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What are the drawbacks of today's plastics economy? PDF Print E-mail

At the 2016 World Economic Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, we launched a report called The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plasticsThis report provides, for the first time, a vision of a global economy in which plastics never become waste, and outlines concrete steps towards achieving the systemic shift needed. Among the multiple symptoms revealing the current system’s drawbacks, two are arguably amongst the most striking: our analysis indicates (i) that 95% of the value of plastic packaging material, worth $80-120 billion annually, is lost to the economy, and (ii) that, on the current track, there could be more plastics than fish in the ocean (by weight) by 2050. This blog post provides some background information on the data and methodology that led to the latter insight.

How much plastic is there in the world?

Plastic is the workhorse material of our modern consumer economy: since 1964, plastic production has increased 20 fold reaching 311 million metric tonnes (MMT) in 2014 - that’s the equivalent of 800 Empire State buildings. Between 1950 and 2015, more than 6,700 MMT of plastics were produced – the equivalent of more than 18,000 Empire State buildings. Since they can persist for hundreds of years, most of these plastics (except those that have been burned) still exist somewhere: as functional products, but also in landfills or as litter in the natural environment.

Growth in Global Plastic Production 1950-2014

It is rare to go a day without using some sort of plastic. The properties of plastics bring clear benefits to our economy; plastic packaging for example, accounting for 26% of all plastics used and the focus of the New Plastics Economy report, can help food stay fresh longer and can, because of its low weight, lead to fuel savings during transport compared to other types of packaging (glass, metal, wood etc). However, in general packaging is only used once, and often for a duration that can be measured in weeks or months, while the plastic packaging itself can continue to exist for centuries. It is well publicised that a lot of such packaging and other plastic products end up in the ocean; Australia has recently called a Senate enquiry into the state of plastic debris on its coast and the Great Pacific Garbage patch has entered our collective consciousness.

What happens to all of plastic flowing through our economy?

This question we assessed for plastic packaging specifically. Forty years after the introduction of the recycling symbol, only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. The remaining 86% of volume is buried, burned or dumped into the natural environment.

Global Flows of Plastic Packaging Materials in 2013

But how much plastic flows into the sea? This is a hard question to answer. It is impossible to count all the plastic in the ocean, as a lot of it dissolves to a micro scale (without disappearing!) or sinks. However, with the right model and data it is possible to get a good grasp of the volumes that are at stake. There are a few questions that need to be answered to get to that number, elaborated below.

How much plastic is mismanaged?

Mismanaged (or leaked) plastic waste is the total amount that is not properly landfilled, incinerated or recycled. For our numbers we used a 2015 study byJambeck et al. In this study the team took World Bank data on waste generation for 145 countries, to estimate the total mass of plastic waste generated in 192 coastal countries. It then used more World Bank data on 81 coastal countries on how much of that plastic was mismanaged (for the remaining countries a fairlysophisticated model was applied based on income level and region). This resulted in an estimate of how much plastic evades being collected and flows into the natural environment, this could be clogging cities’ infrastructure, affecting deserts, forests, waterways and oceans, often the ultimate sink for plastics entering waterways in coastal regions.

How much of this mismanaged plastic ends up in the ocean?

There is not much country-by-country data that assesses this as it takes very detailed recording of statistics and a lot of effort tracking plastic, so at this point a certain amount of rigorous extrapolation is needed. The most comprehensive data on how much of the total mismanaged plastic makes its way into the sea covers the 71 municipalities which make up the catchment basin entering the Pacific at the San Francisco Bay. This data set shows that 61% of all littered or inadequately disposed plastics makes its way to the sea. The Jambeck study referenced this number and used a more conservative 25% as its middle scenario.

When applied across all coastal regions, this scenario estimates 8.0 MMT entered the ocean in 2010. Other, much higher, estimates exist. Jambeck’s high scenario, which uses a 40% rate of littered or inadequately disposed plastic makes its way to the sea (still well below the 61% observed in the San Francisco data), leads to an estimate of 12.7 MMT entering the ocean in 2010 (more than 50% higher than the 8.0 MMT). A 2015 report published by the environmental agency in Germany estimates global annual leakage of plastics into the oceans to be 18-30 MMT (two to almost four times as high as the 8.0 MMT). We however used the rather conservative estimate of 8.0 MMT for our calculations.

How much plastic is in the oceans today?

Estimating the total volume of plastics in the ocean today is again a complex task, which explains the limited amount of data available on the topic. However, data on annual plastics production and leakage into the ocean can lead to valuable insights. Based on global plastic production since 1950, the total amount of plastics in the ocean is estimated in the Ocean Conservancy’s 2015 report Stemming the Tide to be 150 MMT in 2015, which is also used in the TheNew Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics report. This again is a rather conservative estimate. When applying Jambeck’s estimate of plastics annually leaked into the oceans (8.0 MMT in 2010) as share of the global plastics production (about 3% of 266 MMT in 2010), the total volume of plastics produced globally since 1950 suggests over 200 MMT of plastics in the ocean having leaked in 2015, well above the 150 MMT estimated by the Ocean Conservancy. And that’s assuming the rate of leakage has been roughly constant – while it might have been larger as, for example, many collection systems were less advanced than they are today, and the disposal of plastics from ships into the sea was only banned in 1988.

How much plastics will be in the oceans by 2050?

We conservatively rounded down Jambeck’s growth predictions to 5.0% per year until 2025. Between 2025 and 2050, we applied the expected global GDP growth rate of 3.5% per year. We consider this also a little conservative. First, historically global plastic production has grown faster than GDP. Second, emerging economies in Asia, where 80% of ocean leakage originates, are expected to see above average GDP and plastic consumption growth. Hence if no improvements to waste collection systems were made, leakage would grow faster than 3.5% per year. As such the estimate of 3.5% p.a. takes into account incremental improvements in waste management in high-leakage countries but no drastic, concerted action to stop the flow of plastics into the ocean – i.e. a business-as-usual scenario.

Distribution of Plastic Headquarters, Production and Leakage

Any forecast up to 2050 is inherently uncertain, but our study illustrates the order of magnitude of plastics entering the ocean if we do nothing to stop it. At this rate the cumulative amount of plastic in the ocean would be 850-950 million metric tonnes by 2050, as compared to 150 million metric tonnes today.

But how much plastic is 850-950 MMT?

That is more than 16,000 Titanics, or 2,000 Empire State Buildings or, the sum total of all the fish in the sea...

Now onto fish… How many fish are there in the sea?

Again, this is by its very nature a hard question to answer, one for which we turned to the Ocean Conservancy. In their most recent 2015 report they endorse a 2008 study that used satellite imagery to map plankton stocks, (as plankton is the base of the ocean food chain it is thought to be a good way of predicting the amount of biomass in the ocean), and estimated the total amount of fish in the sea to be around 812 MMT.

Global fish populations are currently subject to severe stress from multiple causes including overfishing. While – just as for the exact size of fish stocks – the precise extent of overfishing is by its very nature hard to determine, and different estimates exists, experts agree that it is a serious issue. According to a 2014 FAO report, 29% of assessed fish stocks are classified as overfished and a further 61% as fully exploited, with no ability to produce greater harvests. The WWF’s marine population index has fallen by half between 1970 and 2012, according to a 2015 report.

With further expected population growth and currently increasing global per capita fish consumption, overfishing as well as other issues remain real risks to fish populations going forward. The outcome is very uncertain and detailed predictions on evolutions of fish stocks by 2050 were out of the scope of our study, so we have crossed our fingers and hoped that fish stocks will remain intact in the next 35 years. Of course, were fish stocks to decline going forward, the threshold where the weight of plastics in the ocean would surpass that of fish could come even sooner than currently expected.

What is the New Plastics Economy and how can it help?

The New Plastics Economy report highlights multiple symptoms that all indicate one thing clearly: there is a systemic flaw in today’s plastics economy. We are losing economic value – 95% of the value of plastic packaging material value, worth $80-120 billion annually – and at the same time are degrading natural capital by leakage into the natural environment.

At its core, the New Plastics Economy report is about designing a blueprint for a system that captures plastic’s many benefits whilst addressing its drawbacks: using the plastics innovation engine to move the industry into a positive spiral of value capture, stronger economics and better environmental outcomes – in short, a New Plastics Economy.

The New Plastics economy would be one where plastics never become waste. This is underpinned by the principles of the circular economy, where nothing goes to waste and materials and products are kept at their highest possible value at all times. What would that look like?

The New Plastics Economy

How to get there?

Our report’s main recommendations to get to this New Plastics Economy include:

1. Collaboration: Bringing together all stakeholders across the global plastics value chain, including businesses, cities, and policy-makers.

2. Convergence and re-design of materials/formats and collection/sorting/reprocessing systems through development of a Global Plastics Protocol and coordination of large-scale pilots and demonstration projects.

3. ‘Moon shot’ innovations: Mobilizing large-scale, targeted “moon shot” innovations, such as, amongst others, new (bio-benign and self destructive) materials, improved formats, sorting technologies, and chemical and technical markers.

4. Close key knowledge gaps by providing insights and build an economic and scientific evidence base.

5. Engage policy-makers on a shared vision.

The world sat up and paid attention to this report when it was released at Davos. The rationale for action is clear, from the opportunity to capture material value to risk mitigation by decoupling a value chain from finite fossil fuels, and addressing externalities linked to climate change and leakage into the natural environment. Now let’s take it on, and start building the New Plastic Economy.

To find out more about plastics and the circular economy read the full report The New Plastics Economy.

To delve deeper into the statistics behind the report and for full references download the Background on Key Statistics document.

The New Plastics Economy has drawn on the expertise and contributions of a group of 40+ participant companies and cities along the global plastics value chain, as well as extensive consultation with academics, experts and NGOs. In total, more than 180 experts and over 200 publications were consulted during the report development.

 
Renewable Energy could Replace Fossil Fuels for Power Gen by 2066: an OAG360 Exclusive Interview wi PDF Print E-mail

If Martin Keller’s prediction comes true, in 50 years the U.S. won’t be using nearly the amount of crude oil, refined petroleum products, natural gas or coal as the legacy energy industry has been supplying for the past 100 years – Part One

Renewable Energy could Replace Fossil Fuels

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Golden, Colorado

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory, or NREL, is a place you might label as the federal government’s showcase for all things energy-efficient and renewable. It is a beautifully sited facility, a cluster of passive solar structures that seem to have organically sprouted out of the base of the foothills of the Rockies, just west of Denver, Colo.

It was the site of SERI, the Solar Energy Research Institute, back in the days of the Arab oil embargo, when water pipes ran through boxy looking solar panels that were balanced on rooftops, long before photovoltaic cells were the solar industry’s claim to fame.

Some of the newer buildings at today’s NREL are LEEDS Platinum rated, with naturally lit interiors, very low-level auxiliary lighting and they employ technologies for energy efficiency you might only dream of.

Some NREL facilities are powered by the sun. Some of their heat comes from the process of separating hydrogen from water in generation modules on site. But plenty of electricity comes in from the grid’s fossil fuel-fired power plants, the power that NREL needs to run experiments and tests for about 1,200 scientists who are working to prove the viability of renewable energy from the sun and the wind and to make ethanol batches from throw-away plant materials like corn stover and switchgrass.

The guy who runs NREL is Martin Keller. He is a PhD and holds the title of director. Keller is new to that post, but he’s not new to the idea of innovation or renewable energy. Originally from Germany, Keller came to NREL from the same place that developed the original hydrogen bomb—Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, where his group 3D Printed a Shelby Cobra automobile. He also spent time in private industry.

Oil & Gas 360® interviewed Martin Keller and a handful of NREL’s top scientists at the lab’s Golden, Colorado, headquarters, and by a telephone connection with two of NREL’s renewable energy economists in Washington, D.C.

We asked Keller to forecast a timeframe when he sees renewable energy sources overtaking fossil fuels. He said he believes it will happen much more quickly than people think—that it is already moving down that path, and that renewables will replace fossil fuels, at least for power generation, within the next 50 years.

Being in charge of U.S. government research for renewable energy qualifies Keller to put forth a timeline in answer to that question. His group’s front end data on the renewable sector is as bleeding edge as anyone’s. Of course the downstream effects of future policy decisions, global geopolitics, rates of global economic growth and energy supply and demand are all unknowns that muddy the equation, but the scientists working at NREL are some of the best in the world when it comes to researching and advancing new technologies, improving energy efficiency and striving to achieve standalone commerciality for renewable energy.

What drives Keller and his researchers—besides funding from U.S. taxpayers? This fact: they are on a mission.

Driven to Reverse Climate Change

Reversing climate change is the driving force behind NREL’s mission and the work that the organization and its scientists are doing. During our interviews, most of the scientists and analysts made references to COP and its stated intent to meet the carbon reduction goals set forth at the recent United Nations climate accords in Paris. As if the issue was decided long ago and the only remaining task is to accelerate the inertia to get the U.S. off of fossil fuels. The NREL personnel reference the COP goals like a soldier might refer to marching orders—like their job is to ensure that the U.S. meets the Paris-UN carbon goals.

Debating the efficacy of the science behind the climate change-driven renewable energy movement was not the goal of the interview. The goal was to get an idea of the current state of science and engineering behind the dominant renewable energy sources—wind and solar—to find out what technology is next up, and to get a flavor for the economics of renewables.

OAG360: How would you describe the work that NREL does?

Martin Keller: I describe NREL as having three pillars of excellence. One is analysis. For example, how can we help companies figure out what it would take to deploy hydrogen fuel stations, what is the penetration of electric vehicles, how can we help a city have more clean energy projects? So we do  analysis for clean energy.

The second pillar is what we will call deployment. How can we help work with companies to further decrease their cost of deploying clean energy projects, deploying solar, how can we help to increase market penetration.

The third pillar is that we are trying to work on innovation for the next big thing in clean energy and energy efficiency projects. So for example, coming up with new materials for the next solar panels or finding new ways to manufacture wind towers on site. So what can we do to fill the scientific gaps and increase innovation for clean energy.

I would argue that we have one of the strongest analysis teams; NREL is world renowned for its analysis. I think we’re doing a very good job on the deployment side, and I think we have to revitalize innovation.

Sometimes you hear people say that renewables are reaching grid parity*, so do we need to have more innovation? And my argument to this is that we are just at the beginning.  I always make a comparison to transportation when Henry Ford made the first car, and we just had the Model T, and we need to further drive through continuous innovation.

[*NOTE: grid parity is generally defined as the point when a developing technology will produce electricity for the same cost to ratepayers as traditional technologies—i.e., when the electricity generated by the new technology is the same cost as the electricity available on a utility’s transmission and distribution “grid”.]

OAG360: What’s the difference between what you were doing at Oak Ridge National Laboratory and what you are doing at NREL?

I feel that the mission [of NREL] is critical for our nation and also for our children and our grandchildren.

We need we need to continue to drive to develop a safe, secure and reliable energy portfolio which is outside of burning fossil fuels.

I see that in the U.S., we are very blessed discovering all this natural gas. I see that this is a tremendous transition fuel which buys us more time. It’s much cleaner than coal but it of course emits CO2, so in the long run I think we need to find a way to wean ourselves off of fossil fuel.

This said, I think fossil fuel will play a role in the future, but I think it will play a different role.  I think there is a lot of interesting chemistry in oil which we will continue to use in the years to come, but I think there will be different ways and cleaner ways to produce electricity.

So my view is that, fifty years out, I don’t think that we would burn natural gas or oil to create electricity.

OAG360: What do you think will be the primary fuel sources for electric power generation, if that’s true?

MK: I think it will be a mixture. I would see that there is a combination of renewables like wind and solar. We have another study out that we increase the amount of potential by rooftop solar; and we have so much wind potential that we could by far exceed electricity production beyond what we’re using right now.  And there’s I think an increase in geothermal. It’s all about bringing in this idea of renewable energy and then there will be carbon molecules which we still need, in my opinion, for driving trucks or flying a plane, of which a big portion will come out of renewable biomass which is not linked to food. So suddenly, I think we are seeing a huge change in our energy mix.

There are a lot of different models out: when we reach 2050 how much natural gas is still used, or coal? But my argument is—what will be the scenario to not using any fossil fuel in the future. We’re not there yet. So you need to work out the technology perspective of how you get there. I think as a national lab you need to ask this:  what are the big step functions in science and engineering?

We should have the scenarios to see what the world would look like if we could not afford anymore, not meaning afford on a cost basis, but rather based on environmental changes, can we afford to go down the path of using fossil fuel to create electricity?

And then you say ‘what are the technological gaps to achieve this’?

You can see how far we have come—look at Germany: on good days they are reaching eighty five percent from renewables—when the wind blows in the north and the sun shines in the south—the average is something like 30%-35%. And of new energy generation worldwide, something like 90% is coming from renewables, one of the agencies reported recently.

Look, I’m not going to say, ‘well let’s shut down all fossil energy tomorrow’.  We have to have a long term transition plan. So how do we make this happen? Discovering all this natural gas will give us the flexibility over the next twenty or twenty-five years to really move it down this path. That said in my view it would be a mistake to say ‘hey we have all this natural gas now, don’t worry about renewables—we don’t have to continue to fund research and innovation’.

No, I think we have to continue this [renewable energy innovation] because if we’re not doing this in the U.S., other nations will do it. I think we are the best nation at innovation.

Here’s an example. Look at fracing: the benefits this gave us. As you know the technology came out of some really good research over many years. And now it’s brought us tremendous possibilities and a lot of energy security where we might not rely so much on the Middle East to provide us with fossil energy.

So this shows you the power of research, but now it cannot stop. We need to look ahead. This is what we [NREL] need to do as a national lab.

OAG360: What percentage of the research for renewables is coming out of NREL versus the universities?

MK: It’s a collaboration.  There is a lot of research going on in at the universities and a lot more on the foundational side. It has to be done as a collaboration; NREL alone cannot do this. We are working very closely with universities from MIT to Stanford to Georgia Tech and of course Boulder and C.S.U. So we need to be a part of the research effort.

When you look at Washington, there is a different view of what government needs to do in research. I worked 10 years in industry and for the last 10 years at the national labs. I know both worlds very well. My view is that the government should not do research which should be done at the companies. But we also have to be clear that the companies will do incremental improvements, because they have to follow the shareholders and they need to look at the profit line. They will not make step functions, because it’s too risky for businesses. This is where government plays a significant role.

We are the best nation in the world innovation that’s what makes us so great. The research is bringing the brightest minds into our country and driving innovation, and this makes the U.S. great.

We also need to continue to drive research on developing the next generation of clean coal plants. I think it’s absolutely important. If we would say ‘we just do renewables and we don’t fund the research on clean coal’ it would be a mistake.

OAG360: Are you doing research projects having to do with clean coal here at NREL?

We are not doing much on carbon sequestration. Other labs are. Sandia has a project there. I think it’s important.

The last let’s say hundred fifty years or 100 years, we had a very singular energy source. That time is over. It will be a diversification, and it will be everything from solar to renewables to perhaps clean coal to nuclear: we need to look at all different scenarios.

OAG360: Clean energy—renewable energy—and the oil and gas industry: where do they intersect?

MK: It’s a good question. A lot of people would argue that there is no intersection at all. That we’re in very different camps. My view is that the world normally is not black and white, it’s always gray.

I don’t know in the long run how much can oil and gas and also coal will play in electricity generation. When you look at all the environmental changes we’re seeing. Look at some of the facts. The fact is we’re changing our environment.

And so when you go down this path, what does this mean to us? In life you’re looking at different different possibilities. What if 95% of the scientists are correct—showing that the changing environment is linked to burning fossil energy and fossil fuel. Let’s assume they’re right. What is our actual plan, what are we doing?

Look, I’m not saying—when I look at my life, we had a farm in Knoxville and I had an F-350 to pull the horses, so I want to enable my children the same freedom that I have. This is so critical: what do we need to do that our children and their grandchildren can have the same freedom that we have—hopping in a car, driving wherever they want, flying wherever they want? How can they afford this in the future, based on our globe?

So when you look into this as a big picture, I think we need to explore all different opportunities. Sometimes when you listen to people who are so in their swim lines and they’re putting this wall up and don’t want to look at any other scenarios, and I think that’s not right: we need to look at all different scenarios. When you look at history, the more options you have the better off you are in the future.

OAG360: Do you think renewable energy will replace fossil fuels?

MK: I tell you what I really believe is that it depends on if we decide how and when we want to do it.

Because when you look at current technology and I look at the trend to where it is going, we have the technology to really go to deep penetration of renewables on our electricity generation. But then at the end, it’s always policy, it’s markets. It’s a chicken and egg problem: suppose we would say ‘okay, we will do this [move entirely to renewable energy] and we accept that the electricity cost doubles’. But then if China will not do this, then we are cutting ourselves out of future market share and manufacturing jobs.

If we look at what we have with our natural resources, this is the bank account that our grandparents put down and we are slowly spending our bank account. And I think we have to be very careful how we are spending it. Because we might argue about that we still have enough resources let’s say for another fifty or a hundred years. Do we think that the world ends in hundred years? What about 200 years or 400 years? So what is the long term goal?

We need to look at all these different scenarios, from how we could improve the way we are using coal and gas all the way to nuclear, perhaps to fusion—who knows—in fifty years or a hundred years, I don’t know, but diversity is always good.

In the long run I would predict that there is a future where we will not burn—let’s say it differently— that we are not creating CO2 by producing electricity. Perhaps somebody comes up with this revolution to create a way to take CO2 out and deposit it and it’s cost effective. It could happen. This is the reason we need research. We have to get the smartest people into our country to fuel research and innovation.

It depends on ‘what do we as a nation want to do’?  We are in this mindset of ‘use it once and then you toss it’. [NOTE: Dr. Keller referenced an example of a chainsaw where a small part broke and it was cheaper to throw out the chainsaw and buy a new one than to pay to have it repaired]. Is this a long term sustainable way to live on our planet? It is a different topic but it all comes back to the topic of long term, sustainable living.

OAG360: Where are we in the process of governments imposing a carbon tax or other fees for emitting carbon; where do you think this country is going to go with that?

MK: I have the feeling that we are very divided on this topic. As a scientist I am not looking to policy and politics to see if we need to put a price on carbon or not. My interest is to see what can science, engineering and innovation bring to the table that allows you to produce electricity so cheap [that you now change the question].

I have a very different opinion than some of my colleagues who argue, ‘so what would happen if you could produce electricity at a tenth of the cost of what you doing right now — with renewables?’

People answer, ‘well this would be a bad thing because people would use more electricity’. And my argument is ‘why do you say that?’ Because, if you look into the future and you see that electricity is a the limiting factor anymore, suddenly then water is not a limiting factor anymore, because we have enough water planet but most of it has too much salt. We have enough land on our planet but most of the land is too dry.

So what’s the link between what salt water and dry land? Electricity – to desalinate water.

So suddenly all the forecasts looking into the future [are different]. You can look at energy and food. They’re coupled: if energy would be no cost or cheap, then suddenly water would not be a problem, which means we can do a lot of irrigation. Then you know food is not a problem because we have enough land.

So when you if you suddenly decrease the cost of electricity, then it opens up so many things for the long term vision for our planet.  People would say, ‘this is completely a dream, what are you guys talking about?’

It’s true that at the moment we are fixed on the current grid parity. But what if somebody comes up with a completely revolutionized [energy model], like the automobile was to transportation. We’re not talking about horse parity anymore. It’s not ever discussed because as soon as you had the Model T, [the view of transportation changed].

In the future, if we create a technology which enables us to produce power in the way that’s a game-changer –  that’s a step function.

So what happens if somebody comes up and completely revolutionizes oil and gas? Is it happening right now? No. Will this happen in the next 20-30-50 years? I don’t know.  I think it would be a transition, like we said. But we keep innovating, and sooner or later I think we as humans will find solutions to overcome our problems.

OAG360: Such as when the industry discovered horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing could extract oil and gas from shale?

MK: That is exactly my point. When you look at all this natural gas. Nobody saw this coming – how quickly this happened. It was a steam roller. This was a step function for this industry – a game changer. My point is we discovered this natural gas and then gas prices plummeted. So people say we don’t have to do any other innovation because now we are set for the next thirty years.

But do you remember the first oil embargo when everybody was rushing into renewables, and then oil prices came down and then they said you don’t need [renewables].

This is what I mean:  we need to create a long-term energy view. It’s short term, and this has to be long term: what is our long term energy policy? It fluctuates with the cost of crude oil. And we need to go beyond this.

OAG360: How would you characterize the oil and gas industry?

MK:  Extremely conservative.

Why did a lot of the big oil companies have this long term issue with bio fuel? It is because they centralized over the last fifty years. All the huge refineries, what they’ve done is they centralized all this and technologies like bio fuel by definition decentralized everything. There is a radius [that limits] how far you can afford to transport your biomass to a biorefinery. So by definition you are limited in size, meaning the model would decentralize.

So when I talked to some very high level people in the oil industry, their biggest worry was that ‘now we have spent all these billions to centralize [refining] and now you’re telling us to decentralize’. Look I see their point; I understand it.

So then then if you go to the next big thing around energy production, there is a possibility to decentralize.

So what happens is this: every house would have a solar panel on the roof top and produces some electricity, and then you link this to reginal wind farms. You decentralize electricity generation from a big coal plant gigawatts, down to much more distributed generations.

It’s a change in the business model – it’s like going from the plug-in phone to a cell phone.

The interesting thing is, in history, companies come and go and technologies come and go, and I think for the gas and oil industry I think there will be companies who adapt and move to certain new business models, and others don’t and they disappear. That’s the nature of innovation.

So when you ask what is the gas and oil industry, I think right now they are playing a critical role, because we cannot turn it off tomorrow. Will they play a critical role in making the transition?  It will be interesting to see.

 
Hydrogen continues to be a fuel of the future: Bob McDonald PDF Print E-mail

The World Hydrogen Energy Conference was held in Zaragoza, Spain this week. Delegates from 50 countries, including Canada, attended; many countries are moving ahead with clean hydrogen energy, while others are lagging behind.

Canada is a pioneer in hydrogen energy development, but much more must be done for it to become a widely available fuel source.

Hydrogen is a very clean fuel. When mixed with air in a fuel cell, it forms H2O — ordinary water — and produces electricity. Ideally, to make hydrogen you can just reverse that process: start with water and use electricity to break it apart into hydrogen and oxygen. No carbon emissions are produced directly during this cycle, just water. And there is more than enough water on Earth to supply a global hydrogen fuel system.

fuel cell car refuels

A fuel cell vehicle refueling. (U.S. Navy)

It sounds so simple.

Research into hydrogen power has been taking place for decades, and major automotive companies such as ToyotaHyundai and Honda are offering hydrogen fuel cell vehicles this year. GM, BMW, and Mercedes will soon follow suit.  

So why is it taking so long to have all of our vehicles running on clean hydrogen instead of dirty fossil fuels? As always, the devil is in the details. 

A clean but challenging fuel

The biggest issue with hydrogen is that it is not lying around in underground reservoirs waiting to be pumped out, the way oil is. It's a fuel, not an energy source, so hydrogen has to be made, and that takes energy.

The challenges don't end there. Once made, hydrogen is tricky to handle and distribute. There is still a public fear of hydrogen because of the notorious Hindenburg disaster. Finally, battery technology is a serious competitor in the clean transportation sector.

The two commercial ways to make hydrogen are by cracking — a process of breaking down natural gas — and through electrolysis. Obviously making a clean fuel (hydrogen) from a fossil fuel (natural gas) will not solve our greenhouse gas problems.

But even making hydrogen by electrolysis can be environmentally iffy.

Electrolysis uses electricity to break down water into its components parts. (You probably did it in your your high school chemistry class, when you placed electrodes from a battery into water and watched the bubbles of hydrogen and oxygen form.)

The key is where the electricity comes from. If it is produced by wind or solar energy, then you have a carbon-neutral fuel cycle. But if it comes from coal fired generating stations, then we basically have cars running on coal.

AUSTRIA-ENERGY/

Last year Austria opened its "wind2hydrogen" plant, a pilot project to produce hydrogen from wind. (Reuters)

The safety concerns arise because hydrogen is very flammable. Of course, so is gasoline. 

Supporters of hydrogen technology say it is actually a safer fuel because it's lighter than air, which means that if it does leak out, it naturally rises up and blows away on the wind rather than pooling under a vehicle and potentially setting it on fire.

In fact, during the horrific Hindenburg disaster, the hydrogen fire, while huge, only lasted for 32 seconds and rose upwards. That's why 62 of the 97 passengers and crew survived: they were able to escape from the cabin on the underside of the airship and run from inferno burning overhead. The fire that burned long afterward in the wreckage was fuelled by diesel and engine oil.

Hydrogen is also not as easy to pour into a tank as gasoline. It can be pumped and contained as a pressurized gas, the way we handle propane or other flammable gasses. But hydrogen needs specialized tanks, and to date there is little by way of a distribution system for it. That's why you can't pick up hydrogen at ordinary gas stations yet, though the needed infrastructure is growing slowly.

Matching technology to needs

The other way to use electricity to power vehicles is with batteries. Battery technology for electric cars is improving rapidly, with longer ranges and quicker charging times. And using electricity in batteries is actually more efficient than using hydrogen. But batteries are heavy, expensive, and use rare earth materials that could become increasingly hard to find in the amounts we'll need for a global transportation fleet.

electric cars

Electric cars at recharging stations at an event hosted by the non-profit organization Plug'n Drive. (Plug'n Drive Ontario/Wikimedia Commons)

In the end, there are pros and cons to both hydrogen and electric battery power. Likely, we will need both technologies and they will fill different niches.

Batteries may be best for personal cars, while hydrogen might be more suited to commercial vehicles such as buses and trucks, or even railroad locomotives, that need longer range and shorter refill times.

Hydrogen fuel cells also have non-transportation uses, like powering emergency generators.

Despite the challenges, hydrogen, batteries and other alternative energy technologies all put us on the pathway to a low carbon future, and all need greater investment. Canada is a world leader in fuel cell technology, but progress in getting that technology onto the streets has been halting.

Prior to the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, for instance, there was a much publicized  "Hydrogen Highway" demonstration project that was supposed to run up the coast to Whistler. It quietly disappeared, and now diesel buses run on that route.

We need to step on the gas in implementing these technologies.

A report out this week from the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration shows that carbon dioxide levels at the South Pole have crossed the threshold of 400 parts per million for the first time in four million years. This is a milestone for global warming, showing that the effect is real and worldwide.

The planet is not waiting for us to change over from fossil fuels. It is sending us a warning.


 
H2ME Collaboration Deploys 1,230 FCEVs, Adds 20 Hydrogen Stations PDF Print E-mail

Hydrogen Mobility Europe (H2ME), a collaboration among national H2 Mobility initiatives from across Europe aiming to support the early rollout of hydrogen vehicles, has launched its second deployment of hydrogen refueling infrastructure and passenger and commercial fuel cell electric vehicles (FCEVs).

According to the collaboration, the H2ME 2 project will build on the first FCH JU-funded project developed by H2ME partners, which was announced in September 2015, with plans for 300 fuel cell vehicles and 29 hydrogen refueling stations. Together, the two H2ME projects will form the largest EU-funded project for hydrogen mobility and FCEV deployment, according to the collaboration.Through the six-year H2ME 2 project, 37 partners from across Europe will work to deploy and operate 1,230 FCEVs, add 20 extra hydrogen refueling stations to the European network, and test the ability of electrolyser hydrogen refueling stations to help balance the electrical grid. The project has been supported by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking (FCH JU), with funding from the European Union (EU) Horizon 2020 program.

The EUR 100 million H2ME 2 project, funded with a further EUR 35 million grant from the FCH JU, will significantly expand the European hydrogen vehicles fleet and will produce recommendations and identify any gaps that may prevent full commercialization.

“New French hydrogen refueling stations are currently planned in the Rhône-Alps Green Hydrogen Corridor, as well as in Bordeaux, Nancy, Nantes and Paris,” says Fabio Ferrari, coordinator of the French consortium and CEO of Symbio FCell, speaking on behalf of the French H2 Mobility partners. “The project will result in a large deployment of utility vehicle fleets. These fleets are made up of light vans, small trucks, as well as a taxi fleet of 60 full fuel cell-powered vehicles in the greater Paris area.”

“If fuel cell cars are to become a well-established product – and, with them, the use of hydrogen as a fuel – the availability of infrastructure for refueling is key,” says Nikolas Iwan, managing director of the Joint Venture H2 Mobility Deutschland GmbH & Co. KG and coordinator for the German activities under H2ME. “It is very important that infrastructure companies and car manufacturers exchange information to minimize the risk and focus the expertise around standardization and network planning to make the most out of the provided funds by governments.”

 
Mercedes will be selling hydrogen cars in 2017 PDF Print E-mail
Die Brennstoffzelle bekommt einen Stecker: Die nächste Generation Brennstoffzellenfahrzeug von Mercedes-Benz: Prototyp des Mercedes-Benz GLC-F-CELL / The fuel cell gets a plug: The next generation Mercedes-Benz fuel cell electric vehicle: Mercedes-Benz GLC F-CELL prototype

The launch of a production version of the Mercedes GLC hydrogen fuel cell car has been confirmed for next year.

Mercedes’ range target for the F-Cell is 500km (310 miles), which will mean the electric motor that drives the rear wheels will need three fuel sources: two hydrogen tanks, plus a rechargeable 8kWh battery pack. This configuration makes the F-Cell the world’s first plug-in fuel cell hybrid.

The total capacity of the two hydrogen tanks is 4.3kg, enough for a claimed 280-mile range, with the additional 30 miles provided by the battery pack.

Hydrogen has to be stored at huge pressure. The super-strong carbonfibre weave hydrogen vessels used in the F-Cell are rated at 700bar, or 700 times normal atmospheric pressure. One will sit longitudinally underneath the car’s mid-point, while the other is transversely fitted at the back, below the battery pack. The fuel cell stack (developed jointly with Ford) takes the under-bonnet space traditionally occupied by the engine.

2017 sales will kick off in locations reasonably served by a hydrogen filling station network, such as Japan and California. There’s no news yet on when – or if – the F-Cell will be sold in the UK.

 
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