Scientists at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory have developed a new catalyst for splitting water. Here’s why this is big news:
One of the great strengths of renewable energy is their consistency and predictability. Yes, wind and solar have periods when they’re not generating power (with some exceptions like certain solar thermal designs), but the sun is available for a set amount of time every day, and wind blows in predictable patterns where turbines are placed. These predictable patterns make it easy to balance the grid, and to calculate how many units are needed to meet demand.
But here’s a little secret. All sources of power are intermittent. There is no power plant, coal, nuclear, or gas, that is available 100 percent of the time. The electrical grid is built with this in mind.
A well functioning coal plant, will not be available 44 days of the year.
For nuclear, it’s 36 days, as well as 39 days for refueling every 17 months or so.
Wind power has a failure rate of only 2 percent, and units rarely go down all at once.
The reality is that when we really start investing in renewable energy, we don’t see shortages, we see cases of too much power being generated. Of course there’s no such thing as “too much power”, provided you have ways to use it or store it. There are a LOT of ways to store power for the grid, using a wide variety of techniques and forms of energy. For today, though, we’re focused on one in particular
Hydrogen can be used to generate power in a couple different ways. First, it can be used in a combustion engine, in much the same way as gasoline, natural gas, and biofuels. Second, it can be used in a fuel cell, which uses a non-combustive reaction to combine hydrogen and oxygen to generate energy. The obstacle to using hydrogen as a power source or a method of power storage is in getting the hydrogen. Hydrogen has a number of other uses – particularly in the fossil fuel industry, and its primary source is currently fossil fuels, which makes it a non-sustainable form of energy storage. That said, splitting water into its component elements via an electrical current is an old trick. It hasn’t been used much, because it tends to lose more energy than other forms of power storage, but it has a few advantages, in that it requires fewer dangerous substances than battery storage, and it can be used anywhere that has water.
And that brings us back to the point of this blog post: The good folks at the National Accelerator Laboratory have developed a catalyst made from fairly common elements that allows for water to be split at about three times the speed of current electrolysis technology*. If this pans out, it will make hydrogen from water – already a potential source of power storage and transport in a world with excess renewable energy generation – into something that could be much more useful, much sooner than expected.
*correction: I originally thought this was an increase in efficiency (the article I was looking at said “three times better”), but Johnny Vector pointed out the error, and it looks like he was right. That said, when I looked into it following Johnny’s correction, I did find this work by a different team, which does indicate progress on energy efficiency as well as speed:
Water electrolysis has not yet established itself as a method for the production of hydrogen. Too much energy is lost in the process. Researchers have now doubled the efficiency of the reaction.
Only four per cent of all hydrogen produced worldwide are the result of water electrolysis. As the electrodes used in the process are not efficient enough, large-scale application is not profitable. “To date, hydrogen has been mainly obtained from fossil fuels, with large CO2 volumes being released in the process,” says Wolfgang Schuhmann. “If we succeeded in obtaining hydrogen by using electrolysis instead, it would be a huge step towards climate-friendly energy conversion. For this purpose, we could utilise surplus electricity, for example generated by wind power.”
These are two separate catalyst designs, but the overall trend is clear – electrolysis is becoming more viable as a means of energy storage and transport
Thank you! That is interesting news.
I was just last night thinking that off-shore wind farms should be making hydrogen.
Johnny Vector says
The paper is available on ResearchGate. It appears to me that it’s not 3x more efficient electrically, but 3x faster at evolving oxygen. I think the actual electrolysis is highly efficient from an energy standpoint, and the difficulty is the cost of making electrodes large enough to generate a utility-scale amount of H2 and O2. This seems to be a huge step in that direction, given the 3x reduction in amount of material needed and the fact that the material looks to be much less expensive to manufacture.
Abe Drayton says
From what I can tell, it looks like you’re right, Johnny, thanks for the correction!
I’m curious about what seems to be a discrepancy in the linked article. As you quote, it describes coal and nuclear generators in terms of ‘non-generating days per year’ as a unit, and then switches to ‘failure rate’ for wind. First and foremost, there is the problem of mixed units: why did the article switch from ‘non generating days’ to ‘failure rate’? It seems that keeping the units constant would have been a better comparison, but then, wind power would look less favourable; I found figures indicating 54 days per year producing less than 1% capacity, which is close enough to ‘non-generating’ to my eye.
This bothers me, because such elision has a habit of playing into the hands of technology detractors and the anti-climate sceince in general.
Secondly, the figures for coal and nuclear power non-generating days seem ambiguous as to whether that figure is for scheduled non-generating days (i.e. planned maintainence), non-sheduled (workplace accidents, equipment failure etc.) or both.
Abe Drayton says
You can check with Peter Sinclair for more clarification, but my impression was that he was pointing out that the notion that wind power is intermittent and other forms of power are constant and reliable is not representative of reality.
It was a response to the claim that renewables are less reliable than non-renewables.
Edit – I would also assume that he meant total number of non-generating days including unscheduled shutdowns and/or failures.
Abe Drayton says
One thing I should add – I will be doing at least a little writing on how grids operate, and what that means for the various sources of renewable energy, as well as the long-term viability of various grid models in a future with much more distributed power generation.
I’m not an expert on any of this, so I welcome any information you find on it, but stay tuned, and I will have more on the intermittency issue in the future.
Johnny Vector says
There is a recent white paper about grid reliability and wind power, that expands on your point about other plants also having down days. It’s from the American Wind Energy Association, so they clearly have a bias, but it’s still a useful overview of how the grid works, including the various types of reserves that are needed.
There’s a nice overview from Peter Sinclair, which you probably have already seen. It includes a link to the report itself, which I won’t include here to help avoid getting tagged for spam.
A couple important points from the report: 1) A wind farm, unlike a Terawatt thermal plant, doesn’t suddenly drop off completely when something goes wrong, which makes wind more reliable in that sense. 2) Wind turbines can be feathered on 1-second timescales, so they are far more useful than big thermal plants for regulating against rapid changes in load. (But you have to curtail in advance if you want to use that as a reserve against load increases.) 3) Long-distance power transfer is necessary to make full use of the large-scale non-correlation of wind availability.
Also there’s Mark Jacobson’s latest PNAS paper, where he models wind and sun availability, and electricity demand, minute by minute for two years. And finds a system that successfully supplies all needed power, without adding any more pumped storage than is already permitted. (He does add lots of geothermal storage for home heating, which I didn’t even know was a thing, but it is.) Look up Mark Z. Jacobson on Stanford’s site, and on his page scroll down to “Low-cost solution to grid reliability problem with 100% WWS, and other grid integration studies”.
I think there is a very important factor in energy production that I never see mentioned and this is the business model rather than the technology itself.
Current energy production is based upon large utilities and refineries that would be impossible for a homeowner to put in their cellar. Thus a check gets sent every month forever to a mega entity somewhere to pay for it. This model breeds billionaires that own those utilities, refineries and oilfields and mines.
Solar and wind threaten that business model and this is even true for solar and wind farms because any major breakthrough in PV or turbine production could be down scaled for a homeowner. Thus, with solar and wind and battery breakthroughs, once the loan is paid off on procuring them, checks stop going to a centralized entity.
Hydrogen preserves that centralized business model. And if there is such a thing as a suitcase sized hydrogen generator, it probably won’t get the R&D money.
So whenever I hear how solar or wind can’t work, or how hydrogen is our future, I wonder if it is really a condemnation of the technology, or based upon a more sinister unstated condemnation of the business model.
Johnny Vector says
markmckee: It is certainly true that challenging the business model is a huge problem. Just look at what the power companies (driven largely by the fossil fuel interests) are trying to do to block rooftop solar. Arizona is particularly instructive: The claim is that all that distributed solar puts a strain on the distribution system, so the customers should have to pay to install panels. And yet, a proposed “compromise” is to allow Arizona Public Service to install and maintain panels on people’s rooftops, just like (or instead of) Sungevity etc. Apparently if you install your own panels it stresses the system, but if APS puts the same panels on, it helps lower the peak load during the hottest part of the day. Bit of a giveaway, that.
That said, individual solar/wind installations alone can’t solve the problem. There isn’t enough space. Privileged folks like me can build a net-zero house, because I have a third of an acre to do it, and control of the trees that would shade me. But 71% of the US lives in urbanized areas, where there isn’t that much land available. A high-rise apartment is far more energy efficient than a detached home, but there still isn’t enough roof space to provide anywhere near the necessary power. A recent study found that if all available roof space were covered with 20% efficient photovoltaic panels, it would provide about 39% (IIRC) of our electric power. That’s an absolute upper limit, and doesn’t consider physical, safety, or legal restrictions, or what to do at night.
So, beyond the amount of available power, you need the grid to move power from where it’s available to where it’s needed (see discussion above). Large wind farms are ideal in many ways for providing that kind of power. Especially in the central plains, which have been converted almost fully to human agriculture, adding wind turbines doesn’t even provide an aesthetic downside.
Now, most of that land is individually owned by family farmers. So there’s an intermediate solution in which the turbines are owned by the people who own the land, and managed by a large power company. The power company is still a monopoly, and needs to be heavily regulated, but the actual power production equipment is distributed among thousands of individual entities. I have nothing to say about the political reality of making that happen, but given a blank slate it seems like a reasonably stable long-term solution.
Also, there is a need for liquid fuel, for aircraft at least. Hydrogen is difficult to use for that purpose, but it’s kilometers ahead of batteries. It would be even easier to make H-powered trains, and H-powered heating for buildings. Then making H is a good way to absorb excess power if you want to overbuild your wind capacity to allow wind to provide your extra demand reserve. Then you run your turbines at full capacity and use the extra to make H, adjusting your H-making rate to follow demand variability.
This is flagrantly ridiculous, bordering on the dishonest.
The engineering term is “common mode failure“.
Nuclear, coal, gas, etc., do not have common mode failures – at least not to the extent that solar and wind do. Yes, no plant has 100% uptime. However, consider an extreme case: 100 plants, each of which will go down for a significant period of time at random, for an individual net downtime of say 10%. However, as long as the time of downtime of individual plants are statistically independent, i.e. no common mode failures, then one can guarantee very, very high uptimes, close to 100%, for the entire system.
Solar and wind do have common mode failures. For solar, it’s called night, high latitude and winter, clouds and weather patterns. For wind, it’s also weather patterns, specifically periods of calm across continents. That’s why solar and wind cannot provide the high uptime guarantees that we’re used to, and that we need, from the electrical grid.
That is a vast and fundamental difference. To equate statistically independent downtime rates with statistically dependent downtime rates – that is fundamentally ignorant or dishonest.
Here’s a randomly googled website that demonstrates the common mode failure of wind:
In what world is it reasonable and honest to say the the following?
One of the great strengths of renewable energy is their consistency and predictability.
That’s flatly ridiculous. The strength of coal, oil, nuclear, etc., is that they are consistent and reliable. They don’t need energy storage tech. The weakness of solar and wind is that they are intermittent, and that large penetrations of solar and wind will require significant energy storage, and such technology does not yet exist. The above statement by the OP is outright Orwellian: “weakness is strength.” One can argue that the large amount of daily-average power is a strength. One can argue that costs, or the environmental impact is a strength. It’s Orwellian to argue that the (lack of) consistency of solar and wind is a strength.
In light of this, and in light of the currently insurmountable EROEI problems of energy storage,
wind and solar are pipedreams with current tech, a massive collective pipedream of so-called environmentalists.
I want to stop global warming and especially ocean acidification, and by far the best and most promising method to do so is a massive rollout of nuclear power. We need to stop lying to ourselves and to the public, and we need to start that nuclear rollout yesterday. I am pro-nuclear, because I am an environmentalist who is greatly concerned about climate change and especially ocean acidification. We need to get serious. If we’re serious about this problem, we need to start building approximately 1 large nuclear power plant every day, for the next several decades.
Trains are easy: Just direct electric. IIRC, the big problems for transport fuel are aircraft, trucking, and shipping; everyting else of note can be directly electrified.
As for hydrogen for these applications, it might work. However, I’m slightly more hopeful regarding technology to produce CO2-neutral synthetic hydrocarbon liquid fuels. For example, see:
If it does work, it has the added benefit of not having to retool our current car infrastructure.
Also, regarding another poster up-thread.
Mark Jacobson is a fraud. Anything that he says on green should be immediately suspect and discounted as worse-than-nothing. This is the infamous person that says that nuclear power produces way more CO2 than alternatives. When you look at the details, the dishonesty becomes clear. In what should be an objective look at the energy production technologies, Mark Jacobson pulls out of his ass that increased use of nuclear power will lead to regular global nuclear war at intervals of something like every 30 years, and calculates the CO2 released from massive fires from the use of nuclear weapons – all asspulls. And then he tries to sell this to people who don’t know any better. This paper is often used by rubes who don’t know any better to conclude that nuclear power is not a good option to mitigate CO2.
Further, the paper also assumes gaseous diffusion, which is technology from like 50 years ago. Modern tech is all centrifuge. Again, another dishonesty.
The man is a consummate liar. Citing this person is akin to citing a Christian young Earth creationist in an argument regarding biology.
For further information, please see:
Regarding the particular paper cited:
> Low-cost solution to grid reliability problem with 100% WWS, and other grid integration studies
Here’s a good rebuttal:
Quoting one of the commenters:
Apologies. B. K. Sovacool is the author of the paper that gives CO2 output numbers of nuclear power based on the assumption of regular nuclear war. Mark Jacobson just cites this person. So, gross incompetence, or fraud, on the part of Jacobson.
Johnny Vector says
EL: Ah, your four-paragraph character assassination on Jacobson actually applies to someone else. So then, when you call him a “fraud”, do you mean that with actual malice?
Skipping over that part, then… Next you link to a “rebuttal” to his paper which turns out to be a blog post asking for a rebuttal, by someone who thinks this sort of question can be addressed successfully on Twitter. You then quote a commenter who thinks something in Jacobson’s paper is absurd, based on un-cited “other studies”. It’s also interesting to note that this commenter, Joris van Dorp, in a comment elsewhere, claims “The cost of wind turbines has been increasing for years,” linking as evidence to a paper from the International Renewable Energy Agency that clearly shows the LCOE for wind power dropping dramatically, just like everywhere else. As a result, I’m not inclined to trust his judgement implicitly.
If you disagree with Jacobson’s methods, go ahead and make your case. The paper is 26 pages, with 15 pages of supporting information, and it’s available for free. I for instance am not convinced that Underground Thermal Energy Storage can be used as widely as he estimates. But in terms of being convincing, ad hominem attacks and arguments from personal incredulity are somewhat sub-optimal.
I don’t get it. You know the paper is hugely flawed. You know the paper has pulled numbers and technology out of its ass, with no basis in reality, and often confidently contradicting reality, such as the underground heats storage fiction-ware, the roughly 2/3 number for amount of grid demand that can be load shifted up to 8 hours, etc. It’s an obvious bullshit piece sold to True Believers ™. You seemingly know this. Yet you cite the paper with a straight face. I want to know why. Why? Why would you do that? Why would you cite a paper with so many obvious and grave flaws?
Johnny Vector says
Me personally, I’m curious why you are so obsessed with this paper, when you seem unable to cite any facts or papers in contradiction. And why you take my question about one part of it as indicating that I “know it’s hugely flawed”.
Because no, I don’t know that. If you have a calculation or study showing that there is some limiting factor preventing UTES from reaching the required level of penetration, lay it on me. I don’t believe you have one.
I have no basis for knowing how much grid power can be shifted, and nothing in his supplemental data jumps out as outrageous. Again, if you have contradicting data, show it. And I mean data showing it’s not technically possible; “Nobody does it now” doesn’t count. I’m not talking about political will here, I’m asking the technical question.
Clearly UTES works, and the efficiency has been measured. Maybe the population distribution is such that the required land area isn’t available within tractable distance from the need, or there is some other technical problem. If so, please provide evidence for that. So far, you have provided no evidence other than your own assertion. (Well, except for that one guy who just lies about the first thing I checked him on.)
Also, concerning my earlier retraction. I think I made that too quickly…
I think I obtained the same article from other sources. In it, we have:
Where does this claim come from? Perhaps we should look at his earlier technical paper,
> Journal: Energy Policy
> Title: Providing all global energy with wind, water, and solar power, Part I: Technologies, energy resources, quantities and areas of infrastructure, and materials
> Authors: Mark Z. Jacobson, Mark A. Delucchi,
A couple problems.
First, he’s citing the infamous Sovacool.
Second, he cites himself, and there are some problems with that. He cites his own paper:
> Journal: Energy & Environmental Science
> Title: Review of solutions to global warming, air pollution, and energy security
> Author: Mark Z. Jacobson
In this paper, we see Jacobson playing exactly the same games as Sovacool – assuming that nuclear power will lead to use of nuclear weapons and war, and asspulling some CO2 emissions number from this nuclear war. He then includes this number into the simple metric of “CO2 emissions”. He cites his Energy & Environmental Policy paper in his Energy Policy paper, and entirely omits this chicanery. He describes it as “in part due to the longer time required to site, permit, and construct a nuclear plant compared with a wind farm”, omitting that the paper he is citing also assumes that increased use of nuclear power will lead to nuclear war, and that his CO2 numbers include CO2 released from these hypothetical nuclear wars. This is fucking dishonest.
Also in the Energy & Environmental Science paper, he assumes that solar and wind can be built infinitely fast (or quickly enough to round to 0), but penalizes nuclear on the the basis that it will take some amount of years to build a nuclear plant, and therefore he penalizes nuclear’s CO2 emissions by adding a factor he calls “opportunity cost” to represent the CO2 that is being released in the meantime by existing coal, gas, etc. That’s a suspect way of doing things. However, where it goes exceptionally bad is when he cites his paper in the other paper. In the Energy Policy paper, he says that nuclear power is not going to be considered at all because of very large CO2 production, and cites his earlier paper to support that claim. However, the later paper is presenting the CO2 emissions as inherent to nuclear in a steady-state solution, whereas the first paper is presenting it as inherent CO2 emissions in a steady-state solution! This again is fundamentally dishonest.
I would be surprised if he is not relying on the assumption of gaseous diffusion methods of enrichment in order to calculate the CO2 emissions. I don’t care enough right now. As an exercise to the reader, I suggest they look through the links. It’s an almost certainty that Jacobson is relying on the incredibly-outdated gaseous diffusion, instead of the centrifuge method, in order to further dishonestly increase the CO2 emission stats of nuclear. In short, the centrifuge method has been the dominant method for the past many decades. Citing the diffusion method is just dishonest.
Jacobson is a fraud. You should never cite this person.
I cited several already. Please try to keep up. I cited the asspull “2/3 of grid demand can be shifted up to 8 hours into the future”, and I also referenced your particular skepticism of using vast underground heat reservoirs to handle seasonal variation in solar production.
I’ll see what I can do on this idea. However, the bigger problem is that currently it exists only in the heads of people. No one has ever tried such a thing. Consequently, it’s hard to actually know if it will work, and how well it will work. One of my major critiques of Jacobson is that he’s relying on technology that has not been demonstrated in order to solve some very serious problems. Rather, we should be employing solutions that actually work right now, in order to solve the problem now, instead of relying on unproven technologies that may or may not work. And technologies that do work is nuclear. It won’t solve everything – we still need a solution for trucking, airplanes, and shipping, but that limitation is true for so-called renewables too.
As for 2/3 the grid demand that can be load-shifted by 8 hours, that’s flatly ridiculous. However, let me see what thorough sources I can find to that effect.
Typos, typos everywhere.
>However, the later paper is presenting the CO2 emissions as inherent to nuclear in a steady-state solution, whereas the first paper is presenting a number which includes opportunity costs that are not present in a steady-state solution! This again is fundamentally dishonest.
Johnny Vector says
EL: This post, and my comments, are about grid integration of large amounts of WWS. If you want to indulge your obsession with nuclear power, there are plenty of posts about that all over the web.
And did you really just claim that you complaining about a quote of something in Jacobson’s paper counts as a citation? I await actual data.
Mark Jacobson himself calculated CO2 emissions assuming nuclear war, and in a separate paper he cited his earlier paper, stating the CO2 emissions of nuclear power which happened to include the nuclear war assumption, without expressly stating that assumption. I gave all of the direct links above, with the names of the papers. That is fundamentally dishonest.
Similarly, Mark Jacobson also calculated opportunity costs based on the assumption of continued coal, nat gas, etc., and applied that to nuclear, but not to solar, wind, etc. Then, in the second paper, he cited his earlier paper and used this CO2 emissions number as part of an argument why CO2 cannot work, which is also fundamentally dishonest. He cited his earlier work as though it was the steady state emissions, with no reference to the fact that it includes a special ad-hoc opportunity cost amount.
Finally, as far as I can tell, the papers that I cited and gave links to, the two papers I”m talking about, form the technical basis of the popular magazine article that is being discussed.
If you do not recognize the fundamental gross dishonesty of these two things, then I think there’s no further point to conversation.
Johnny Vector says
EL: So, after 5 days you have found nothing to contradict the paper I’m referring to. Good to know.
As a reminder, I was the one who brought up Jacobson, referring to “his most recent paper”. By this I mean “Low-cost solution to the grid reliability problem with 100% penetration of intermittent wind, water, and solar for all purposes, available for free at the link.
This paper contains no discussion of nuclear power whatsoever. I did not mention nuclear power. The original post of this thread barely mentions it. Yet you continue to talk solely about nuclear power. You are of course free to do so, but your complete failure to engage my original point (that I brought up in comment #7), while continuing to claim that you have refuted Jacobson’s paper, makes your level of honesty abundantly clear.
You should also be glad that nobody is listening to you, since “fraud” and “gross dishonesty” are actionable words. You might want to stick to “Butthead” in the future (see Sagan v. Apple Computer, Inc.).
So, I see that you have no qualms about citing someone who is grossly dishonest in his academic work in the area that you cite. Great! Good to know! That makes you dishonest too. Suppose there’s not much more need of a conversation.
Not in the good old US of A. You take take your empty threat-by-proxy, and shove it.
ZAPGO ponzi says
I’m reluctant to make them available to everybody. Just the police