New energies: the age of materials?

Over the past decade, costs have deflated by 85% for lithium ion batteries, 75% for solar and 25% for onshore wind. Now new energies are entering a new era. Future costs are mainly determined by materials. Bottlenecks matter. Deflation is slower. Even higher-grade materials are needed to raise efficiency. This 14-page note explores the new age of materials, how much new energies deflation is left, and who benefits?

EROEI: energy return on energy invested?

Energy return on energy invested

Net EROEI is the best metric for comparing end-to-end energy efficiencies, explored in this 13-page report. Wind and solar currently have EROEIs that are lower and ‘slower’ than today’s global energy mix; stoking upside to energy demand and capex. But future wind and solar EROEIs could improve 2-6x. This will be the make-or-break factor determining the ultimate share of renewables?

Wind power: energy costs, energy payback and EROEI?

Wind power energy paybacks

Wind power energy paybacks? This data-file estimates 3MWH of energy is consumed in manufacturing and installing 1kW of offshore wind turbines, the energy payback time is usually around 1-year, and total energy return on energy invested (EROEI) will be above 20x. These estimates are based on bottom-up modelling and top-down technical papers.

The average wind energy project has an energy intensity of 3MWH/kW, which is repaid after c1-year, for a total energy return on energy investment above 20x, over a 20-25 year operating life.

One observation from reviewing technical papers is that many have rough methodologies. Some are still basing numbers upon small, <1MW turbines, which are no longer representative. Conversely, others are incomplete, and have not fully captured materials costs.

Hence we have built up our own bottom-up estimates for the energy intensity of wind power, and the EROEI of wind turbines.

Our bottom-up estimates for the energy costs of wind turbines are based on a full bill of materials, economic models of those materials (e.g., glass fiber, carbon fiber, epoxies, steel, copper), data into the vessel days per turbine, and the fuel consumption of different vessels.

Our bottom-up estimates for wind power EROEI also captured power transmission, curtailment considerations and maintenance requirements.

The largest individual contributors to the up-front energy costs of wind turbines are transporting materials to the site (0.75MWH/kW), steel (0.6MWH/kW), other materials (0.3MWH/kW), large offshore vessels that install foundations and turbines (0.3 MWH/kW) and the tail of 20-40 smaller vessels that support offshore operations (data here).

The average CO2 intensity of wind turbines is suggested at 10-20g/kWh (0.01-0.02kg/kWh). This coheres with the technical papers that we reviewed, and our own bottom-up estimates.

Wind power energy paybacks will vary with individual project parameters, and we think that a realistic range for offshore wind projects is 15-30x EROEI.

The most important parameter is the location of the project, which will determine energy generated per year, but also transportation distances and steel requirements.

Comparable data for solar assets is linked here.

Silicon carbide: faster switching?

Silicon carbide power electronics

Silicon carbide power electronics will jolt the energy transition forwards, displacing silicon, and improving the efficiency of most new energies by 1-10 pp. Hence we wonder if this disruptor will surprise to the upside, quintupling by 2027. This 12-page note reviews the technology, advantages, challenges, and who benefits?

Decarbonizing global energy: the route to net zero?

Roadmap to Net Zero

This 17-page report revisits our roadmap for the world to reach ‘net zero’ by 2050, after integrating over 1,000 pieces of research from 2019 through 2022. Our updated roadmap includes large upgrades for renewables and energy efficiency; less reliance on new energies breakthroughs; but most of all, simple, pragmatic progress is needed as bottlenecks and shortages loom.

Energy costs of energy transition?

Energy costs of energy transition

Reaching net zero requires building wind, solar, grid infrastructure, energy storage, electric vehicles and capturing CO2. Energy is needed to build all of these things. The total energy costs of energy transition reach 1% of total global primary energy in 2025, 2% in 2030, 4% in 2040 and 6.5% in 2050. In other words, energy transition is materially easier to achieve from a period of energy surplus. You can stress-test numbers in this simple model.

We want to achieve an energy transition, by ramping wind and solar to 25% of the world’s total useful energy by 2050 (note here), building a global fleet of over 2bn efficient electric vehicles, constructing power grid and storage infrastructure, and capturing over 6GTpa of CO2 via various forms of CCS.

This data-file compiles our estimates for each category, quantifying (a) how many units do we want to build? (b) what is the energy cost per unit? (c) by simple multiplication, what are the total energy costs of each category in TWH and as a percent of global primary energy.

However, building all of these things absorbs energy. There are energy intensive materials in a solar plant. There are energy intensive materials in a wind-turbine. And in electric vehicles. Around two-thirds of the energy costs for expanded power grids is embedded in the aluminium of power cabling. Finally, energy storage consumes energy in the form of round-trip efficiency losses, while CCS consumes energy in regenerating amines.

By 2025, around 1,500 TWH of primary energy, or 1.0% of total global primary energy, will be needed specifically to construct these energy transition technologies. The near-term is most heavily weighted to solar, then wind, then electric vehicles.

The numbers grow ever larger as we extrapolate out into the future. The energy transition itself will consume 2% of the world’s primary energy by 2030, 4% by 2040 and 6.5% by 2050.

These are simply enormous numbers. The 2025 number is equivalent to the total primary energy consumption of a country such as Spain or Australia. While the 2050 number is equivalent to two Saudi Arabias worth of oil production.

It is clearly going to be easier to build the important assets and infrastructure needed in the energy transition from a position of energy surplus, and it is going to be more difficult (even, inflationary) if the world is suffering from sustained energy shortages. This is why we think restoring the world’s energy surplus is the most important ESG goal of the 2020s.

The data-file also contains energy balances for each theme in the energy transition. Wind is already in a position of large energy surplus, because wind plants require 50-70% less up-front energy to construct than solar plants (per unit of ultimate generation, e.g., in kWh). The solar chart below is also more finely balanced through the mid-2020s, because solar additions are still accelerating sharply (note here). EV growth is seen accelerating so sharply that building ever more EVs will absorb more energy than they save through the mid-2030s (note here).

The technology that looks most challenged on this roadmap is green hydrogen. Converting useful, rateable electricity into green hydrogen generates no energy savings. There are simply efficiency losses, due to entropy increases, over-voltages at the anode, storage, transport, fuel cells, etc. Our chart above has <0.1% of the world’s useful energy in 2050 coming from green hydrogen. But if the number were 10%, then the total energy requirements of the energy transition would literally double.

The technology that looks least challenged on this roadmap is natural restoration (note here). Nature based solutions may create a 20GTpa CO2 sink with long-term pricing around $50/ton. But planting trees is not an energy intensive activity. There is even an argument that it generates energy, although consuming this energy has varying CO2 credentials.

A key objective for the new energies industry is going to be deploying new technologies that can improve efficiency and lower the energy intensity of energy transition. Hence our own research is also delving into opportunities in energy efficiency.

What are the energy costs of the energy transition? You can stress test numbers in the data-file, flexing total wind and solar installations, total EV deployment, CCS deployment, grid storage, green hydrogen, and the energy intensity factors of each technology.

Electrification: the rings of power?

Electrification in the energy transition

Electrification is the largest, most overlooked, most misunderstood part of the energy transition. Hence this 10-page note aims to explain the upside, simply and clearly. Electricity rises from 40% of total useful energy today to 60% by 2050. Within the next decade, this adds $2trn to the enterprise value of capital goods companies in power grids and power electronics.

Supercapacitors: case studies for renewable-heavy grids?

Supercapacitor case studies

The purpose of this data-file is to review supercapacitor case studies, to see if they are being used to back up renewable-heavy grids? Our conclusion is that super-capacitors are well-suited to backstopping short-term wind and solar volatility, and their deployment will gradually surprise to the upside, in combination with other power-electronics.

The motivation for this work is that we recently evaluated the second-by-second volatility of solar and wind output, which incur 80-100 volatility events per day, of which c70-80% last less than 60-seconds. In turn, this volatility profile is well suited to be backed up by super-capacitors, directly, or in combination with other batteries such as lithium ion. So do case studies show increasing deployment of super-capacitors?

The build-up in our data-file has aggregated a dozen recent examples of super-capacitor deployments, based on the disclosures from leading companies, such as Skeleton, Eaton, Vinatech. Many companies endorsed the logic above (quoted in the data-file). Installations typically range from 10kW to 10MW, with 5 – 30 seconds of energy storage (chart below-left), and costs of $30/kW.

Supercapacitor case studies

Advantages of super-capacitors, cited in many of the case studies, are very rapid responses (20 milliseconds), up to 1M charge-discharge cycles over 15-years (i.e., very low degradation) and safe functionality across wide-temperature ranges (-40ºC to +65ºC). Again, details are in the data-file.

Uses of super-capacitors are broadening. Short-term volatility events may cause $100bn pa of damage to electrical equipment. Around 100,000 wind turbines now use super-capacitors to feather their blades. Many industrial machines also have jagged power demand profiles (example above right, a servo-press used to stamp metal plates in auto-manufacturing). Peak power draw can be reduced over 80% with ultracapacitors. This matters as ‘peak power use’ can explain 50% of industrial power bills.

At grid scale, progress is slowly accelerating. One excellent case study from Eaton highlighted how a data-center could earn €50k per year by providing 1MW of demand-smoothing, kicking in within <1-second to prevent frequency drops in an increasingly renewable-heavy grid. Vinatech also noted a MW-scale super-capacitor in Korea, deemed to be more cost-effective and safe than other grid-scale batteries.

Our conclusion from these supercapacitor case studies is that this market will likely surprise to the upside. Ultracapacitors are particularly well-suited to back up the short-term volatility of renewables. But the trend is opaque, as many of the super-capacitor installations overleaf are small, not subject to the fanfare of large press releases, and integrated alongside other power electronics.

Scope 4 emissions: avoided CO2 has value?

Scope 4 CO2 emissions

Scope 4 CO2 reflects the CO2 avoided by an activity. This 11-page note argues the metric warrants more attention. It yields an ‘all of the above’ approach to energy transition, shows where each investment dollar achieves most decarbonization and maximizes the impact of renewables.

Solar volatility: interconnectors versus batteries?

Interconnectors cure renewables volatility

The solar energy reaching a given point on Earth’s surface varies by +/- 6% each year. These annual fluctuations are 96% correlated over tens of miles. And no battery can economically smooth them. Solar heavy grids may thus become prone to unbearable volatility. Our 17-page note outlines this important challenge, and finds that the best solutions are to construct high-voltage interconnectors and keep power grids diversified.

Copyright: Thunder Said Energy, 2019-2023.