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New 'solar leaves' will be able to produce ethanol directly from sunlight - the perfect liquid fuel for automotive use - with just enough methanol to stop you drinking it. Photo: Eric Roy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
New 'solar leaves' will be able to produce ethanol directly from sunlight - the perfect liquid fuel for automotive use - with just enough methanol to stop you drinking it. Photo: Eric Roy via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA).
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Goodbye gasoline: we can Get It From The Sun

Keith Barnham

21st July 2016

Traveling in the US by boat and train visiting solar laboratories and environmental groups, Keith Barnham found many successful community initiatives in renewable electricity, and brings news of progress towards the ultimate renewable challenge: a solar fuel that could eventually replace gasoline in cars, trucks, buses, trains and aircraft.

This represents significant progress towards a dream that many must share, not just in the US but around the world - of being able to make the fuel you need to power your home and car, on your roof, out of nothing more than air, water and sunshine.

People power achieved a major breakthrough in December 2015. We got the governments of 195 countries to meet at COP21 and thrash out an agreement to make significant reductions in carbon emissions.

Now people power confronts a new challenge: persuading governments to implement the agreement they signed in Paris. This challenge is particularly tough in the UK and the USA.

I am currently on a rail journey across the USA visiting laboratories researching the artificial leaf. My principal aim is to develop a replacement for gasoline from atmospheric carbon dioxide and sunlight.

And here's the good news: the ultimate in people power - the generation of solar fuel on domestic rooftops - appears to be closer than seemed possible in 2014 when I wrote The Burning Answer.

I am also visiting American environmental groups. They are disappointed that the grid-lock in Congress has led President Obama to pass responsibility for renewable expansion to state legislatures. But there is also much to be cheerful about - including the ingenuity and resourcefulness with which Americans are overcoming the political challenges they face in their quest to Get It From The Sun (GIFTS).

All renewable electricity supplies in the USA

Like the UK, PV installations in the USA have been expanding exponentially in recent years. As a result California achieved its 2017 target for rooftop solar installations a year early. Wind power is also doing well: data we published in Nature Materials show that the USA took over from Germany as world leader in onshore wind generation in 2008 only to be overtaken by China in 2010.

But offshore wind progress in the US is disappointing - in contrast to Europe, which may get 7% of its power from offshore wind by 2030. Unlike the UK, where offshore wind power has shown an impressive exponential increase over the past decade, the current American offshore wind contribution is so small we were unable to plot it on our Nature Materials graph.

Of the countries we studied, the USA has installed the most bio-electric power. However, the major American contribution is from biomass, which is unlikely to expand fast because it is in competition for land use with crops. The US is far behind Germany in exploiting the AD of farm and food waste.

This might reflect the influence of the fossil fuel industry. Bio-methane produced by anaerobic digestion (AD) is a lower carbon competitor to fracking, and threatens a big earner for the fossil fuel industry. The solid waste from AD contains the very nutrients that made the original plants grow. Hence recycling it provides a cheap fertilizer that could replace fossil-fuel based fertilisers.

GIFTS in Berkeley

I have asked the question about who already has an all renewable supply at talks in three American states. Only one or two people put up their hands. They turn out to have rooftop PV which generates as much electrical energy as they used in a year. In Berkeley, the city that led the 1960's student revolution, no one put up their hand.

The problem is not one of renewable resources. The US national grid is divided into state and multi-state sub-grids. Studies by the Jacobson group at Stanford show that wind and PV can supply around 80% of the power on these sub-grids, consistent with the European results.

The major obstacle to the solar revolution in the US is that, unlike the UK, the distribution of electric power on the sub-grids is usually in the hands of one monopoly supplier in any given region. That company may well have links to the utilities that supply fossil or nuclear electricity. In the 'land of the free' electricity consumers are less free to choose a supplier than in the country of their old colonial masters.

In Northern California the monopoly company that distributes the electrical power and bills customers is Pacific Gas and Electricity (PG&E). Currently householders in Berkeley must accept the mix of electricity that PG&E choose for them.

This is set to change in the fall when Berkeley City Council will vote on whether to join the East Bay Community Energy Community Choice Aggregation (CCA). This is allowed under a fairly recent California state law. A CCA can sign contracts with wholesale suppliers of renewable electric power, though PG&E still distributes the power and bills the customers.

Clearly it is far more difficult to switch to all renewable electricity suppliers in California than in the UK. However, as one campaigner pointed out, if Berkeley signs up to this CCA, every electricity consumer in the city will be switching to renewable electricity unless they make the effort to opt out. When I return to Berkeley I am hoping that a much higher proportion of the audience will raise their hands than in the UK.

GIFTS in California and Maryland

The state of Maryland has a situation closer to that in the UK. The investor-owned utility PEPCO is required by state law to allow customers to purchase power from a range of suppliers. PEPCO remains responsible for the delivery of the power. However, renewable electricity is still supplied with a price mark-up. That is set to worsen. I understand that PEPCO has recently been taken over by a utility with large nuclear debts.

Here is another irony. Were electricity supply and distribution markets free in America, the citadel of capitalism, competition with renewable generators would reduce the price of electricity as is happening in the UK and Germany.

The city of Takoma Park in Maryland, where I am talking today, Thursday, is a fine example of a local authority that has taken advantage of the choice offered by state law to Get It From The Sun. They have a purchase agreement with a wind power company to provide all the electricity their municipally owned buildings require. Additionally, a public co-op for purchasing solar panels in 2015 increased the City's installed residential roof-top PV power by 35% in just one year.

Local environmental action groups are also supporting GIFTS. The Groundswell community action group in Washington DC organises group switching at cheaper rates to renewable power suppliers, aiming, in particular, at lower income consumers.

Power to the people: free gasoline!

A highlight of my Odyssey was chatting with researchers in Berkeley about recent developments in use of nano-structured metal catalysts to speed up the conversion of water and carbon dioxide into energy-dense liquid fuels using solar electricity.

What I found particularly exciting was that a number of researchers are finding more ethyl than methyl alcohol in the wide range of reaction products that they currently generate. Appropriately, I first heard about this revolutionary breakthrough from two researchers at the only campus café then open, the one commemorating the 1964 Free Speech Movement.

Ethanol would be safer than methanol for production on domestic roof-tops, storing in the garage and powering a fuel cell in an electric car. It is also about one third more energy-dense by volume, extending the range of the cars it powers. (And if uncontaminated by methanol, it would also be ideal for spiking drinks.)

When I wrote The Burning Answer in 2013 the experts at Imperial explained to me why developing an artificial leaf that turns carbon dioxide into methanol was difficult and one that produced ethanol, the ideal solar fuel, even more problematic. Now there have been repeated experimental verifications that these new catalysts are enhancing the more difficult reaction product. So now the experts face the less daunting task of finding an artificial leaf that generates ethanol on its own.

This represents significant progress towards a dream that many must share, not just in the US but around the world - of being able to make the fuel you need to power your home and car, on your roof, out of nothing more than air, water and sunshine.

Pot luck

Readers of the The Burning Answer will be aware that scientific coincidences have played an important part in the chequered history of the solar revolution. The most notable is the coincidence that the equation E = mc2, which is the basis of nuclear power and the atomic bomb and the equation E = hf, which is the basis of the solar cell, were discovered in the same year, 1905, by the same man, Albert Einstein.

A string of coincidences on my first stop on leaving Berkeley for the East Coast meant that I found myself in Boulder Colorado last Tuesday in a coffee bar chatting with a lawyer.

Boulder vies with Takoma Park for the distinction of being the second most radical city in the US. The lawyer told me about the battle the City of Boulder is having with its monopoly electricity supplier to allow residents to choose an all-renewable electricity supply. Colorado State Laws do not allow their local administrations freedoms granted by the states of California and Maryland.

For some light relief from this, the conversation turned to the new people-driven state law legalising recreational marijuana. Here was the perfect paradigm for GIFTS supporters. They are trying to introduce state legislation that allows residents the freedom to choose their electricity supplier. What better omen for the success of scientists searching for a catalyst that produces pure ethanol on our rooftops.

Some coincidence: it may eventually turn out to be necessary to amend state liquor laws to allow householders the right to generate their own recreational ethanol with an artificial version of the leaf that fuelled the generation whose slogan was 'power to the people'.

Progress towards all-renewable electricity supplies in the UK

Back in the UK, the road to renewables has been far from smooth. Last year the newly elected Conservative government made draconian cuts in support for renewables, apparently hoping to halt the expansion of onshore wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) power by 2020.

Meanwhile the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, is committed to a  solar revolution. However his ability to oppose the government's energy policies effectively and promote the cause of renewables energy has been hindered by infighting amongst Labour MPs.

In my article 'Goodbye fossil fuels, goodbye nuclear' in The Ecologist last November, I set out how a GIFTS approach could keep the solar revolution expanding locally in the face of central government opposition. 

Around 80% of the electric power demand on the UK national grid can be supplied 24/7, all year, by a combination of wind and PV power. Only around (15-17)% of flexible bio-electric power and 5% storage power back-up are needed.

Before the recent subsidy cuts, the demand for PV, onshore and offshore wind power in the UK was expanding so fast that all three would have achieved their targets for an all-renewable electricity supply by 2022. Bio-electricity would have achieved its target by 2024.

The UK could have had an all-renewable electricity supply before 2025, the earliest date that Hinkley Point's first nuclear reactor could operate. New nuclear would have been redundant before it started. The draconian cuts will postpone this date but it still is achievable before both the planned reactors achieve full power.

The UK electricity supply market is working well. The grid operator takes the cheapest power first. This is known as the 'merit order effect'. As the amount of fuel-free, renewable power has increased, the market cost of electricity has fallen significantly. Likewise (but more so) in Germany, which has nearly three times the renewable power of the UK, and where the wholesale price of its electricity is around 40% lower.

'Get It From The Sun' in UK communities

Before setting off for the US I also visited many local environmental groups in the UK. Their impressive achievements are continuing, despite subsidy cuts and government opposition. The GIFTS initiative has been taken up by the Nuclear Free Local Associations. The expansion of PV installations in schools before the subsidy cuts was impressive. Expansion is continuing, supported by the Solar Schools charity, which is funding new installations by crowd sourcing.

GIFTS aims to encourage the collection of bio-degradable waste for anaerobic digestion (AD) making bio-methane. AD will reduce local carbon emissions. Were the waste to be left to rot on fields or in landfill, it would eventually emit copious amounts of greenhouse gases. Electricity from bio-methane has a carbon footprint 40 times lower than from natural gas if produced by the AD of farm and food waste.

Collecting waste can also help local councils achieve a truly all-renewable electricity supply. If the bio-methane from the AD plant is fed into the gas grid then it can offset the 15% or so of gas-fuelled electricity a city needs to back-up its wind and PV power.

One of my favourite moments during public talks on the solar revolution is when I ask the audience to raise their hands if their electricity supply is from an all-renewable electricity company such as Ecotricity or Good Energy.

In the UK around 25% - 50% of a typical renewably aware audience raise their hands. There clearly is still potential to expand GIFTS support. I encourage the revolutionaries that have already switched to persuade friends, schools, workplaces and local authorities to join them. City councils should be encouraging residents and businesses to switch to help achieve their all-renewable electricity target more quickly.

 


 

Keith Barnham is Emeritus Professor and Distinguished Research Fellow at the Physics Department, Imperial College London. See his website at burninganswers.com.

Twitter: #GetItFromTheSun

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