17 August, 2020

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August 2020: China, open source software, vacancy, news bites, business rates and more!

   Decarbonising China’s electricity system   

What is China doing to decarbonise its electricity system and is it making progress?  Register for our webinar on Wednesday 19 August to find out as we will be giving an insight into the current practices and policies in China with regard to the integration of renewable energy in the electricity system

Jose Maria from the University of Oxford will introduce the current position of China within the international transformation of electricity systems. He will zoom into the institutional context and focus on the different players active in promoting regulatory innovation for renewable energy.  Hao Zhang from the Chinese University of Hong Kong will speak on the legal and regulation context of China, and issues arising from these. He will speak on the very recent developments in Chinese law and policy with regard to renewable energy incentives and measures to tackle curtailment, as well as the trend of increasing investment in offshore wind.

After China, we have three more webinars, so do register your interest:

  • 2 Sept: How can we achieve Net Zero
  • 16 Sept: Energy efficiency in a post-lockdown world: Earthshot not Moonshot
  • 30 Sept: Seizing the opportunity to raise hydrocarbon taxation

You may also be interested in watching the videos of the fascinating webinars that have happened:

   Accelerating the Energy Revolution with Open-Source Software: no need to reinvent the wheel

Our energy system has changed considerably over the past 10 years, with an explosion in distributed energy resource adoption (think solar panels, electric vehicles, battery storage and heat-pumps), and new innovative ideas for coordination, such as microgrids and virtual power plants.

Smart local energy systems are a key way to reach net zero, and can help coordinate distributed energy resources to achieve the significant benefits they offer, such as reducing upstream power flows and losses, minimizing the need to curtail renewable generation and deferring the need for network infrastructure upgrades.

Consequently, it’s vitally important for the capability and sophistication of modelling tools to match the increased complexity of our energy systems so that we can optimize the use of renewable energy, smart technology, and flexibility.  Alas, there hasn’t a single unified software platform with the capability to model, control, and simulate the resources, networks and market interactions of smart local energy systems.

Until now!

OPEN: a state-of-the-art energy modelling platform available to all

Researchers from the Institute for Energy Systems at the University of Edinburgh and the Energy Power Group at the University of Oxford have developed the Open Platform for Energy Networks (OPEN): a modular open-source Python software platform that provides advanced modelling, control and simulation capabilities.

OPEN is an extensible object-oriented platform available for all to use, free of charge. The researchers were motivated to build OPEN after experiencing capability gaps with existing energy management tools when working on projects that range from vehicle-to-grid, smart building smart building energy management, smart building energy management, a virtual power plant of smart hot water tanks and home battery systems; and a county wide energy market flexibility platform.

A key objective is to increase the speed at which new energy systems research is translated to industry application. OPEN will standardise the interfaces between components and between tools, and can help teams retain and lever knowledge from previous projects making collaborating with external partners simpler and more efficient.

More info

  • Read the paper, “OPEN: An open-source platform for developing smart local energy system applications”;
  • Download the latest version of the OPEN platform; and
  • Access the platform documentation.

   Vacancy for a Research Assistant!  

We are hiring!  Are you a specialist in energy issues with a master’s degree or are you completing one?  If yes, then you may be interested in our Research Assistant vacancy.

We wish to appoint a Research Assistant to examine the emerging legal and regulatory issues associated with renewable and smart energy systems.  The successful candidate will explore aspects of regulatory, legal and business risk in energy transactions, developing projects or business operations. You will analyse such issues and work towards making policy recommendations with others.  The main duties include carrying out research on the regulatory reform needed to enable further integration of renewable energy technologies.

The deadline for applications is noon on 7 September. Here’s the link for the full info and to apply:  https://bit.ly/2BUpn3c  Good luck!

Top of the Pops!

Researchers at Imperial College London and Queen Mary University of London, have shown for the first time that not only does noise increase the output of solar cells, but that it extends their lifespan.

Certain materials create a voltage when subject to stress or pressure, known as a piezoelectric effect. In this study, the scientists created solar cells that included piezoelectric zinc oxide nanorods and were able to show that acoustic stress could raise efficiency by up to 45%.  Different noises or frequencies of sound created different magnitudes of change: complex frequencies generated a higher performance than single frequencies.

The scientists found that a more pronounced effect was generated by pop music compared to classical potentially due to the increased amplitudes of higher frequencies typically present in the former.  Mmmm maybe they didn’t test for the effect of the Queen of the Night’s aria from Mozart’s The Magic Flute?

This is exciting as it shows that physical aspects can also enhance the performance of photovoltaics. This will hopefully lead to the inclusion of piezoelectric materials into PV cells, and informed siting of panels in locations of high ambient vibrations to benefit from ‘wasted’ noise, such as on vehicles, roads, and rooftop air-conditioning units.

   Government backs ‘Europe’s first’ geothermal lithium recovery plant in Cornwall   

Lithium is a vital component of batteries ranging from pocket calculator to electric vehicles, and is in high demand due to its pivotal role in the energy revolution.  While there are developments to extract lithium from seawater, it is mostly obtained from mines and salt flats and can cause a lot of environmental damage.

So it is potentially positive news that ‘Europe’s first’ lithium extraction plant has received  funding, in Cornwall, UK where it is claimed that the metal can be extracted using geothermal energy with no carbon footprint.  Cornwall has a rich history of mining particularly for tin, stretching back to the Bronze Age. The granite rocks beneath Cornwall are rich in lithium and heat, and it is considered that the resources are commercially viable given advances in extraction technologies.

Two deep wells have been drilled: one to a depth of over 5km to access hot water (195 degC) which will then be injected into the second to extract the lithium before being returned back to the ground water.  If the pilot is successful more sustainable, zero-carbon lithium could follow.

   Lobsters don’t mind wind turbines   

The construction of any infrastructure has an impact on local wildlife; offshore wind turbines are no exception.  So it is natural to have some concerns that the construction and operation of turbines sited in productive fishing grounds (such as the North Sea) could suppress local fish and crustacean stocks and the associated industry and livelihoods.

To address the concerns of local fishermen, a long term monitoring study was started in 2013 during the construction of Westermost Rough offshore wind farm. This is located five miles off the Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire coast and in one of the largest commercial fishing grounds for lobster and crab.

The results are now in and show  no significant negative impact on the ecology of European lobsters, and reported that the temporary closure of the fishing ground during the construction of the wind farm offered some respite for adult animals and led to increases in abundance and size of the target species in that area.

   Red bricks – the alternative Powerwall of the future?   

Researchers at Washington University, USA, have  developed a method to transform ordinary house bricks into supercapacitors.

The open microstructure of a fired brick, mechanical robustness, and its iron oxide content means that it can be converted into a cheap, stackable, modular, and waterproof supercapacitor. This has been done by applying a conducting polymer called PEDOT. A coating of nanofibers connects with the iron oxide within the brick to store and conduct electricity.

A prototype supercapacitor module ( three bricks) has been made that can power an LED light.  The researchers conceive that a wall of 50 bricks connected to solar cells could  store the electricity generated and power emergency lighting for five hours.

   Trade bodies call on Treasury for business rates relief for renewables   

Would you install solar panels on your building if it meant your tax was raised 8-fold?

Regen and the Electricity Storage Network have coordinated trade associations and membership organisations representing the energy sector to send a letter to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, BEIS and the Energy Minister to ask them to consider providing relief on business rates and VAT for those technologies that are part of the net zero transition, and request a fairer and more coherent tax system is developed and implemented for renewables and storage to unlock investment.  They also asked for the 5% VAT rate for energy saving materials to be reinstated, and for this to also cover storage, air-source heat pumps and EV charging equipment.

They cite the example of the supermarket chain Lidl, which saw its business rates increase by 528% due to changes in the valuation of solar installations at its sites. Battery storage incurs similar costs: a 10 MW system, if installed behind-the-meter, would face rates 400% higher than a grid-connected battery. Power used to charge electric vehicles at public charging stations is charged at 20% VAT, but domestic charging is 5%.

Business rates are regularly flagged as a barrier to deployment of clean technologies, particularly those that are installed behind-the-meter at commercial and industrial sites, and small businesses. Many industrial sites have made substantial investments because of the business rates regime.

Acknowledging that business rates are a source of income for local authorities, whose budgets are under immense pressure, the signatories recommend that this relief be funded by the Treasury, as was the case with rates relief during lockdown.  These changes will help the consumer, and ensure a fair and proportionate approach to tax as society transitions to net zero

   Words Words Words: Capacitors!   

In this feature, we shine a light on words used in energy circles.  Last month, we featured The social cost of carbon.   This month: capacitors! 

Above we’ve heard about lithium ion for batteries, and house bricks being turned into supercapacitors.  But what is the difference between a capacitor and a battery? Read on!

Well, the thing they have in common is that they are both energy storage devices.  The stored energy in either a battery or a capacitor creates an electric potential (also termed voltage) that can drive a flow of electrons (also termed an electric current) which can be used to power electrical components in a circuit.

The difference is how they store energy. A battery uses chemicals to store energy, such as lithium. A capacitor stores energy in an electric field. This difference defines the characteristics of batteries and capacitors in terms of the amount of energy they can store, the speed of energy release, and their lifespan  or how many times they can be charged and discharged.

Developments in batteries have increased their energy density, i.e. becomes smaller for the amount of energy they store, and so have become very useful to power very small, or power hungry, devices from phones to electric vehicles using a steady, dependable stream of energy.  Batteries will eventually lose their ability to be recharged, and then will need to be disposed of carefully, due the toxic chemicals they contain.

Because capacitors store their energy as an electric field, they can be recharged indefinitely without losing their capacity to store energy, and do not contain toxic chemicals.  However, capacitors would need to be very large to hold the same amount of energy as batteries, and so cannot power devices for a long time.  However, they are unsurpassed in terms of the speed at which they can provide power.  (Capacitors have lots of other useful properties useful for managing electrical circuits, as well as being used for sensors, touchscreens, TVs).

A use case example is a camera flashlight. Creating a bright flash requires a lot of energy in a very short amount of time: easy for a capacitor but not for a battery.  So when the camera is turned on, the capacitor starts to charge up from the battery to be ready for action. When the photo is taken the capacitor releases energy very quickly, powering the flash of light. Afterwards the capacitor will charge back up, drawing off the battery, ready to flash again.

 A “super” or “ultra” capacitor is a hybrid of a capacitor and battery, made to use the advantages of both energy storage devices to power a device.  A supercapacitor can be charged very quickly and discharge energy very quickly.  It can hold more energy than a regular capacitor but still cannot match the energy density of a battery.

Electric vehicle powertrains employ both supercapacitors and batteries to optimally meet the needs of the system.   Resistance associated with batteries is much higher compared to supercapacitors, and this means that batteries may not give the desired power needed for acceleration.  Rather than install a bigger battery to achieve more power,  supercapacitors are coupled to batteries instead.  Supercapacitors improve acceleration, and are better at storing the regenerative energy from braking.

On the EV powertrain diagram above, the red arrows show the discharge of energy through electrical systems giving power to the wheels. Green arrows indicate the charging of the battery and supercapacitor by the regenerative power generated from braking. 

Supercapacitors have been used as a primary power supply for some rail systems and busses, for example the Capabus public transport system in Shanghai, China. The buses use overhead wireless charging stations at passenger pickup/drop-off points to maintain their energy supply.  Such infrastructure doesn’t currently exist for supercapacitor-only powered EVs, and so such EVs would be limited to a relatively short range.

Much funding has been devoted to battery research and development which is much needed. Attention should also be devoted to supercapacitors to develop their potential, given their greatly extended life cycle, and improved environmental sustainability credentials compared to batteries.