshore wind farm (1075 MW). The final offshore contract was awarded to Cierco Ltd for Forthwind. The developers plan to feature new prototype turbines not currently offered in the marketplace. The project will also be located off the coast of the Firth of Forth, and aims to demonstrate the technical and operational abilities of this new turbine technology [9].

Third Auction Round: Remote Island Wind (RIW)

Prior to the third auction round, the government separated RIW from the onshore wind technology to enable RIW projects to bid for contracts, as onshore wind has been removed from the list of eligible technologies. The change followed a public consultation which outlined the benefits to island communities, including economic diversification, combating emigration from island communities by providing skilled jobs, improving energy security, reducing carbon emissions and improving air quality [6]. Importantly, it was argued the restricted scale of a typical island economy meant the renewable projects could have a larger positive impact on the local island economy than on the mainland.

The largest RIW contract was awarded to Muaitheabhal Wind Farm developed by Uisenis Power Ltd. The project will be built on the Isle of Lewis off the north-west coast of the Scottish mainland. The proposed capacity is 189 MW and was originally developed by Lewis Wind Power (LWP), a joint venture between Amec Foster Wheeler and EDF Energy Renewables. However, LWP has since transferred ownership to the Oppenheim family [10], the owners of the land the project is located on. The 49.5 MW Druim Leathann Wind Farm will also be built on the Isle of Lewis. Its developers are Velocita Energy Developments and Forsa Energy. The remaining two remote island wind contracts were awarded to Hoolan Energy for the 20.4 MW Hesta and 16.3 MW Costa Head Wind Farms and will be located on Orkney.

Third Auction Round: Advanced Conversion Technologies (ACT)

Advanced Conversion Techonlogies (ACT)s are the generation of electricity from either gasification and pyrolysis; eligible fuels include waste and biomass. Gasification is a process which converts carbonaceous feedstocks to combustible gases at high temperatures (600–900 ℃) under partial oxygen supply to produce syngas (H2, CO, CO2 and light hydrocarbons). Pyrolysis is a similar process to gasification but occurs in an oxygen-deficient environment at lower temperatures (400–600 ℃) to produce syngas. The syngas from either process is combusted in a combustion chamber, from which the exhaust gases passes through a waste heat recovery boiler stage to generate steam which generates electricity via a steam turbine.

Two ACT projects won contracts in the third auction round. The 27.5 MW Bulwell Energy Limited waste conversion plant will produce syngas from the gasification of waste which would otherwise go to landfill. The Small Heath Bio Limited will develop a 6.1 MW biomass gasification facility using locally sourced feedstock to reduce transport emissions and environmental impact.

Consequences of the CfD Scheme

The CfD scheme was established under the 2013 Electricity Market Reform (EMR) to tackle the reliability issue of renewables in the UK energy market. The EMR was achieved through the Energy Act 2013 which focused on [1] setting decarbonisation targets, and [2] reforming the electricity market to maintain a stable electricity supply as coal-fired power stations are retired. Under the CfD scheme, the UK has become the world leader in offshore wind, with more installed capacity than any other country. In addition to raw capacity, the share of renewables in the UK electricity market has grown from under 5 % in 2007, to 14 % in 2013, and is projected to be over 30 % by 2020 [11]. The competitive approach to contracts has seen strike prices decrease in each successive auction. Notably, the strike price for offshore wind has decreased 65-70% since the first round to £40/MWh, which is below the current reference price. For comparison, the strike price agreed for the 35-year Hinkley Point C nuclear station contract was £92.5/MWh [2]. In this light, the CfD scheme has, by taking away investment risk and encouraging competition, driven down costs of low carbon generation considerably.

Although the scheme has increased the share of renewables in the UK electricity market, it has been less successful in delivering on improving the reliability of supply through development of non-intermittent renewable sources. Intermittent sources have dominated the auction rounds; and anaerobic digestion, geothermal, tidal stream and wave technologies have not yet secured any contracts under the scheme. The highest strike price the UK government was willing to offer for each technology can be seen in Table 1. The highest strike prices for the contract-less technologies are unsurprisingly higher than the more mature technologies, such as offshore wind and RIW. The strike price for each contract in the latest allocation was ≈£40/MWh, suggesting that the National Grid prioritised bids with low budget implications. If a low strike price is prioritised, the larger developers are more likely to meet this criteria; essentially locking out the smaller developers and developers of early-stage technologies from the scheme. For example, in the third round, the majority of the capacity (75%) was awarded to just four contracts, all involving SSE Renewables. The Forthwind project however, is a rare example of a project which utilises the benefits of the scheme to experiment with non-commercially available prototype turbines, progressing the technology further.

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Table 1: Maximum strike prices (£/MWh) for each technology (for delivery in 2023/24) [12].

One aim of the scheme was to ensure reliable supplies through diversifying the UK’s domestic energy supply to reduce the dependence on fossil fuels, and help improve the UK’s energy security by reducing energy imports [13]. While the scheme has attracted a large amount of new renewable generation at small budget impact, it has been less successful in diversifying the renewables sector. Figure 2 shows the share of electricity generated by onshore wind, offshore wind, solar and biomass have increased substantially since 2010, while generation from hydro has remained constant. The rapid deployment and decrease in strike price for both solar PV and onshore wind meant the technologies were prevented from competing for contracts. Therefore, one solution to encourage the development of other renewables in the UK electricity market is to remove offshore wind from the list of eligible technologies, following the substantial reduction in strike price and dominance of offshore wind in the renewables sector. Alternatively, a parameter which weights the bid strike price to the highest strike price for the technology could be introduced in the evaluation protocol to allow different technologies to compete on a fairer basis. Another solution is to split the scheme into two auctions, one for established technologies and one for early-stage technologies to support the small-scale renewable energy sector.

one solution to encourage the development of other renewables in the UK electricity market is to remove offshore wind from the list of eligible technologies, following the substantial reduction strike price and dominance of offshore wind in the renewables sector
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Figure 2: UK renewable electricity by source [14].

In summary, the CfD scheme has been successful in stimulating growth in the UK renewables sector and phasing out fossil fuels, however, if this growth is to continue, the government must evaluate the shortcomings of the scheme. A review of the auction system to enable less-mature technologies to compete on a fairer basis should be conducted. The development of an auction for solar and wind technologies, separate from the remaining technologies, and a parameter to weight bids by strike price have been suggested to accelerate the progress of lagging technologies and diversify the UK renewables portfolio. Despite its failure to promote diversity in the electricity sector, the benefits of the CfD scheme must not be overlooked, and a similar scheme in the heat and transport sectors would be instrumental in allowing the UK to meet its 2050 goals.

References »

  1. DECC. Investing in renewable technologies – CfD contract terms and strike prices. 2013;12. Available from: https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/investing-in-renewable-technologies-cfd-contract- terms-and-strike-prices
  2. Grubb M, Newbery D. UK electricity market reform and the energy transition: Emerging lessons. Energy J. 2018;39(6):1–25.
  3. EMR Delivery Body. CfD Auction Results Round 1. 2015;
  4. EMR Delivery Body. CfD Auction Results Round 2. 2017;
  5. EMR Delivery Body. CfD Auction Results Round 3. 2019;
  6. BEIS. Contracts for Difference Scheme for Renewable Electricity Generation. 2018;
  7. SEE Renewables, Equinor. GE Renewable Energy’s Haliade-X turbines to be used by Dogger Bank Wind Farms [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://doggerbank.com/downloads/Dogger-Bank-PR-GE-VERS-FINAL.pdf
  8. SEE Renewables. SSE Renewables secures 2.2 GW of new offshore CfD contracts. 2019.
  9. Cierco Ltd. Technology [Internet]. Available from: http://ciercoenergy.com/technology/
  10. LWP. Uisenis wind farm project has new owner [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://lwp.scot/2019/04/uisenis-wind-farm-project-has-new-owner/
  11. Eurostat. Energy from renewable sources [Internet]. 2017. Available from: https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/web/energy/data/shares
  12. Department of Energy &s; Climate Change. Electricity Market Reform: Contract for Difference - Allocation Methodology for Renewable Generation. 2013;(August).
  13. Department of Energy &s; Climate Change. Policy paper: 2010 to 2015 government policy: UK energy security. 2015.
  14. National Statistics. Digest of UK Energy Statistics (DUKES). 2019.

The Blockchain - The Technology which could Reshape the Future of Energy

Many people have heard its name, but few understand it. Nevertheless, this does not prevent the blockchain from being used every day by millions of people in the near future. Indeed, after having conquered the financial industry, the new decentralized technology could completely reshape the energy sector which hasn’t moved for the past hundred years and dismantle current energy giants while doing so.

Current issues with the energy sector

The main challenges of the energy sector are the environment and costs. Currently, between 8 and 15% of energy produced at power stations is lost before it reaches our homes. Not only does this result in unnecessary CO2 emissions, but these losses are payed for by consumers’ bills. In addition, areas where households own solar panels aggravate energy issues. Indeed, if too much energy is produced by these solar panels, it can lead to excess pumping of energy — an ‘over voltage’. In turn, this may impair infrastructures and equipment in addition to creating safety concerns.

Since the implementation of the first power station in 1882, not much has changed in the energy industry. Rather, it has been moving in one direction while keeping the same economic model: power stations deliver energy to consumers through retailers which charge extra money for it, sometimes even doubling prices. However, as climate concerns grow and technologies improve, everyday consumers could completely disrupt this.

Removing intermediaries

The blockchain is a decentralized technology allowing transactions to occur in a transparent manner. Therefore, just like Venmo allows consumers to send money without the need of a bank, the blockchain could allow consumers and producers to trade within each other, thus making current energy retailers disappear. In areas where this have been tried, such as Texas, energy bills have on average decreased by 38%. While it may seem difficult or unrealistic to buy directly from the grid when you need it, new technologies will enable this. Indeed, companies are developing internet-enabled hardware devices which automatically order energy when it is needed. According to Guy Halford-Thompson, co-founder and ex-CEO of Interbit, “Having demonstrated the reductions in risk and cost savings that are achievable we now have an opportunity to deliver the first successful blockchain based application to the energy market”. Furthermore, the blockchain start-up Grid+ has created a system where energy is bought when it is at the lowest price and sells it back to the grid when prices increase. This would revolutionize the market as there would now be multiple rates rather than the single utility-set. In addition, consumers can constantly switch producers in less than minutes, furthering the ability of consumers to buy at the lowest prices.

Moving from consumers and producers to prosumers

Using the blockchain in our energy industry could significantly reshape it in the sense that consumers and producers would disappear to be replaced by prosumers. This refers to the peer-to-peer model, where each households could sell on the market any excess energy they hold, a trend would be even more encouraged by the rising number of houses which own solar panels, and especially with Elon Musk’s newest solar roof. Not only would this become a new source of revenue, it would also allow to reduce energy waste. Indeed, in the current system selling back energy to the grid does not create a lot of revenue for consumers due to the presence of middlemen and inefficiencies in the process. Now, the excess energy can be sold to neighbours through the blockchain.

More transparency for environmental regulations and concerns

Another great opportunity of using blockchain for the environment is increased transparency by allowing to easily track the provenance of energy sources. Not only can this ensure the accuracy of renewable energy certificates, which are used for their trading, but it permits consumers to see where the electricity they are buying comes from, and thus to choose to only buy from green sources, or to know the exact percentage share of renewable energy that they consume thanks to the use of granular data, which represents the smallest and most precise piece of data that can be obtained. In addition, using blockchain could also be an innovative way of better implementing the resolutions of the Paris Agreement. Indeed, this technology could track each country’s emissions and ensure they do not cross certain limits. Therefore, no data may be hidden to other countries as they will all be linked to world accounts.

Thus, Jesse Morris, the principal of the Rocky Mountain Institute (an American research centre on the environment), pointed out that “If you look at those systems, they’re basically screaming at the top of their lungs for a blockchain-based solution ». He also added that “You have different power plants that are generating energy and that energy creates certificates, they’re assigned attributes and they’re exchanged. The existing system has a lot of problems, [such as] certificates being double spent, not everyone can access the marketplace, [and] there are lots of small regulatory challenges between all of them.”

Greater safety for the energy industry

Using micro-grids also represents a backup plan in case of an emergency where power stations would shut down. Indeed, if the main grid is damaged by, say, a natural disaster such as a flood, an earthquake, or a hurricane, microgrids can temporarily replace the central grid until it is repaired.

Challenges of the blockchain

While the blockchain promises cost reductions, the high volume of data that will accumulate after years of being in place will create high demand for speed and security which, in turn, means increasing costs. Furthermore, increased consumers and producers, and possibly prosumers, will create the need for more flexible systems. However, scaling the blockchain could also become a serious ‘political task’, according to Ewald Hess, CEO of Grid Singularity. Indeed, rather than the technology itself it is the details in its regulation, implementation, and industry standardization which can significantly complexify the issue. In addition, the structure of the blockchain allows users to be anonymous, which can lead to safety concerns. Indeed, combined with the use of cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin, the blockchain can be used for the purpose of illegal transactions.


After conquering many sectors, the blockchain could transform the energy industry. Not only would it reduce both financial and environmental costs, it could completely remove intermediaries and replace them by “prosumers”. Nevertheless, the complexity of its implementation leaves us with other political and technological challenges to solve for this idea to come to reality.

References »

  1. Pwc.com. (2020). [online] Available at: https://www.pwc.com/gx/en/industries/assets/pwc-blockchain-opportunity-for-energy-producers-and-consumers.pdf[Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  2. Hackernoon.com. (2020). Blockchain And Energy: Everything You Need To Know.. [online] Available at: https://hackernoon.com/blockchain-and-energy-everything-you-need-to-know-2c56977614aa [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  3. Investopedia. (2020). Blockchain Explained. [online] Available at: https://www.investopedia.com/terms/b/blockchain.asp [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  4. CoinDesk. (2020). BP, Wien Energie Complete Blockchain Energy Trading Trial - CoinDesk. [online] Available at: https://www.coindesk.com/bp-wien-energie-complete-blockchain-energy-trading-trial [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  5. Hackernoon.com. (2020). Climate Change, Blockchain And The Paris Agreement: A New Hope. [online] Available at: https://hackernoon.com/climate-change-blockchain-and-the-paris-agreement-a-new-hope-f1386b70fb6d [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  6. CoinDesk. (2020) Energy Sector Turns to Ethereum to Test Blockchain - CoinDesk. [online] Available at: https://www.coindesk.com/energy-sector-giants-turn-to-ethereum-to-test-blockchain-potential [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  7. Medium. (2020). How Blockchain is Changing the Energy Industry. [online] Available at: https://medium.com/karvuon-token/how-blockchain-is-changing-the-energy-industry-3b1087475f99 [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  8. Investopedia. (2020). How Blockchain Is Changing the Energy Industry. [online] Available at: https://www.investopedia.com/news/how-blockchain-changing-energy-industry/ [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  9. La Tribune. (2020). Le monde de l’énergie à l’heure de la blockchain. [online] Available at: https://www.latribune.fr/entreprises-finance/industrie/energie-environnement/le-monde-de-l-energie-a-l-heure-de-la-blockchain-629237.html [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  10. Mattos, R. and Mattos, R. (2020). How technology is shaping the renewable energy sector - Blockchain Pulse: IBM Blockchain Blog. [online] Blockchain Pulse: IBM Blockchain Blog. Available at: https://www.ibm.com/blogs/blockchain/2017/12/how-technology-is-shaping-the-renewable-energy-sector/ [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  11. Techopedia.com. (2020). What is Granular Data? - Definition from Techopedia. [online] Available at: https://www.techopedia.com/definition/31722/granular-data[Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].
  12. Woyke, E. (2020). Blockchain is making it easy for neighbors to sell each other excess solar energy. [online] MIT Technology Review. Available at: https://www.technologyreview.com/s/604227/blockchain-is-helping-to-build-a-new-kind-of-energy-grid/ [Accessed 22 Feb. 2020].


Airborne Wind Energy: Flying Wind Turbines

1. Introduction to Airborne Wind Energy

The global population is projected to increase to nearly 10 billion people by 2050 [1], and consequently so too will the demand for energy in order to sustain such a large population. While energy production via the use of heavily polluting non-renewable hydrocarbons is unlikely to be phased out completely in such a short time frame, the proliferation of renewable energy, including wind energy, holds the potential to be instrumental in cutting down greenhouse gas emissions to meet the Paris Agreement and limiting global temperature increase to less than 1.5 °C above pre-industrial levels.

It has been suggested that the multiple oil crises in the 1970s were the catalyst of modern development of renewable energy, with aimed to improve energy security by reducing dependency on crude oil [2]. More recently, the advancement of computational modelling as well as the state of the climate crisis have caused a resurgence in R&s;D into wind energy, more specifically Airborne Wind Energy (AWE), also known as High Altitude Wind Power.

AWE is the harnessing of wind energy at altitudes usually exceeding 500 meters. One of the strongest reasons for operating these devices at such high altitudes is that generally, wind speeds increase with altitude. This is important because the theoretical maximum power (P) that a wind-based device can generate depends on the cross-sectional area of the device that is exposed to the wind (A), the density of the air (ρair), and wind speed (vair), as shown by the following equation [3]. Therefore, all other factors being held constant, by doubling the wind speed the power generated can be up to eight times as large.

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Equation 1: Power generation equation in relation to cross-sectional area of the device that is exposed to wind [3].

Additionally, AWE devices that operate at higher altitudes experience more consistently high wind speeds and therefore spend more time producing power. This is important as all technology that harness wind power require a minimum wind speed to start producing power, known as the cut-in speed (usually between 3-4 m/s for conventional wind turbines [3]), as the generator must overcome friction and other forces.

The first detailed scientific papers hypothesizing the feasibility of AWE and its potential power density of 11.6 kW/m2 operating at wind speeds of 10 m/s were published in the 1980s [4], with the first functional small-scale AWE prototypes developed in 2006 [5]. To put the timescale of AWE’s progress into perspective, mature technologies such as conventional wind turbines have been commercially available as early as 1850 [6] and have largely remained unchanged in terms of design. The largest of these conventional wind turbines currently in operation in Rotterdam only reach 260 meters tall – General Electric’s Haliade-X featuring a 220-meter rotor diameter and a capacity of 12 MW [7].

AWE can be primarily categorized as to whether they generate power on the ground (ground generation) or in the air (onboard generation). They are further subdivided according to the physical structure of the device, which can take the form of a rigid or flexible kite, a tethered drone, or a lighter-than-air aerostatic system. The mechanism through which AWE generates electricity is akin to existing conventional wind turbine technology in that the kinetic energy of the wind is used to eventually drive an electrical generator thus producing electricity. Ground generation devices generally take the form of kites that are tethered via a retractable cable, which is connected to a rotating drum and subsequently an electrical generator anchored to the ground. All kite devices operate in a pumping cycle, which consists of the cyclical reeling-in and reeling-out of the retractable cable, which consumes and generates power respectively. The optimization of the device’s flight path is usually controlled by an onboard Kite Control Unit.

Onboard generation devices usually feature smaller turbines that are directly connected to an electrical generator housed onboard the device itself as it operates at high altitudes. The electricity produced is transferred down to the ground via a tether which doubles as an electrical transmission cable. These devices often take the form of glider frames that house rotors and generators. (Figure 1)

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Figure 1: Various operational configurations of onboard generation and ground generation devices [25].

2. Leading Technology

Out of all the AWE companies that have begun developing products, several frontrunners in the industry have been identified with the potential for progressing their prototypes into commercial solutions.

Kite Power Solutions have tested a 500-kW ground generation model with the intention of integrating multiple units into a 3 MW windfarm. Their design utilizes two kites per generator, such that during the pumping cycle the power production will be continuous as when one kite is reeled in the other kite will be extending [8].

SkySails Power, founded in 2001, already has commercial solutions for power generation in the shipping industry. SkySails have developed modular mobile units that can be housed within a 20-foot ISO container capable of generating between 200-500 kW of ground generated auxiliary power, supplementing the main diesel generators. Since 2006, SkySails Marine has utilized kite power to provide towing forces for commercial ships, resulting in increased cost savings of up to €300,000 annually due to lower fuel consumption [9].

Ampyx Power, founded in 2008, utilizes a tethered rigid kite which has a similar appearance to a glider. Their 150-kW ground generation Ampyx Power 3 (AP3) prototype is a rigid kite with a 12 m wingspan. Its successor, the AP4, is already a commercially available product which has a 150 m2 wing surface area and has a capacity of 2 MW. Unlike its other competitors, AP3 and AP4 deploy on a short runway platform that utilizes a landing gear and a catapult-arrestor system that propels the rigid kite during takeoff. Ampyx Power has plans to expand their product line to include solutions capable of achieving a capacity of 5 MW [10].

Lastly, Makani Power, founded in 2006, has produced an airborne generation prototype (M600) with a 28-meter wingspan with a capacity of 600 kW. It is unique in that it deploys and recovers in a vertical orientation, with its rotors doubling as turbines that consume power during takeoff but start generating power when it has reached its operating altitude. Makani has plans to scale up their current prototype to a 65-meter wingspan device that can generate up to 5 MW [11].

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Figure 2: Schematic of M600 prototype and the configuration of its vertical deployment in an offshore environment [11].

The European Commission has conducted analysis on the maturity of AWE technology and identified tethered drone technology such as Makani Power’s as the most developed, closely followed by rigid and flexible wing technologies demonstrated by Ampyx Power, SkySails Power, and Kite Power Solutions [12].

3. Energy Availability

Various sources estimate that the world currently consumes approximately 18 TW of power, equivalent to 157,680 TWh annually [13-15]. While it is difficult to exactly quantify how much wind energy can be harnessed, upper estimates have placed the theoretical figure between 72 and 94.5 TW, assuming that most of the wind over oceans and land can be utilized [16, 17].

It is important to understand that the equation describing the maximum power generated is merely a theoretical number, which has not accounted for inefficiencies and losses. Similar to how the Carnot efficiency describes the maximum efficiency of a heat engine (≈ 64%), the Betz efficiency expresses the maximum efficiency at which the kinetic energy from wind can be converted into electricity using wind turbines or similar technology (≈ 59.3%). Therefore, accounting for the Betz efficiency as well as the logistical difficulties in harnessing wind energy in the deep ocean and other inaccessible areas, conservative estimates expect a minimum of 7.5 TW accessible to conventional wind turbines and AWE [18].

The United States Department of Energy has developed a classification system to rank the average annual wind speed and wind power density across the world. Class 7 represents wind speeds and wind power densities between 7.0 – 9.4 m/s and greater than 400 W/m2 respectively and Class 1 corresponds to 0.0 – 4.4 m/s and 0 – 100 W/m2 respectively [19]. The data suggests that wind speeds and wind consistency are better in the polar seas than the rest of the world.

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Figure 3: Global ocean map of wind power classification [26].

4. Challenges and Opportunities

It is inevitable that new technology will encounter many hurdles before it ever becomes successful and widely adopted. The first of which will be obtaining the appropriate clearance to operate, as unmanned aerial devices exceeding 20 kg in weight cannot operate at altitudes exceeding 400 feet above ground without approval. It is to be expected that such regulations exist in many different countries and further complications may arise if such devices are to be operated 24/7.

A “carbon lock-in” phenomenon that exists in many countries describes the significant barriers to entry in the energy industry due to the existing economies of scale that fossil fuel companies enjoy. Without external intervention by the government or drastic shift in public demand for renewable energy, renewable energy companies in their infancy cannot stay competitive.

For AWE to be feasible in the long term, it needs to function autonomously in all weather conditions including autonomous deployment and recovery during inclement conditions. Consequently, further development is required in this area. Additionally, technical constraints arise in the materials used for the tether in ground generation devices. In order to optimize the power generation, tether drag must be minimized by reducing the exposed cross-sectional area whilst maintaining the required tensile strength to resist the forces generated. Presently, most devices utilize high-modulus polyethylene, known as Dyneema, for their tethers which has a tensile strength of 2.4 GPa similar to steel, but weighs 8 times less. Further research into development of tethers with greater strength to weight ratios could optimize the power generated.

Despite the numerous challenges of implementing AWE devices, there are significant benefits that arise from their usage. AWE devices are generally more compact, as most of the critical electrical components are situated near the ground and some can be housed in 20-foot ISO containers. In the event of inclement weather or an earthquake, AWE devices can be recovered and shielded from the elements. This is in direct contrast to conventional wind turbines which are permanently exposed to the elements and are therefore more susceptible to structural damage or failure in bad weather, especially when deployed offshore [20].

A strong advantage that AWE has over conventional wind turbines is that significantly fewer resources are required to manufacture, transport, and install each device. Large wind turbines such as the Haliade-X weigh over 2,550 tons and require considerable amounts of concrete and steel for its foundation [21]. AWE effectively replaces the turbine blades and tower with a kite/drone device and a tether respectively, cutting down on the overall weight of the device. AWE’s mass savings are reflected in its significantly lower mass to power ratio of approximately 6 tons/MW compared to Haliade-X’s 68.8 tons/MW [21, 22]. Recent estimates have priced a 2 MW AWE unit at €1.3 million, not considering benefits from economies of scale. Similarly rated conventional wind turbines have an upfront cost of three times this amount. Operation and maintenance costs for AWE units are projected to be €10/MWh, with onshore and offshore conventional wind turbines costing approximately two and three times the price respectively [22]. It has been forecasted that by 2030, wind energy produced by AWE devices could decrease from currently €90 – 150/MWh to €30/MWh [23].

Perhaps AWE’s greatest strength lies in its deployment versatility and transportability. For this reason, they can be deployed extensively offshore where windspeeds are higher and more consistent, as they do not require sophisticated deep-sea substructures for support. Additionally, the use of AWE devices as an emergency power supply, in lieu of diesel generators, for disaster relief in rural areas is being explored [24].

While AWE is a relatively new technology in the early stages of development, it holds the potential to unlock a greater portion of the global wind energy resource to satisfy growing energy demands. The benefits of sustainably generating power without greenhouse gas emissions, providing power at a lower cost, and tapping into more of the available offshore wind, highlight the gains that can be realized with further research and investment. The maturation of AWE technology could be the next evolution of wind energy and may be instrumental in tackling the climate crisis.

References »

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  18. M. De Lellis, R. Reginatto, R. Saraiva and A. Trofino, "The Betz limit applied to Airborne Wind Energy," Renewable Energy, vol. 127, pp. 32-40, November 2018.
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Decarbonising Energy-Intensive Industries - Will Cement Become Carbon Neutral?

Being one of the most energy- and carbon-intensive manufactured products, cement accounts for 5% of anthropogenic (man-made) greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions [1] and roughly 8% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. [2] For every kg of cement that is produced, 0.7 kg of CO2 is released into the air [3]. If the cement industry were a country, it would be the third largest CO2 emitter in the world after China and the US [4]. To bring the cement sector in line with the Paris Agreement, its annual emissions will need to fall by at least 16% by 2030 [5]. How can the sector’s emissions be reduced while producing enough cement to meet the growing demand?

As the primary ingredient of concrete, cement is the most widely used construction material in the world [6]. In 2015 per person consumption of cement was about 626 kg, which is more than the average per person food consumption [7]. The total annual cement consumption in 2018 was 4.1 Gt8 and is set to increase to over 5 Gt a year by 2050 [9]. Global cement production has continually and significantly increased due to rising populations, urbanisation and infrastructure development. According to the International Energy Agency (IEA) projections, the urban population in Africa will increase by more than half a billion people by 2040. This is much higher than the growth seen in China’s urban population between 1990 and 2010, a period in which China’s cement production sky-rocketed [10]. By 2060, the total floor-area of buildings worldwide will double, which is roughly equivalent to building the current total floor-area of every building in Japan, every year from now until 2060 [9]. This highlights the role of building and cement industries in global CO2 emissions and calls for mitigation measures in these sectors.

We will build the equivalent of the total floor-area of every building in Japan, every year from now until 2060.

Cement production is technically difficult to decarbonise. Cement is made by grinding up limestone and then cooking it with sand and clay at high temperatures, achieved by burning fuel, usually coal. In the process, CO2 is emitted in two ways: from fuel burnt to produce heat and from the gases released during the conversion of limestone [11]. While the heat generation phase can be fully decarbonised with electricity produced from carbon-neutral fuels, the material-derived emissions cannot be easily avoided. Only 40% of the GHG emissions from the cement manufacturing process are fuel-derived, and 50% are material-derived [12]. Of the 2.2Gt of CO2 emitted by the cement industry in 2018, process emissions comprised 1.2Gt, while the heat input generated 0.75Gt (the remaining 0.3Gt were indirect emissions from electricity used to operate machinery) [13]. Process emissions originating from the conversion of limestone into calcium oxide (clinker) cannot be avoided and, therefore, may only be captured [1].

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Figure 1: How cement is made [14]. CO2 emissions come not only from heating but also and mainly from limestone during the conversion process.

Integrating carbon capture technology into cement production is one of the main carbon mitigation levers [15]. However, due to the lower economies of scale, carbon capture and storage (CCS) costs for the cement industry are substantially higher than for a power plant. It is therefore unlikely that it will be widely available at the commercial scale by 2025 or even later [16]. CCS would double the capital and operational costs of a cement plant [17]. One of the possible solutions is utilising the captured carbon to produce synthetic hydrocarbon fuels or chemicals. Carbon capture and utilisation (CCU) has the potential to compensate for the cost of carbon capture and carbon emissions to some extent. Among emerging carbon capture technologies for the cement industry, one of the most promising solutions is a carbonate looping technology [16]. It could turn one of the biggest emitting sectors into a source that absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere and locks it away in buildings, turning them into ‘carbon sinks’ [18].

As the costs of CCS and CCU technologies remain an important constraint, it is therefore vital to explore other ways to reduce cement emission potential. One of the possible solutions would be to reduce the proportion of clinker in the cement, by replacing it with materials such as coal fly ash, steel slag, rice husk ash and volcanic ashes [19]. As most of the CO2 emissions are related to the clinker production, decreasing clicker-to-cement ratio could significantly reduce such GHG emissions. One estimate predicts a reduction in the percentage of cement composition made up by clinker, from 65% today to 60% by 2050, which would result in a cumulative global CO2 emissions saving of 2.9Gt by 2050 [15].

Shifting away from coal as the energy input would be another step towards decarbonising the cement industry. Coal, oil and natural gas provide the majority of the thermal energy used in the cement industry globally, with alternative fuels such as biomass and waste accounting for only 6% [8]. Some regions demonstrate significant progress in switching from fossil fuels. In Europe, coal provides less than 25% of the energy needed for cement production. In some countries, alternative fuels reach more than 60%, with the Netherlands achieved 83% replacement of fossil fuels with waste materials [1]. Nevertheless, the world’s largest cement producers mainly rely on coal. In China, for example, the industry is 86% fuelled by coal. For these countries, increased uptake of alternative fuels would also be key in reducing emissions.

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Figure 2: China produces the most cement and the most cement-related CO2 emissions. Based on Earth System Science Data [20].

In order to become carbon neutral, the cement industry will need to go beyond energy efficiency improvements and switch to low-carbon fuels. The cement industry itself should undergo radical transformation through the development of alternative types of cement and clinker substitutes. This includes reducing the clicker-to-cement ratio and developing new cement codes, which will allow blended cement to be used. The decarbonisation strategy must also address building standards, promoting efficient design and recycling of cement.

For policymakers, the key challenge in reducing CO2 emissions will lie in overcoming the inertia of existing behaviours of cement producers. In this regard, energy-efficiency standards may serve as an example of possible regulatory measures. Other mechanisms of choice optimisation may include the carbon pricing system or CO2 emission trading system for the cement industry. In the long-term, the sector will require investment in the development of new types of cement and binding materials, as well as technologies that can economically capture, store and use CO2.

References »

  1. Farfan J, Fasihi M, Breyer C. Trends in the global cement industry and opportunities for long-term sustainable CCU potential for Power-to-X. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2019;217:821–35. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2019.01.226
  2. Olivier JGJ, Janssens-Maenhout G, Muntean M, Peters J. Trends in Global CO2 Emissions: 2016 Report;© PBL Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency: The Hague. PBL Netherlands Environ Assess Agency Eur Comm Jt Res Cent [Internet]. 2016;86. Available from: http://edgar.jrc.ec.europa.eu/news_docs/jrc-2016-trends-in-global-co2-emissions-2016-report-103425.pdf
  3. Industrial Transformation 2050 - Pathways to Net-Zero Emissions from EU Heavy Industry [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://materialeconomics.com/publications/industrial-transformation-2050
  4. Lucy Rodgers. Climate change: The massive CO2 emitter you may not know about [Internet]. BBC News. 2018. Available from: https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-46455844
  5. Lehne J, Preson F. Making Concrete Change; Innovation in Low-carbon Cement and Concrete [Internet]. Chatham House Report. 2018. Available from: www.chathamhouse.org
  6. Monteiro PJM, Miller SA, Horvath A. Towards sustainable concrete. Nat Mater [Internet]. 2017;16(7):698–9. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nmat4930
  7. Scrivener KL, John VM, Gartner EM. Eco-efficient cements: Potential economically viable solutions for a low-CO2 cement-based materials industry. Cem Concr Res [Internet]. 2018;114(February):2–26. Available from: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cemconres.2018.03.015
  8. IEA – International Energy Agency. Cement – Tracking Industry – Analysis [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://www.iea.org/reports/tracking-industry-2019/cement
  9. Dean, B., Dulac, J., Petrichenko, K., and Graham P. Towards a zero-emission, efficient, and resilient buildings and construction sector [Internet]. Global Status Report. 2017. Available from: https://www.worldgbc.org/sites/default/files/UNEP 188_GABC_en (web).pdf
  10. International Energy Agency. World Energy Outlook 2019 – Analysis [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://www.iea.org/reports/world-energy-outlook-2019
  11. Chandler DL. Cement production is massive contributor to carbon dioxide emissions globally | World Economic Forum [Internet]. World Economic Forum. 2019. Available from: https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/09/cement-production-country-world-third-largest-emitter/
  12. Summerbell DL, Barlow CY, Cullen JM. Potential reduction of carbon emissions by performance improvement: A cement industry case study. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2016;135:1327–39. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2016.06.155
  13. Energy Transitions Commission. Cement: Mission Possible. Reaching net-zero carbon emissions from harder-to-abate sectors by mid-century [Internet]. 2019. Available from: https://www.sustainablefinance.hsbc.com/-/media/gbm/sustainable/attachments/cement-mission-possible.pdf
  14. Timperley J. Q&s;A: Why cement emissions matter for climate change [Internet]. Carbon Brief Clear on Climate. 2019. Available from: https://www.carbonbrief.org/qa-why-cement-emissions-matter-for-climate-change
  15. IEA. Technology Roadmap Low-Carbon transition in the Cement Industry. International Energy Agency. 2018.
  16. Hasanbeigi A, Price L, Lin E. Emerging energy-efficiency and CO 2 emission-reduction technologies for cement and concrete production: A technical review. Renew Sustain Energy Rev [Internet]. 2012;16(8):6220–38. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.rser.2012.07.019
  17. Beyond Zero Emissions Inc. Zero Carbon Industry Plan - Rethinking Cement. 2017.
  18. Grubb M, Hourcade JC NK. Planetary Economics: Energy, climate change and the three domains of sustainable development [Internet]. Routledge; 2014. 520 p. Available from: https://www.routledge.com/Planetary-Economics-Energy-climate-change-and-the-three-domains-of-sustainable/Grubb-Hourcade-Neuhoff/p/book/9780415518826
  19. Huntzinger DN, Eatmon TD. A life-cycle assessment of Portland cement manufacturing: comparing the traditional process with alternative technologies. J Clean Prod [Internet]. 2009;17(7):668–75. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jclepro.2008.04.007
  20. Andrew RM. Global CO2 emissions from cement production, 1928-2018. Vol. 11, Earth System Science Data. 2019. p. 1675–710.

Green Installations: A More Natural Means of Tackling Air Pollution?

Air quality and air pollution are two terms more commonly being associated with clean growth and energy, becoming an ever-increasing concern worldwide. Reports by the World Health Organisation have estimated that around 90% of people living in cities are breathing air that does not comply with the WHO Air Quality Guidelines [1], and that 7 million premature deaths can be linked to air pollution annually. Now being described as ‘the world’s largest single environmental health risk’, increased levels of air pollution have been linked to cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, as well as cancer [2]. Airborne pollutants, including light gases, volatile chemicals, and particulate matter, can come from a range of sources, with machinery, industrial processes and manufacturing, and road transport being the largest contributors according to a UK study [3] shown in Figure 1. In addition, the levels of air pollution in developing countries, especially in enclosed spaces such as dwellings and indoor areas, has been stated as a cause for concern for human health [4]. Finding ways to reduce these emissions, or at least mitigating the amount of exposure humans have to these pollutants, could provide significant benefits for health and quality-of-life.

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Figure 1: Sources of emissions of PM2.5 in the United Kingdom, 2016, measured in kilotonnes.

A 2017 article in The Guardian reported on 10 different methods of air purification, ranging from personal air purifiers to face masks [5]. Face mask filters are primarily used to prevent the ingress of small particles in the range of a few micrometres and provide little to no protection against harmful gas molecules tens of thousands of times smaller. Similar problems exist for personal filtration devices, requiring the use of additional materials such as activated charcoal [6], essentially organic material burnt at high temperatures, to act as a sieve and adsorb gases and vapours. The combination of porous adsorbents with mechanical filtration, such as HEPA filters, allows for the effective reduction of both particulate and vapour concentrations on a personal scale [7]. These solutions, however, require regular replacement of filters, and are prohibitively costed for those in lower income or impoverished conditions. One possible simple and cost-effective solution commonly cited in magazines and articles is the use of house plants in affected homes [8], claiming various ferns and palms are capable of removing significant quantities of volatile vapours. However, these conclusions are based on misinterpretation of a single NASA study from 1989 [9], where houseplants were used to remove contaminants from sealed enclosures, smaller than a typical closet. A recent study by Cummings et al. [10] have found that the high air exchange rates and working volumes, as well non-constant concentrations of volatiles due to continued emission all contribute to negligible changes in air pollution with the introduction of any house plants tested. This paper concluded that future research may instead be focused towards plant-assisted filtration devices. These ‘biowalls’, composed of porous substrates supporting plant root networks present several advantages with their greater surface area and continuous airflow. A 2010 study [11] reported on a full-scale activated carbon-supported biowall with similar dimensions to a typical doorframe, which was capable of supplying several hundred cubic metres of clean air per hour. More importantly, the tests in this study were carried out under realistic conditions, being integrated into the ventilation systems for a newly built office building. Unlike houseplants, that operate through passive filtration of pollutants, active filtration through ecological filters does appear to have a promising future, although further research is still needed for improvements to the energy requirements of mechanical air filters [10].

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Figure 2: Schematic of ‘biowalls’: plant-assisted filtration devices for cleaning polluted air.

So how can we apply what we’ve learnt from indoor air filtration, and expand it to tackling air pollution in open spaces? Again, we can take notes from nature, and the ability of vegetation to trap molecules and small particles. Trees have evolved over millions of years to be incredibly effective at maximising their uptake of carbon dioxide in order to survive, and these adaptations also allow for the effective removal of gases such as nitrogen dioxide and ozone [12]. These gases are absorbed primarily through leaf stomata [13] and, once inside, the gases may facilitate water-gas or leaf-gas interactions to form by-products such as amino acids [14] or, in the case of ozone, can lead to oxidation through ‘burning’ of plant tissue. For particulate matter, trees act as shields protecting humans at ground level from air pollution at greater elevations A London study [15] on several plant species found that trees have superior removal performances for air pollutants compared to shorter vegetation, particularly for sources at higher altitudes such as industrial and manufacturing processes.

This has been credited to the greater surface area of their leaf canopies and the air turbulence surrounding their branch and stem structure, promoting the capture of particulates. Urban trees have been shown to have a variety of other benefits [12], both environmental and otherwise, including mitigation of climate change, reducing surface flooding, and their aesthetic has been linked to improved mental health.

New research, building on the advantages of outdoor ecology, has been focused on the usage of moss to trap particulate matter. Moss has been found to have an exceptionally high surface area compared to most vegetation, generally between 10-20 metres squared per gram of moss [16]. The material is currently being used as a method of quantifying metal pollutant concentrations, due to its ability to trap small particles from both air and water streams [16, 17]. Several companies are attempting to take advantage of the beneficial properties of moss, with one of the most notable being Green City Solutions, the people behind CityTrees [18]. These devices, which in principle are simply towers filled with several kinds of moss, have been installed in several cities around the world, including Hong Kong, Beijing, and even here in London. Their Dresden-based inventors have claimed that each of these devices have the air cleaning potential of 275 regular planted trees [19], but with a fraction of the maintenance, cost, and space required. These claims are backed by several independent research sources [18] who measured marked reductions of NOx and PM-1, -2.5, and -10 in the presence of CityTree units. The device has a number of features that not only improve efficiency, but also make it easier to integrate into urban environments. The tower uses solar panels and water retention systems, allowing it to be almost entirely self-sustaining, as well as an array of air pollution sensors which allow the performance of each unit to be monitored and tracked over time. The towers have also had benches, tourist information, charging stations, and even WiFi hotspots integrated into the design to make them more appealing to install and integrate with the surrounding urban setting.

Ecological installations, especially those incorporating modern technology, have had tried and tested results when installed in indoor spaces for the purposes of reducing air pollution. More recently these ‘green devices’ have began to be tested for cleaning in outdoor urban spaces, with promising initial findings. Only time will tell whether these provide a breakthrough discovery in terms of fighting pollution in cities, but at the very least will remind researchers that nature can be a great source of inspiration and innovation for cleaning the air we breathe.

References »

  1. World Health Organization. Ambient air pollution: a global assessment of exposure and burden of disease. World Health Organization; 2016.
  2. World Health Organization. Burden of disease from Household Air Pollution for 2012. 2014.
  3. Department for Environment Food &s; Rural Affairs UG. Emissions of Air Pollutants in the UK, 1970 to 2017. 2019.
  4. Bruce N, Perez-Padilla R, Albalak R. Indoor air pollution in developing countries: a major environmental and public health challenge. Bulletin of the World Health Organization [Internet]. 2000;78(9):1078–92. Available from: http://www.scielosp.org/scielo.php?script=sci_arttext&pid=S0042-96862000000900004&lang=pt%0Ahttp://www.scielosp.org/pdf/bwho/v78n9/v78n9a04.pdf
  5. Fleming A. 10 ways to beat air pollution: how effective are they? The Guardian. 2017;
  6. Sidheswaran MA, Destaillats H, Sullivan DP, Cohn S, Fisk WJ. Energy efficient indoor VOC air cleaning with activated carbon fiber (ACF) filters. Building and Environment. 2012;47:357–67.
  7. Luengas A, Barona A, Hort C, Gallastegui G, Platel V, Elias A. A review of indoor air treatment technologies. Reviews in Environmental Science and Biotechnology. 2015;14(3):499–522.
  8. Claudio L. Planting Healthier Indoor Air. Environmental Health Perspectives. 2011;119(10):426–7.
  9. Wolverton, B.C.; Johnson, A.; Bounds K. Interior Landscape Plants for Indoor Air Pollution Abatement. 1989.
  10. Cummings BE, Waring MS. Potted plants do not improve indoor air quality: a review and analysis of reported VOC removal efficiencies. Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology [Internet]. 2019;36–8. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/s41370-019-0175-9
  11. Wang Z, Zhang JS. Characterization and performance evaluation of a full-scale activated carbon-based dynamic botanical air filtration system for improving indoor air quality. Building and Environment [Internet]. 2011;46(3):758–68. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.buildenv.2010.10.008
  12. Bennett, Hayley; Turner K. How do trees clean our air? RSC: Education in Chemistry. 2020;
  13. Nowak DJ. The Effects of Urban Trees on Air Quality. 2002.
  14. Sanderson K. Trees eat pollution products. Nature. 2008;
  15. Tallis M, Taylor G, Sinnett D, Freer-Smith P. Estimating the removal of atmospheric particulate pollution by the urban tree canopy of London, under current and future environments. Landscape and Urban Planning [Internet]. 2011;103(2):129–38. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.landurbplan.2011.07.003
  16. Gonzalez AG, Pokrovsky OS, Beike AK, Reski R, di Palma A, Adamo P, et al. Metal and proton adsorption capacities of natural and cloned Sphagnum mosses. Journal of Colloid and Interface Science [Internet]. 2016;461:326–34. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jcis.2015.09.012
  17. di Palma A, Capozzi F, Spagnuolo V, Giordano S, Adamo P. Atmospheric particulate matter intercepted by moss-bags: Relations to moss trace element uptake and land use. Chemosphere [Internet]. 2017;176:361–8. Available from: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.chemosphere.2017.02.120
  18. Solutions GC. CityTree 2020. https://greencitysolutions.de/en/. 2020.
  19. Rayner T. CityTree: a Moss Wall with the Pollution Fighting Power of 275 Trees. RESET: Digital for Good. 2017;

High-Throughput Material Modelling - The Key to Accelerated Discovery of Advanced Energy Technologies?

At the forefront of research into renewable energy technologies, such as solar energy generation and battery storage, is the field of material modelling [2]. Material modelling involves the use of theory, programs and algorithms in supercomputers to simulate the behaviour of atoms in a given material. From these simulations, the overall properties and performance of materials in relevant applications can be examined, predicted and optimised. In this manner, scientists hope to overcome the performance issues plaguing renewable technologies and pave the way to a zero-carbon future.

There are several remaining problems with renewable energy generation and battery storage, many of which could be solved by improving the performance of their operational materials. For instance, high-efficiency solar cells are typically far too expensive for widespread implementation, and there are some concerns around the toxicity and poor chemical/thermal stability of the materials used inside them [3, 4]. On the other hand, the primary obstacles for modern battery technologies include cost, safety, lifespan and an inherent trade-off between charging speeds and energy capacity [5].

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Figure 2: Crucial Materials in Solar and Battery Technology.

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Figure 3: High-Throughput Materials Discovery Procedure.

In relation to the discovery and development of advanced next-generation materials, computational material modelling techniques wield a number of advantages over the laboratory-based experimental method. Perhaps the most powerful of these strengths is the ability to perform high-throughput material screening. Through this method, vast arrays of potentially useful materials are simulated and then investigated, by testing if they can exist in a stable state and predicting their level of performance in energy technologies [2, 6-10]. It is almost like doing a Google search to try and find the next ‘wonder material’. For example, Zhang et al. recently investigated over 60,000 inorganic compounds as potential next-generation battery materials, identifying a number of auspicious candidates [11]. It would be totally infeasible to perform a similar investigation, over such a range of diverse materials, via the traditional experimental method of manual chemical synthesis and subsequent characterisation. The cost and time requirements would be gargantuan.

It’s almost like doing a Google search to try and find the next ‘wonder material’.

Nevertheless, this technique is not exempt from limitations. Material simulations involve the use of numerous approximation techniques to make complicated calculations possible, entailing an inherent level of uncertainty in the prediction of exact values [12]. Additionally, due to the finite limitation of computing power, even with almighty supercomputers, material modelling is often confined to small molecular systems and/or short simulation timescales [12]. For instance, drug delivery in humans is rather difficult to accurately simulate. In this regard, computational techniques do not seek to directly compete with laboratory experimentation, but rather to augment it. In the realm of intelligent materials discovery and design, this involves the identification of promising candidate materials, which may then be synthesised experimentally for verification and, if successful, implemented in next-generation technologies.

A prime example of the successful application of the high-throughput screening procedure is in the pursuit of lead-free perovskite materials for optoelectronic applications such as solar energy. Perovskites are an exciting, relatively-new type of solar cell material, which boast industrially-scalable synthesis methods alongside high efficiencies (certified at over 22% efficiency [13], significantly outperforming current state-of-the-art silicon-based solar technology) [14-16]. However, one of the main issues with these materials is that they typically contain lead, which is both toxic and harmful to the environment [14, 17, 18]. Recently, a number of research groups have employed the high-throughput method to search for perovskite materials which do not contain lead, while rivalling the performance of their lead-containing counterparts [19, 20].

For instance, Jain et al. implemented the high-throughput method to screen over 480 different lead-free perovskite compounds, identifying 10 candidates for optoelectronic applications (solar-cells, LEDs etc). Of these, 7 were novel materials, having not been reported in literature previously [15]. This research group is currently devoting its efforts to studying the best structures obtained from this work, with the aim of accelerating their development as next-generation solar cell materials. A number of other research groups are also applying this, with encouraging results [21-24]: a clear indication of the power of this technique in the field of advanced materials discovery.

As with solar cells, there are a number of problems with the current state-of-the-art in battery materials. Lithium-ion batteries are far and away the leading technology in the £50 billion global battery market. Moreover, this value is set to increase tremendously in the coming years, due in large part to the predicted widespread deployment of electric vehicles and solar-powered devices [25-27]. Their popularity arises from an unrivalled level of performance [28], and they are found in everything from our mobile phones to Elon Musk’s Tesla Model 3 electric car [29, 30]. However, the future of the lithium-ion battery is uncertain. Despite enormous amounts of research carried out in the few decades since their conception, there remain several issues in relation to their safety, cost, lifespan and low-temperature performance [5].

Attempting to address these issues, several research groups have applied computational screening techniques to identify novel battery materials, which could facilitate the use of sodium or magnesium ions, rather than lithium ions, as the electroactive component of the battery [11, 31-33]. Sodium and magnesium are far more abundant and cheaper than lithium, so this is a truly exciting concept which could revolutionise modern battery technology.

Zhang et al. have applied the high-throughput materials screening technique to investigate over 60,000 inorganic compounds as potential sodium-ion battery materials, identifying a number of promising candidates, such as Na(CuO)2, NaTiF4, and Na2Zr(CuS2)2 [11]. This research involved the initial application of a classification algorithm to perform a ‘coarse’ screening of the vast materials dataset, using measures of stability, average voltage, volume change and ion mobility to assess the potential battery performance of the compounds. Successful candidates from this preliminary screening were then subjected to a more rigorous evaluation of performance metrics with the ‘conventional’ high-throughput method. In fact, this ‘multi-tier’ approach has gained significant traction in recent years as a method to investigate large material datasets efficiently, by restricting the most costly, accurate, time-consuming simulations to those materials which initially show promise from the cheaper and quicker coarse screening. Encouragingly, this work has been followed by the experimental synthesis and validation of the most promising candidate materials, with excellent results published just last year [34, 35]. Thus the forefront of research is pushed one step closer to the development of advanced lithium-free battery technologies. This is an excellent prototypical example of the power of computation and experiment working in tandem, to accelerate the research and development of new materials.

By combining these approaches synergistically, experimental validation of modelling predictions can be utilised to create a feedback loop to the simulations, producing computational algorithms of improved accuracy, reliability and speed [2, 36]. Thus, the process of materials discovery and development could be substantially accelerated, with endless possibilities.

References »

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Emerging Economies

Developing Africa's Energy Mix: Towards a Sustainable Future

Over the last decade, there has been a strong policy discourse on the need for a transition from the use of fossil fuels to the use of renewable energy or other sustainable means of energy for electricity generation. Although, several developed countries are already able to achieve this transition in some form, developing countries like those in the Sub-Saharan African region are still far off from getting to this transition.

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Figure 1: Consumption of Fuel by Regions (2018). Source: BP Statistical Review of World Energy 2019.

In defence of the region, one major issue that remains pertinent is the limited energy available for the growing population. There are about 1.4 billion people worldwide without access to energy and 40 per cent live in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). According to a report by the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), the African continent’s energy development currently lags behind the rapid growth of population and socio-economic needs. It is therefore logical that seeking to address this limitation be the top burner rather than deriving means to achieve a sustainable energy mix, given that countries in the region are looking to develop further and there cannot be significant economic development without energy. Africa's energy demand is projected to grow as it is estimated that nearly 570 million people, or 60 percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa, has no access to energy, which is key to industrialization.

The World Bank estimates that by 2040, Africa will require 700 gigawatts (GW) of electricity capacity, seven folds the current installed capacity. Reports from the UN Economic Commission for Africa stated that crude oil, natural gas, and coal are still important energy sources that play a vital role in African economies and energy systems. This is why countries like Kenya, Ghana, Tanzania, and Uganda are prospecting for oil, natural gas and coal in a bid to meet demand and grow their economies [1].

Nonetheless, it has become critical for the continent to prioritize clean and sustainable energy in order to meet the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), in particular Goal 7, which calls for “access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all”. Finding sustainable energy sources will play a significant role in spurring social, economic and environmental benefits and help to decrease greenhouse gas emissions.

Furthermore, the need for the transition for Sub-Saharan African countries is even more crucial given the potential consequences that would arise in light of the anticipated warming across the world by more than 1.5 degree Celsius. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), temperature increases in the region are projected to be higher than the global mean temperature increase. There is a projected increase in hot nights and more frequent heat waves for African regions within 15 degrees of the equator. Every bit of additional warming adds greater risks for Africa in the form of greater droughts, more heat waves and more potential crop failures with resultant impacts on food security.

The problem of the slow transition to sustainable energy is not as a result of any of the following; lack of policies, dearth in the availability of clean energy technologies and the absence of key actors pushing the agenda. Rather, the big problem is a lack of proper implementation pathways to increase inclusive access to renewable energy, especially for marginalized groups which makes up a significant part of the population. Therefore, effective means must be devised to result in a shift from mere policy discourse towards finding effective ways of implementing these policies.

Contrary to the happenings in developed countries where the transition to clean energy is actively pursued by both the public and private sector alike, the case of Africa is one in which sustainable energy is only propagated as a political agenda by the governments leaving the implementation to mostly the private sector. This has led to the domination of activities in that space by market based mechanisms. Essentially, stable countries receive support through the implementation of Feed-In-Tariffs (FITs) which reduces the cost of renewables and so provides incentive for a diversion from fossil fuels. This is however not the case in developing countries as the situation is either one in which there are still ongoing discussions on FITs or there are no stable policies on FITs and very rarely are cases of stable FITs. As a result of these market mechanisms, there is a limitation of access for most poor people as they lack the financing options to be included in the clean energy transition. Furthermore, although the region is home to poorest people, they are paying among the world’s highest prices for energy because of the cost barriers separating them from affordable, efficient and accessible renewable technologies.

The inception phase of the “Transformative pathways to sustainability project” under the African Sustainability Hub further highlighted this challenge. The findings from this project have raised concerns that even emerging business models deemed to be “pro-poor” (for example, mobile-enabled payments for solar) are still far from achieving inclusive clean energy for all, especially the poorest in Africa. Interests have remained on national economic development with no clear institutional pathways to channel benefits to the poor, or investment in household-level renewable energy systems even where governments have made some efforts to implement clean energy (e.g. the geothermal and wind sectors in Kenya).

Africa can develop without exploiting its fossil fuel resources as the continent is also rich in clean energy resources like geothermal, wind, solar and biomass energy sources. According to a research by McKinsey, the region’s potential energy generation capacity is greater than 10 terawatts using solar. Some of the factors that indicate progress is being made are the recent commitments by a few African leaders (Ethiopia, Ghana, Rwanda, Senegal and Zambia) to prioritise making affordable, reliable and clean energy available for all; financial innovation backing clean energy growth and development, such as Nigeria’s first-ever green bonds; the African Development Bank’s new lending for off-grid electricity and the implementation of FITs systems by Kenya and South Africa. Other factors that reflect that this is achievable are the plummeting costs of solar and wind energy as well as reducing costs of storage which opens more opportunities to deploy these technologies together [2].

Regardless, for any substantial progress to be made in Sub-Saharan African countries towards achieving sustainable energy and one that is inclusive in line with the SDG goals, transformative change is required and would involve the active playing of roles by significant parties such as developed countries, leaders in the SSA regions, international agencies and the private sector (renewable energy technology providers and the financial sector).

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Figure 2: Largest Providers of Public Finance for Africa’s Energy Sector (2014 – 2016).

Under the Paris Agreement, Kenya has committed to reducing its emissions by 30 percent, and Ghana by 15 percent, by 2030, compared to business-as-usual scenarios. African Heads of States have signed up to the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative, which aims to produce at least 10 GW of new renewable energy generation capacity by 2020, and not less than 300 GW by 2030. As part of the Paris Agreement, countries made national commitments to take steps to reduce emissions and build resilience. The treaty also called for increased financial support from developed countries to assist the climate action efforts of developing countries.

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Figure 3: Total Public Finance for Africa’s Energy Sector (2014 – 2016).

A recent report by Oil Change International found that about 60 percent of international public finance in African energy goes to fossil fuels, compared to just 18 percent to cleaner alternatives. Nonetheless, for there to be a significant shift in this statistic, a more conducive environment for renewable energy development, requiring political will, and the right policies need to be put in place to attract investments. The best way to bring power to the hundreds of millions of Africans with no energy access is through small, decentralized renewable power generation. African governments need to be more open to more independent power providers competing with power state utilities and give the customers the opportunities to choose what they want as that would make a business case for more investors to focus on green energy development.

Emphasis also needs to be placed on the digitalization of energy systems within the continent. According to the International Energy Agency, digital technologies render global energy systems more connected, intelligent, efficient, reliable and sustainable. The use of digital technologies will help determine who needs energy, when and where and at the most competitive costs. Investments should be directed towards the automation of power substations which will allow for the reduction of outage time and operating costs, which in turn cuts electricity costs for the consumers. Also, the installation of smart meters should be prioritized as smart meters enables more customer choices, more empowered customer decision on energy management and better grid peak management fault detection. The 2019 Energizing Finance Report by the Sustainable Energy For All, revealed that across 13 High-Impact SSA countries, the share of financing for energy efficiency solutions remains low.

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Figure 4: Finance for Electricity by Technology Across High-Impact SSA Countries (2017).

In conclusion, given that energy in the region remains unreliable and not affordable enough for many, it is obvious that the use of centralized fossil fuel projects and costly distributed diesel and kerosene is not the pathway to closing the energy access gaps in Africa. It is time for Africa to embrace the use of renewable energy towards a more sustainable future and work towards becoming the first continent to develop its economy mainly through the use of modern energy sources. Although, there is not a one-size-fits-all approach various reform steps such as phasing out fossil fuel subsidies and introducing FITs for renewable energy production, launching standards of transparency in public administration, and enhancing polices and law enforcement on using clean sources of energy will go a long way in helping to achieve this.

References »

  1. Sophie Mbugua. Can Africa Develop on Green Power?. Available from: https://www.dw.com/en/can-africa-develop-on-green-power/a-45648419 [Accessed 10th February 2020].
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Sustainable Energy Transition: The Key to Climate Resilience for Small Island Developing States

The Small Island Developing States (SIDS) are made up of 57 island countries around the world that face significant challenges in development due to factors such as remoteness, vulnerability to natural disasters and dependence on international trade. They oftentimes must deal with problems at higher stakes than larger countries. Many are struggling to bear the extreme weather events that manifest as a result of climate change. Furthermore, several factors, including most prominently the high price of imported oil due to their isolation, hinder the economic development crucial for many SIDS to build climate resilience. Sustainable energy, therefore, is the solution to helping empower the combined total of 65 million inhabitants – many of whom live in poverty – against dangerous environmental hazards [1].

The hazards brought on by climate change have long been recognised to bring serious consequences for the SIDS. Back in 1987, the President of the Maldives, Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, delivered a powerful speech acknowledging the increasing vulnerability of the SIDS to climate change and rising sea levels. Referring to his own country, he foreboded “the death of a nation” submerged under as little as two metres of sea level rise due to climate change [2].

Vanuatu, also a Least Developed Country, places constantly at the top of the World Risk Index [3], published by the United Nations University using calculations of the vulnerability and exposure to natural hazards of a country. In 2015, the Category 5 tropical Cyclone Pam, the second most intense tropical cyclone ever in the South Pacific basin, devastated 90% of national housing stock, cut off telecommunications and denied almost half the population of clean water [4]. Poor infrastructure made it difficult to contact outlying islands along the roughly 850km long archipelago [5], while the country’s lack of capacity to adapt to these hazards is linked to and worsened by its slow economic and technological development.

Sustainable development is paramount to the continued survival and development of the SIDS amidst these environmental perils. Barriers to progress in this area are thus reviewed in three broad sections: limitations in energy access, opportunities and challenges in energy transition, and policy interventions for future improvement.

SIDS are highly dependent on imported fossil fuels which supply on average over 90% of their energy consumption [6]. The physical isolation of many SIDS adds a financial barrier, with oil product prices in Pacific SIDS raised 200-300% higher than average international prices [7], and as a result SIDS have become among the world’s most indebted countries according to the World Bank [8]. Their limited domestic economies make them highly sensitive to oil price shock and supply interruptions [9], compromising energy security and slowing social and economic development. But despite these high prices, or possibly because of them, demand for energy is low in many SIDS households. In 2013, only 5 out of the 57 SIDS had an energy consumption per capita equal or more than the world average of 1890 kgoe (kilogram of oil equivalent) [10]. Moreover, in SIDS like Vanuatu, Haiti, Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea, Kiribati and Guinea-Bissau, less than 50% of the population have access to electricity [11]. In such cases of limited electricity access, education, business and industrial activity are first to be compromised [12].

The high price of traditional energy and the slowness of economic development induce a vicious cycle in the outlook of many SIDS, but access to sustainable energy could possibly be key to the equation. The challenge lies in the remoteness of the islands and of many households relative to each other. Economically, it is not feasible to extend grids to households far from demand centres with a concentrated grid network. Returns from the low energy demand from remote households are not significant enough to offset the costs of grid extension [13]. Institutionally, policymakers implement poor or inadequate policies with regards to energy efficiency, leading to low private participation as investors are pushed away [14]. This electricity shortage creates a high reliance on traditional biomass sources like wood, charcoal and dung [15], but indoor air pollution from these traditional fuels cause almost two million deaths annually, with 99% from developing countries [16].

However, as many SIDS have abundant sources of renewable energy, and large-scale energy infrastructure are not needed for small islands, there are vast opportunities for low carbon economic development [17]. One possible solution is implementing decentralised renewable energy systems (DRES) to expand electricity to remote rural areas and decarbonise existing fossil fuel reliant infrastructure. While requiring funding and expertise, such projects are already under way in some SIDS. In Mauritius, efforts have been taken to adopt rooftop photovoltaic systems in residential and commercial buildings as well as in the industrial sector [18]. In the Dominican Republic, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has been supporting 13 remote communities since 2008 through their Rural Electrification Programme, reducing their reliance on expensive kerosene lamps and hazardous pine kindling. As of 2008, 23 micro hydropower plants provide renewable energy to over 3000 families, helping a significant number develop small enterprises [19].

Heavily interwoven with technological development, policy intervention is crucial to making positive developments in the SIDS energy outlook. In the midst of reducing dependency on fossil fuel imports, governments must also ensure a stable supply of energy from other sources. In the Seychelles, the government implemented a target of 15% renewable energy by 2030, a significant goal starting from an almost 100% reliance of costly and volatile diesel imports which impeded development [20]. The Port Victoria Wind Farm project was then executed – eight 750-kilowatt wind turbines on two existing reclaimed islands connected by 3 km of submarine cables. Two years after the project’s completion, the wind farm satisfies 8% of the country’s annual electricity consumption and dodges 5,845 tonnes of annual carbon dioxide emissions [21]. The success of the UNDP’s Rural Electrification Programme implemented in the Dominican Republic relies heavily on cooperation between the government and local communities for micro hydropower plant developments, as well as the considerations of these sustainable energy solutions by the government in further policies.

The environmental hazards faced by SIDS only worsen as the anthropogenic causes of climate change continue to grow. It is ever more important for SIDS to develop climate resilience and this should be treated as global challenge today. On that account, efforts to advance the energy transition and develop a low carbon economy in these countries are concerns of all humankind, as fossil fuel dependency could very well mean the death of many nations amid a lack of empowerment against the climate change emergency.

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Figure 1: Destruction in Haiti after Hurricane Matthew in 2016. Source: UN MINUSTAH/UNDP [22].

References »

  1. UN-OHRLLS. Small Island Developing States Factsheet 2013 [Internet]. United Nations; 2013. Available from: http://unohrlls.org/custom-content/uploads/2013/09/Small-Island-Developing-States-Factsheet-2013-.pdf
  2. Maldives Mission to the United Nations [Internet]. Papers.risingsea.net. [cited 12 February 2020]. Available from: http://papers.risingsea.net/Maldives/Gayoom_speech.html
  3. https://unu.edu/projects/world-risk-report.html#outline
  4. Handmer J, Nalau J. Understanding Loss and Damage in Pacific Small Island Developing States. In: Mechler R, Bouwer L, Schinko T, Surminski S, Linnerooth-Bayer J, ed. by. Loss and Damage from Climate Change. Springer; 2019. p. 365-381.
  5. Mullen J, Always S. Aid workers scramble to help Cyclone Pam victims in Vanuatu. CNN. 2015;.
  6. Sustainable Energy .:. SIDS Action Platform [Internet]. Sids2014.org. [cited 12 February 2020]. Available from: http://www.sids2014.org/index.php?menu=1581
  7. Sustainable Energy .:. SIDS Action Platform [Internet]. Sids2014.org. [cited 12 February 2020]. Available from: http://www.sids2014.org/index.php?menu=1581
  8. Feinstein C. SIDS – Towards a Sustainable Energy Future. Presentation presented at; 2014; WB-UN HIGH LEVEL DIALOGUE ON ADVANCING SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT IN SMALL ISLAND DEVELOPING STATES.
  9. Feinstein C. SIDS – Towards a Sustainable Energy Future. Presentation presented at; 2014; World Bank.
  10. Timilsina G, Shah K. Filling the gaps: Policy supports and interventions for scaling up renewable energy development in Small Island Developing States. Energy Policy. 2016;98:653-662.
  11. Surroop D, Raghoo P, Wolf F, Shah K, Jeetah P. Energy access in Small Island Developing States: Status, barriers and policy measures. Environmental Development. 2018;27:58-69.
  12. Surroop D, Raghoo P, Bundhoo Z. Comparison of energy systems in Small Island Developing States. Utilities Policy. 2018;54:46-54.
  13. Surroop D, Raghoo P, Bundhoo Z. Comparison of energy sysems in Small Island Developing States. Utilities Policy. 2018;54:46-54.
  14. Surroop D, Raghoo P, Bundhoo Z. Comparison of energy systems in Small Island Developing States. Utilities Policy. 2018;54:46-54.
  15. Surroop D, Raghoo P, Wolf F, Shah K, Jeetah P. Energy access in Small Island Developing States: Status, barriers and policy measures. Environmental Development. 2018;27:58-69.
  16. United Nations Development Programme. The Energy Access Situation in Developing Countries. New York: UNDP and World Health Organization; 2009 p. 2.
  17. Timilsina G, Shah K. Filling the gaps: Policy supports and interventions for scaling up renewable energy development in Small Island Developing States. Energy Policy. 2016;98:653-662.
  18. International Renewable Energy Agency. A Path to Prosperity: Renewable Energy for Islands. International Renewable Energy Agency; 2016.
  19. International Renewable Energy Agency. A Path to Prosperity: Renewable Energy for Islands. International Renewable Energy Agency; 2016.
  20. International Renewable Energy Agency. A Path to Prosperity: Renewable Energy for Islands. International Renewable Energy Agency; 2016.
  21. International Renewable Energy Agency. A Path to Prosperity: Renewable Energy for Islands. International Renewable Energy Agency; 2016.
  22. https://www.undp.org/content/undp/en/home/blog/2017/2/22/Oceans-and-small-island-states-First-think-opportunity-then-think-blue.html

Microgrids and Mobile Phones - A Solution for Energy Poor Communities

Mobile phones are assisting the process of bringing electricity through microgrids to remote areas that are not connected to the main grid. Mobile phones have made it easy for electricity providers to disburse bills and collect payments quickly and efficiently as it enables customers to pre- pay their bills online and access data about their usage.

This article explores the role that mobile technology plays in providing electricity through microgrids along with the simplified management of microgrids. This will be explored through the case of SteamaCo’s Solar Microgrid project in Kenya.

Lack of Grid connectivity

Inability to be connected to the main electricity grid is one of the main reasons for areas in the underdeveloped world not having access to electricity. In fact, even the areas that are connected to the main grid often do not have reliable and uninterrupted supply of electricity.

One of the primary reasons for an area not being connected to the main grid has to do with geographical limitations such as the terrain being unsuitable for development or the area being too far from the main grid connection. But surprisingly, in Nigeria, Tanzania, Ghana and Liberia alone there are up to 95 million people living in urban areas—all in close proximity to the grid— who are not connected to the main grid. In Kenya about 70% of off-grid homes are located within 1.2 kilometre of a power line and still do not have access to electricity. Overall, an estimate of 61- 78% of the population across sub- Saharan Africa are under-the-grid (receive unreliable, inconsistent, low-quality or receive no electricity at all) [1].

The reason for such areas or households not being connected to the main grid, in spite of the their proximity to the national grid is that the electricity service provider considers them as a liability making it economically unsustainable to connect them to the grid. The reasons behind this include high costs of connectivity to the grid, electricity thefts, the inability to meter electricity usage due to the lack of a formal (eg: people living in informal housing like slums would not have a formal address, hence complicating the process of metering and billing). Moreover, these households have very low consumption levels which makes it less profitable for the distribution companies, many households have known to default on their payments even when they received subsidies. In the case of government-run electricity distribution companies, lack of funds, inefficient implementation and corruption are factors that are further inhibiting the access to electricity.

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Figure 1: Global non-electrification rates: this also reflects the potential for microgrids [2].

The solution

In spite of the limitations mentioned above, a combination of microgrids, smart meters and other technological innovations such as mobile phones have made it possible for distribution companies to sustainably develop microgrids and distribute electricity to remote/isolated households. This is achieved through employing technology to efficiently manage the distribution of electricity. These innovations also provide the necessary flexibility in terms of production and distribution of electricity which would not be possible in the conventional methods of production and distribution.

Microgrids: Since these communities are densely populated (though, sometimes away from the main grid), the service providers have the opportunity to cut distribution costs if the production of electricity is in close proximity to the consumer. Solar Microgrids in particular seem to serve these populations well, especially in Africa, which has a massive solar capacity potential due to its climate. It has become easier to exploit this clean, renewable energy rather than rely on conventional sources. Users also prefer to subscribe to a microgrid distributor rather than be connected to the main grid as a microgrid is considered more reliable in terms of providing regular supply. Since these users typically consume significantly less electricity than people living in urban areas, they usually only require basic lighting and the need to invest on high capacity storage solutions is not pressing.

Smart metres: Smart metres help monitor and record usage data. They also help detect and prevent electricity theft through monitoring of distribution.

Mobile phones: Mobile phones enable easy payment of bills and monitoring of electricity use from the customer’s side. Since payment for electricity is pre- paid in such cases, losses due to defaulting on payment can be avoided. In a world without mobile technology, this payment and recording of electricity usage would have to be done manually which would be time consuming and heavily reliant on manpower. Mobile phones have reached remote areas where reliable electricity sources are not yet available, thanks to their reducing costs and wide cell- phone network coverage.

SteamaCo’s Solar Micro grid project in Kenya

A grid connection in Kenya is estimated at 400$ per household, which is nearly one-third of the average per capita income of a Kenyan citizen [3]. According to the World Bank, more than 95 percent of Kenyans are mobile phone users, while only 32 percent have regular access to a traditional power grid [4].

SteamaCo is making use of the above factors to run a successful business that provides electricity to communities that are far away from the grid. They work with local microgrid owners and technicians to set up high capacity solar panels and connect them to microgrids. They then provide them with their smart meters and specialized software to monitor energy use. The app provides bypass protection, tamper proofing and an indelible cloud ledger.

One bulk metre is set up at a certain point in the distribution. The electricity passing through this is compared with the energy passing through each edge downstream of that bulk meter. Any loss that is outside the configured tolerance level will raise an alert. This will enable detection of electricity theft.

The usage data of electricity can be monitored through bluetooth enabled phones and smart monitors in a house. In the case of more basic devices that do not have a bluetooth connectivity, usage data is sent through SMSs. The services include on demand balance checks, automatic low balance notifications and payment confirmation.

Steamaco makes use of mobile banking platforms like Paypal and M-pesa to get customers to pre- pay their electricity bills. Since the customers are already accustomed to pre-paid mobile bill payment, they have caught up with this system of payment quite quickly and easily. Edge computing helps calculate the tariffs and automatically switches the power off when the consumer’s prepaid balance runs out.

This has led to positive ripples in the economy with new businesses being set up, access to better services, more employment opportunities for the growing population of rural Africa and so on.

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Figure 2: Steamaco smart metre and its functions [5].


It is not only Steamaco that makes use of this microgrid/mobile phone synergy to bring electricity to poor in rural or isolated areas , other notable companies include SolarKiosk (Berlin based), Odyssey Energy Solutions (Colorado based)and SunEdison to name a few. Though there are currently only a handful of such companies working on bringing electricity through microgrids, there is plenty of potential. Africa is estimated to be the world's fastest-growing market for microgrids at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 27%, leading to 1,145MW requirement by 2027 [6]. According to Odyssey Energy Solutions, an estimate of up to 200,000 micro-grids will be needed to lift 70% of the 1 billion people living in Sub Saharan Africa and Asia out of energy poverty [7]. Microgrids are viewed as the cheapest option in this case. It is therefore necessary to look beyond the barrel to provide them with this much needed electricity.

References »

  1. The conversation. Millions of urban Africans still don’t have electricity: here’s what can be done. Available from: https://theconversation.com/millions-of-urban-africans-still-dont-have-electricity-heres-what-can-be-done-92211 (Accessed 13th February 2020)
  2. What does it mean to live under the Grid? Available from: https://www.virgin.com/virgin-unite/what-does-it-mean-live-under-grid (Accessed 13th February 2020)
  3. Glenn McDonald. Seeker Solar Microgrids and Mobile Phones Help Bring Electricity to Rural Kenyans. Available from: https://www.seeker.com/solar-microgrids-and-mobile-phones-help-bring-electricity-to-rural-ken-2288975272.html (Accessed 13th February 2020)
  4. Anastasia Walsh. Africanews. To Solve its Power Distribution Problems, Africa Needs to Modernise and Decentralise its Grid. Available from: https://www.africanews.com/2019/09/27/to-solve-its-power-distribution-problems-africa-needs-to-modernise-and-decentralise-its-grid-by-anastasia-walsh-international-energy-consultat-in-johannesburg// (Accessed 13th February 2020)
  5. Andrew Burger. Colorado Company Jump-starts Mini-Grid Development in Africa. Available from: https://microgridknowledge.com/mini-grid-software-africa/ (Accessed 13th February 2020)
  6. https://steama.co/ (Accessed 13th February 2020)
  7. http://events.cleantech.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/02/CFSF17_Steamaco_Harrison-Leaf.pdf (Accessed 17th February 2020)

Guest Article

The Road to COP26: Are Politicians Thinking Beyond the Barrel?


This November, delegates from all corners of the world will gather in Glasgow for the 26th Conference of Parties (COP) - a landmark event in climate diplomacy. COP26 will be the most significant gathering of its kind since the Paris Agreement united all countries in pledging to avoid a 2+ °C world in 2015. The consensus on the planet’s tolerance for ‘safe’ levels of global warming has already shifted since then, with the IPCC’s 2018 report putting the catastrophe threshold at 1.5 °C [1]. Moreover, the quantifiable targets of the Paris Agreement still fall substantially short of even a 2 °C scenario - for which, further emissions reductions of ~13 gigatonnes worldwide would be required by 2030. For context, bringing global climate policy in-line with this scientific consensus would require nations to collectively triple their 2015 commitments - and COP26 is their final chance to do so before the Paris Agreement comes into effect [2].

Support from the world’s most major carbon emitters (Fig. 1) will be crucial in driving forward improved emissions targets at COP26. In 2015, successful negotiations were precipitated by a joint endorsement from China and the US. (3) This time, negotiations will coincide with increased global political turbulence. Major signatories of the Paris deal have already walked-back their climate ambitions since 2015 due to domestic political changes, most notably the US and Brazil. Meanwhile, progress in many other major nations has stalled. Here, we review the scope of climate policy ambitions in the world’s five biggest emitting countries/blocs, and how they are likely to shape the two-week negotiations of COP26.

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Figure 1: World’s major carbon emitter [4].

United States
2030 Paris emissions pledge: 10-17% reduction vs. 1990 (withdrawn) (4)
(2030) 2°C compatible target: 45% reduction vs. 1990

On November 4th, 2019, the United States became the first country to invoke Article 28 of the Paris Agreement - that is, to formally request withdrawal. The Agreement's inbuilt failsafes prevented Trump from delivering on this pledge sooner. Article 28 can only be invoked three years after a country joins the treaty, and a further year of notice is required after invocation before the formal exit occurs. The US is currently scheduled to leave exactly one day after the upcoming US Presidential Elections. With all of Trump's rivals for the presidency pledging to "rejoin" the aexactlyccords should they win, US presence at COP26 hangs on an electoral knife-edge.

2030 Paris emissions pledge: Reach peak emissions
(2030) 2°C compatible target: 21% reduction vs. present

Despite emissions rebounding in 2018 due to trade pressures, China is expected to meet its Paris goal - peak emissions by 2030 - ahead of time. (5) As China drafts its 14th 5-year-plan (2021-25), prominent figures have urged the nation’s leaders to set a concrete long-term goal (30-50 years) for net zero emissions, and to put sustainability at the core of their Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). (6) The BRI has caused some concern due to China’s direct and indirect investments in fossil fuel infrastructure in developing countries. (7) Recent signals from China have been more promising however, such as their joint work with the UK on a series of ‘Green’ Belt and Road principles. (8)

China’s policy evolution through the 2010s has unexpectedly propelled them to a global leader on climate action. (9) At COP25, China spoke in support of the Paris Agreement, as the US was withdrawing. At COP26, Chinese-EU leadership will be vital to the success of any serious new raft of pledges aimed at bringing the Agreement in-line with scientific consensus. Disagreements remain between the two superpowers however, principally on the idea of bilateral carbon tariffs. (5)

European Union (EU)
2030 Paris emissions pledge: 40% reduction vs. 1990
(2030) 2°C compatible target: 66% reduction vs. 1990

The most recent EU elections were seen as a success for Europe’s environmentalist movement, with green parties gaining around 22 additional seats in the 751-seat EU parliament. This trend has also appeared in recent domestic elections across the continent, such as in Denmark and Ireland - and in Germany, where environmentalists (Bündnis 90/Die Grünen) have been polling in second-place for over half a year. (10) Mainstream parties have also been adopting more progressive climate policies, with Usurla von der Leyen’s new European Commission recently pushing through a continent-wide Net Zero by 2050 target, alongside massive green investment promises (in the form of a ‘Green New Deal’, slated to be published early spring).

At COP26, the EU is expected to resume a leading role in the High Ambition Coalition - a lobbying alliance between the EU and a diverse group of climate-concerned developing nations. Without US support, the EU’s efforts to lead calls for more ambitious targets will be even more necessary than in 2015.

2030 Paris emissions pledge: (below) 479-485% increase vs. 1990
(2030) 2°C compatible target: (below) 440% increase vs. 1990

India is perhaps the only major economy currently projected to be in-line with a < 2°C scenario. In 2019, incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi was re-elected, in a campaign where both major political parties in India explicitly published climate policies for the first time. (11).

At COP25, India was part of a group of nations (including Brazil and China) that impeded progress on the conference’s most contentious issue - carbon trading. Article 6 of the Paris Agreement lays out the framework for which countries can exchange new carbon ‘sinks’ (e.g. renewables infrastructure) for carbon ‘credits’, which can be sold onwards to countries that would otherwise struggle to meet their emissions targets. India feared that under new plans, it would lose millions of credits accrued under the former system. (12) Ultimately, parties could only agree to defer this discussion to COP26.

2030 Paris emissions pledge: 25-30% reduction vs. 1990
(2030) 2°C compatible target: 60% reduction vs. 1990

Little has materially changed in Russian politics since 2015. Putin was comfortably re-elected for the fourth time in 2018, and his party remains virtually unchallenged outside of Moscow (13). Although supportive of the Paris Agreement, Putin’s recent statements on climate have sent mixed signals - including doubting the scientific-consensus on anthropogenic global warming (14), and state-issued climate policy that prioritises mitigation over prevention. (15)

Moreover, Russia’s Paris targets are widely seen as too weak, as are their internal targets on renewable energy production (just 4.5% by 2024). At COP26, it is unlikely that Russia will be at the forefront of championing more ambitious emissions goals.

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References »

  1. https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
  2. https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/02/its-time-government-show-real-leadership-cop26
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/sep/03/paris-climate-deal-where-us-and-china-have-led-others-must-quickly-follow
  4. https://climateactiontracker.org - all emissions/targets data referenced to here
  5. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3040643/china-and-eu-try-forge-common-front-lead-fight-against-climate-change
  6. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/article/3040643/china-and-eu-try-forge-common-front-lead-fight-against-climate-change
  7. https://e360.yale.edu/digest/chinas-belt-and-road-initiative-could-drive-warming-to-2-7-degree
  8. http://www.gflp.org.cn/public/ueditor/php/upload/file/20181201/1543598660333978.pdf
  9. https://thediplomat.com/2020/01/chinas-climate-diplomacy-2-0/
  10. http://www.wahlrecht.de/umfragen/insa.htm
  11. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/general-elections-2019/finally-both-bjp-and-congress-manifestos-talk-climate-change-63913
  12. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-india-50774901
  13. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-49632163
  14. https://www.dw.com/en/russias-vladimir-putin-doubts-man-made-climate-change-backs-trump/a-51736903
  15. http://government.ru/news/38739/