A common solution for renewable energy storage and aviation fuel?

Today I was pleased to discuss a common solution for energy storage in the electricity industry and sustainable fuel for the aviation industry.  I hope that this common interest will speed the research and development to make it reality.

I’ve been concerned for a while that as the percentage of electricity generated from renewables – wind, solar, tidal and so on – increases, it will be more and more important to have good energy storage.  At present UK electricity comes mostly from coal, gas and nuclear.  Gas is most flexible, with generating plant being able to be turned on and off in just a few tens of minutes or sometimes less.  Nuclear is least flexible, with slow variation in power generation being more practical than turning them ‘off’.

There have already been times when the sun has been shining and the wind blowing and together with the base load generation, such as nuclear, there has been more power than the electricity grid needed.  To be fair this problem can arise in just parts of the grid because generation and usage is not evenly balanced, but the result is the same.  Either generation must be stopped – such as by shutting down wind turbines, or power needs to be shed.  Ideally this would mean taking power out for storage but it could just be lost in some other way.

Until we have good power storage systems, we’ll find that it is not worth installing sufficient renewable generating capacity to cover all our needs on calm overcast days because the new extra capacity won’t be needed often enough.  So what is the solution to stop being dependent on coal and gas?

Better energy storage – and more responsive loads.

More responsive loads is a story of its own, and doesn’t related to aviation, so I’m not considering it here.  So storage…

We do some storage now. Dinorwig pump storage system in Wales is one of the most effective and best known.  With two reservoirs, one at the top and one at the bottom of the hill, Dinorwig can quickly generate extra electricity when needed by allowing the water to run down through its turbines – and when there is excess electricity the water can be pumped back up ready to be used again.

We need many more systems that can do this load balancing, and they need to be able to be installed anywhere, not just where there are places with conveniently paired reservoirs.

There are several solutions being explored, including flywheels, heat storage (domestic storage heaters are a simple example of this), batteries and more.  But one I would really like to make progress is combining carbon dioxide and water to form more complex hydrocarbons.

One company which is doing something like this already is Air Fuel Synthesis.  They have a plant in the North East using electricity to make synthetic methanol-based alternatives to petrol and diesel.  If this is used not for burning, but for a chemical feedstock to make long-lasting materials, we could even use this system as a way of extracting carbon dioxide from the air – directly combating climate change.

This sort of process is one of the ways that Sustainable Aviation thinks that air travel can stop being such an environmentally damaging activity.

Alternative sources of fuel for aeroplanes is just one aspect of aviation that this industry lobby group is promoting.  It is also concerned about air pollution, noise and even ground affects of air travel like how people travel to airports.

The recent leaflet from Sustainable Aviation summarising their suggested route to sustainable fuels.

The recent leaflet from Sustainable Aviation summarising their suggested route to sustainable fuels.

At present Sustainable Aviation has identified three alternative sources of aviation fuel coming from biomass, from gasification of waste and forming new fuel in ways similar to that described above.  There are demonstration scale plants somewhere in the world for all of these.

But for me, the most important is the third as this helps do three things. It can take surplus electrical energy and turn it into easily stored chemical energy.  It can extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere helping neutralise climate change, and it enables aircraft to fly without being dependent on fossil fuels.

The Government is currently recruiting for a new technology and innovation ‘Catapult’ centre specialising in energy systems.  This is one area I hope that it will help take forward and make it a commercial reality soon.  This would enable more renewable generating capacity to be installed and the UK to reduce its imports of coal, oil and gas.  And if we are ahead of the game with research and development we’ll be able to sell the products and technologies across the globe.

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