A European Hydrogen Manifesto

Frank Wouters1, Prof. Dr. Ad van Wijk2

  1. Advisian; Masdar City – Abu Dhabi, UAE
    email: frank.wouters@advisian.com
  2. Delft University of Technology; Delft, The Netherlands
    email:  j.m.vanwijk@tudelft.nl

Introduction

This paper describes a European energy system based on 50% renewable electricity and 50% green hydrogen, which can be achieved by 2050. The green hydrogen shall consist of 50% green hydrogen produced in Europe, complemented by 50% hydrogen imports, which cuts energy imports roughly in half compared to the current situation. The suggested approach is a bold energy sector approach with an important infrastructure component and differs from more traditional bottom-up sectoral strategies. This approach guarantees optimized use of (existing) infrastructure, has lower risk and cost, improves Europe’s energy security and supports European technology leadership.

Electrification is one of the megatrends in the ongoing energy transition. Since 2011, the annual addition of renewable electricity capacity has outpaced the addition of coal, gas, oil and nuclear power plants combined, and this trend is continuing. Due to the recent exponential growth curve and associated cost reduction, solar and wind power on good locations are now often the lowest cost option, with production cost of bulk solar electricity in the sunbelt soon approaching the 1 $ct/kWh mark. However, electricity has limitations in industrial processes requiring high temperature heat, the chemicals industry or in bulk and long-range transport.

Green hydrogen made from renewable electricity and water will play a crucial role in our decarbonized future economy, as shown in many recent scenarios. In a system soon dominated by variable renewables such as solar and wind, hydrogen links electricity with industrial heat, materials such as steel and fertilizer, space heating, and transport fuels. Furthermore, hydrogen can be seasonally stored and can be transported cost-effectively over long distances, to a large extent using existing natural gas infrastructure. Green hydrogen in combination with green electricity has the potential to entirely replace hydrocarbons.

The following picture shows how the need for hydrogen grows exponentially in a system with variable electricity sources, as modeled by several institutions. Some 20% of variable electricity has to be converted to hydrogen to guarantee a secure energy supply every time of the day and year.

Picture 1. The need for hydrogen increases exponentially with the variable renewable energy share[1]

Energy in Europe

Europe is a net energy importer, with 54% of the 2016 energy needs met by imports, consisting of petroleum products, natural gas and solid fuels. Although Europe is working ambitiously to become less dependent on energy imports, it is unlikely that Europe can become entirely energy self-sufficient. Most scenarios, including BP’s Energy Outlook 2019[2] indicate that Europe shall remain a net importer of energy until mid-century and beyond. Given the population density and comparatively limited potential for renewable energy, the expectation is that Europe shall continue to import energy, also in a future renewable energy system. However, instead of fossil fuels, over time Europe shall import energy in the form of green electrons and molecules.

The following table contains the current final energy mix in Europe[3] (2015)

Table 1 EU Final Energy

Fuel TWh/a %
Solid fuels 534 4
Oil 5,000 40
Gas 2,666 21
Electricity 2,752 22
Other 1,682 13
OVERALL 12,634 100

 

To meet its obligations under the Paris Agreement, the European Union’s member states have set key targets for 2030: (1) at least 40% cuts in greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels; (2) at least 32% share for renewable energy and (3) at least 32.5% improvement in energy efficiency. Beyond that, the European Commission calls for a climate-neutral Europe by 2050, laid down in the document “A Clean Planet for all”[4], which was released in November 2018. There is a current debate ongoing about which scenario is most appropriate for Europe, with several European member states arguing that Europe needs to pursue a 100% renewable energy scenario. This paper provides a pathway for that.

Several recent scenarios exist for Europe’s energy system in 2050, including Shell’s Sky Scenario[5], The Hydrogen Roadmap for Europe[6], DNV-GL’s Energy Transition Outlook 2018[7] and the “Global Energy System based on 100% Renewable Energy – Power Sector” by the Lappeenranta University of Technology (LUT) and the Energy Watch Group (EWG) [8]. But also, several renewable energy industry associations have assessed the role of renewable energy in the European energy mix by 2050, among which are EWEA[9] and GWEC[10]. The following table contains a summary of the most ambitious scenarios in each of these modeling exercises:

Table 2 Solar and wind energy in the European Union in 2050

Scenario Solar Energy [TWh/a] Wind Energy [TWh/a] Solar Capacity [GW] Wind Capacity [GW]
Shell Sky Scenario 3,472 3,089 2,300 1,000
DNV GL Energy Transition Outlook 2018 1,077 1,662 718 554
LUT/EWG     2,000 560
EWEA   1,950   600
GWEC       590

 

It should be noted that to achieve the binding Paris Agreement, Europe’s electricity sector needs to be fully decarbonized by 2050 and other energy sectors to a large extent also. This is a prerequisite for the Shell, GWEC and LUT/EWG scenarios. However, the DNV-GL ETO scenario is not compatible with keeping global warming well below 2 °C. The EWEA scenario focused on the feasibility of a certain share of wind power in the energy mix and the resulting outcome is compatible with other scenarios. It is reasonable to assume that for the DNV-GL scenario to be compatible with the Paris Agreement, the amount of solar energy would be closer to the results of the other scenarios. Analyzing and comparing these scenarios, one can assume that some 2,000 GW of solar and 650 GW of wind energy capacity is required to decarbonize Europe’s electricity sector by 2050, generating roughly 3,000 TWh of solar energy and 2,000 TWh of wind energy per year. The estimations for Europe’s final energy demand in 2050 range from 9,000 to 13,000 TWh per annum. Assuming an estimated overall final energy demand in Europe of 10,000 TWh, 50% would then be covered by electricity from solar and wind. In most scenarios, additional electricity is generated by nuclear and hydropower.

Most scenarios consider a drawn-out transition process, with a continuing dependency on fossil fuels, most of them imported, that will last for decades and would lead to climate chaos if released in the atmosphere. Since the associated emissions are incompatible with the Paris Agreement, several scenarios therefore feature massive investments in carbon capture and storage as well as future carbon sinks, mostly achieved through forestation. The Shell Sky scenario for example, contains a staggering 10,000 CCS projects necessary to limit CO2 emissions. As of 2019, there are 18 CCS projects in the world and less than 7,000 coal fired power plants, so it would require a huge effort, technically, financially as well as regarding popular sentiment, to realize this many CCS projects. The question is whether there are no better alternatives altogether.

It should be noted that blue hydrogen, hydrogen produced from fossil fuels with CCS, can play an important role in an intermediate period, helping kickstart hydrogen as an energy carrier alongside the introduction of green hydrogen.

Hydrogen in Europe

Green hydrogen can be produced in electrolysers using renewable electricity, can be transported using the natural gas grid and can be stored in salt caverns and depleted gas fields[11] to cater for seasonal mismatches in supply and demand of energy. Like with natural gas, underground storage would be seasonal, while line-packing flexibility provides some short-term storage. It should be noted that blue hydrogen, hydrogen produced from fossil fuels with CCS, can play an important role in an intermediate period, helping kickstart hydrogen as an energy carrier alongside the introduction of green hydrogen.

Infrastructure

In Europe the lowest cost renewable resources are hydropower in Norway and the Alps, offshore wind in the North Sea and the Baltic Sea, onshore wind in selected European areas, whereby the best solar resource is in Southern Europe. The current electricity grid was not built for this, is not fit for the energy transition and needs to be drastically modernized. In 2018, an estimated € 1 billion worth of offshore wind energy was curtailed in Germany due to insufficient transmission grid capacity. In addition, the development of new renewable energy capacity is slowed down due to the lack of grid capacity. Unfortunately, overhead power lines are difficult to realize due to environmental concerns, popular opposition and typically take more than a decade for planning, permitting and construction. However, a gas grid is much more cost-effective than an electricity grid: for the same investment a gas pipe can transport 10-20 time more energy than an electricity cable. Also, Europe has a well-developed gas grid that can be converted to accommodate hydrogen at minimal cost. Recent studies carried out by DNV-GL[12] and KIWA[13] in the Netherlands concluded that the existing gas transmission and distribution infrastructure is suitable for hydrogen with minimal or no modifications. So instead of transporting bulk electricity throughout Europe, a more cost-efficient way would be to transport green hydrogen and have a dual electricity and hydrogen distribution system. Picture 2 shows the existing European natural gas grid (blue) and a hydrogen backbone (orange) as suggested by the 40 GW Electrolyser Initiative, a project led by Hydrogen Europe and Delft University. Such a hydrogen backbone would link the areas of low-cost renewable electricity with the load centers and can be extended to connect to our neighbors in the Middle East and North Africa.

 

Picture 2 Natural gas infrastructure in Europe (blue and red lines) and first outline for a hydrogen backbone infrastructure (orange lines) [Delft University of Technology, Hydrogen Europe, 40GW Electrolyser Initiative]

A different approach

By 2050 when Europe’s electricity system is largely based on variable renewables, hydrogen is indispensable. As Picture 1 shows, a minimum level of 20% hydrogen in the electricity system is required to guarantee a stable supply of electricity. The shares of hydrogen in these scenarios are by no means the maximum levels, nor do they represent the optimum. Several scenarios have tried to estimate the increasing demand for green hydrogen in Europe over time, most recently in the Hydrogen Roadmap6 by the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Undertaking. This Roadmap estimates that hydrogen could comprise 24% of Europe’s total final energy demand in 2050, using a gradual phasing-in approach. Such scenarios typically use a bottom-up approach in a consultative process, analyzing various end-use sectors such as transport, the built environment, industry and the energy sector. Although there is merit in this approach by applying industry’s collective knowledge and a deep-dive in these sectors, the fundamental flaw lies in the fact that at present there is no market for green hydrogen, and it is therefore very difficult to estimate e.g. adoption rates for fuel cell vehicles or the willingness among consumers to choose between green gas or all-electric solutions for their domestic energy needs. It may be more appropriate and insightful to look back and learn from the introduction of electricity and natural gas 100 and 50 years ago. Electricity and gas grids were built by governments and the service was offered to consumers, who rapidly stopped burning coal and candles in their houses and adopted these new energy sources in their industrial processes.

Following this analogy, instead of a gradual phasing in of green hydrogen, a more ambitious approach based on infrastructure development is therefore proposed. The fundamental philosophy is to make green hydrogen available at scale and cost-effectively and replace fossil fuels as quickly as possible by repurposing the current natural gas infrastructure to carry green hydrogen. Since the transmission and distribution infrastructure is already to a large extent available, the focus can be on developing electrolyser capacity, which is an opportunity for European market leadership. Hydrogen’s intrinsic quality as a transport fuel, its ubiquitous characteristics in industrial processes and ability for storage and long-range transport will lead to a rapid market uptake in Europe.

Initially a combination of blue and green hydrogen would be required to produce enough volume to convert a meaningful part of the European gas economy. Over time blue hydrogen would be phased out and replaced by green hydrogen.

How much hydrogen do we need or want?

The final energy demand in Europe in 2050 divided over economic sectors can be estimated as follows, using a similar division between sectors as in 2017:

Table 3 Share of EU Final Energy use per sector (Eurostat, 2017)

Sector TWh/a (2050) Share (2017)
Industry   2,500 25 %
Transport   3,100 31 %
Commercial and Services   1,500 15 %
Households   2,700 27 %
Other      200 2   %
OVERALL 10,000 100 %

 

65% of Europe’s current final energy demand consists of gas, coal and petroleum products, which can all be replaced by hydrogen and electricity. We therefor propose a 50% share of green hydrogen in Europe’s final energy demand for all sectors: industry, transport, commercial and households. Of course, this is a rough estimate and will differ per sector and country. It is doable in the transport sector, achieving a balanced mix of battery electric mobility for shorter distances, combined with fuel cell vehicles for heavy duty, longer ranges and higher convenience. Most industrial high heat demand, currently served by natural gas, can be provided by hydrogen, and the household sector will consist of a mix of all-electric well-insulated new houses, while a large part of the existing building stock can be heated using hydrogen fuel cells and hydrogen gas boilers. Where the resource is available, district heating systems using geothermal or waste heat will play a role. Interesting future solutions also include the combination of heat pumps and hydrogen gas boilers, or hybrid geothermal heat pumps with fuel cells, in which the hydrogen boiler or fuel cell is responsible for the peak demand in the winter season. In addition to these end use sectors, 1,000 TWh green hydrogen is required for power balancing and (seasonal) storage to accommodate the variable renewable energy in the electricity grid. This represents an overall hydrogen demand of 6,000 TWh/a, which can easily be accommodated by the European natural gas grid.

The green hydrogen will be produced by additional green electricity plants in Europe over and beyond the 2,000 GW solar and 650 GW wind capacity and will allow the connection of low-cost renewable electricity to the demand centers elsewhere. However, 50% of the demand will be imported from neighboring regions in North Africa and the Middle East where green hydrogen can be produced cheaply and transported through cost-effective pipelines. Additional green hydrogen can be imported in liquid or ammonia form from additional sources further away, like LNG nowadays.

It is important to convey a clear message to potential exporters of green hydrogen to Europe that a long-term market exists, enabling the substantial infrastructure investments to be made in a cost-competitive way.

About the cost

Renewable electricity is rapidly becoming cheaper than conventional electricity made in nuclear, gas- or coal-fired power plants. Already to date, solar power in Southern Europe and offshore wind in the North Sea does not require subsidy but can be sold at market prices. Green hydrogen is not yet cost-competitive because there is currently no market for green hydrogen and the electrolyser industry needs to scale up. However, if a market would develop along the lines sketched here, hydrogen can be produced at € 1 per kg, which is compatible with natural gas prices of €9/mmbtu. Since the energy content of 1 kg of hydrogen is equivalent to 3.8 liter of gasoline, it is certainly cheaper than gasoline or diesel at that price point. But the main advantage lies in the infrastructure, the proposed transition would to a large extent use the existing natural gas grid and would avoid an expensive and troublesome complete overhaul of the electricity grid.

Action agenda

A European energy system based on 50% green electricity and 50% green hydrogen as described above would have many advantages:

  • The system would be entirely clean, with no CO2 emissions, which meets the Paris Agreement but would also have tremendous health benefits due to reduced local emissions in European cities.
  • The system would be a shift away from a system based on finite resources, which invariably leads to scarcity and higher cost towards the end, to a system entirely based on technology, which becomes cheaper over time.
  • A European ambition level based on proven but largely undeveloped technologies (fuel cells, electrolysers, domestic appliances, hydrogen refueling stations) provides a tremendous opportunity for global technology leadership, with associated economic momentum and job creation.
  • The infrastructure required for the new system will be largely based on the already existing natural gas grid and avoids an expensive overhaul of the electricity grid.
  • The system would be reliable and more resilient than the current system.

 

However, such a “moonshot” program requires tremendous political and societal will on a level rarely required. To enable the transition and avoid the exclusion of large parts of the current energy industry, careful thought must be given to minimize stranded assets and include as many players as possible. An environment for investments needs to be designed.

 

The following are necessary considerations for an action agenda:

  • A strong, clear and lasting political commitment is necessary, embedded in a binding European strategy with clear goals stretching over several decades.
  • A new type of public private partnership on a pan-European level must be crafted, with the aim to create an ecosystem to nurture a European clean energy industry that has the potential to be world leaders in the field. This partnership should include existing energy industry, as well as innovative newcomers.
  • A novel enabling regulatory environment and associated market design is required for the necessary investments, whilst keeping the system costs affordable.

 

This implies that Europe needs to:

 

  1. Develop a common internal market for hydrogen
  2. Develop an internal market for power to hydrogen, hydrogen to power and storage + flexibility
  3. Expand the public electricity infrastructure and make it fit for the 21st century
  4. Convert the public natural gas infrastructure into a public hydrogen infrastructure
  5. Develop large scale hydrogen storage facilities in salt caverns and depleted gas fields
  6. Expand large scale green electricity production through national and EU auctions for renewable electricity
  7. Stimulate large scale green hydrogen production through national and EU auctions for renewable hydrogen
  8. until 2035: stimulate large scale blue hydrogen (hydrogen made from fossil fuels whereby the CO2 is captured and permanently stored) production through national and EU auctions in parallel to green hydrogen deployment
  9. Between 2035 and 2050: switch rapidly to a system 100% based on renewable electricity and green hydrogen.
  10. Develop a modern, innovative, competitive and world leading economy on green electricity and green hydrogen as energy carriers and feedstock.

 

 

 

Frank Wouters

Frank Wouters has been leading renewable energy projects, transactions, and technology development for over 28 years. He has played a lead role in development of renewable generation projects valued at over $5 billion. These range from small scale PV solar electrification in Uganda to the 100 MW Shams I Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) plant in the UAE, and the London Array, the world’s largest offshore wind project.

Between 2012 and 2014 he served as Deputy Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the first global intergovernmental organisation dedicated to all renewables.

Mr. Wouters has served on the board of several energy companies and he currently serves as Global Lead Green Hydrogen at Advisian (part of the WorleyParsons Group), Director of the EU GCC Clean Energy Network, a platform that aims to foster clean energy partnerships between Europe and the Gulf, he is advising the World Bank on solar energy, he is Fellow, Payne Institute, Colorado School of Mines and he is a non-executive Board Director of Gorestreet Capital, London.

 

He has co-authored several books, among which “The Sun is Rising in Africa and the Middle East – On the Road to a Solar Energy Future” (Pan Stanford Publishing, ISBN 978-981-4774-89-5), which was released in March 2018.

 

Prof. Dr. Ad van Wijk

Ad van Wijk is sustainable energy entrepreneur and part-time Professor Future Energy Systems at TU Delft, the Netherlands. He also works for the KWR Water Research Institute to develop and implement the research program Energy and Water.  Further, he is the hydrogen ambassador for the Northern Netherlands.

 

In 1984, van Wijk founded the company Ecofys, which eventually grew into Econcern. Econcern developed many new sustainable energy products, services and projects. Examples include the 120 MW offshore wind farm Princess Amalia in the North Sea, several multi-MW solar farms in Spain and a bio-methanol plant in the Netherlands, which is the largest second-generation biomass plant in the world.

 

Van Wijk achieved many important prizes for excellent entrepreneurship. Amongst others he was Dutch entrepreneur of the year in 2007 and Dutch top-executive in 2008.

 

At TU Delft van Wijk is focusing on the energy systems of the future. Especially he is carrying out research on hydrogen and fuel cell cars and is realizing ‘’the Green Village’’. www.thegreenvillage.org

 

Van Wijk has published a very readable book ‘How to boil an egg’   ISBN: 978-1-60750-989-9. And he has written the books ‘Welcome to the Green Village’ ISBN 978-1-61499-283-7, ‘Our Car as Power Plant’ ISBN 978-1-61499-376-6 and ‘3D printing with biomaterials’ ISBN 978-1-61499-485-5, ‘The Green Hydrogen Economy in the Northern Netherlands’ ISBN 978-90-826989-0-9, ‘Solar Power to the People’ ISBN 978-1-61499-832-7 (online)

Follow Ad van Wijk at twitter @advanwijk or via his website www.profadvanwijk.com

 

[1] http://hydrogencouncil.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Hydrogen-scaling-up-Hydrogen-Council.pdf

[2] https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/business-sites/en/global/corporate/pdfs/energy-economics/energy-outlook/bp-energy-outlook-2019.pdf

[3] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/

[4] https://ec.europa.eu/clima/sites/clima/files/docs/pages/com_2018_733_en.pdf

[5] https://www.shell.com/energy-and-innovation/the-energy-future/scenarios/shell-scenario-sky.html

[6] https://fch.europa.eu/sites/default/files/Hydrogen%20Roadmap%20Europe_Report.pdf

[7] https://eto.dnvgl.com/2018/

[8] http://energywatchgroup.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/11/Full-Study-100-Renewable-Energy-Worldwide-Power-Sector.pdf

[9] http://www.ewea.org/fileadmin/files/library/publications/position-papers/EWEA_2050_50_wind_energy.pdf

[10] http://files.gwec.net/register?file=/files/GlobalWindEnergyOutlook2016

[11] https://forschung-energiespeicher.info/wind-zu-wasserstoff/projektliste/projekt-einzelansicht/74/Wasserstoff_unter_Tage_speichern/ (in German)

[12] https://www.topsectorenergie.nl/sites/default/files/uploads/TKI%20Gas/publicaties/DNVGL%20rapport%20verkenning%20waterstofinfrastructuur_rev2.pdf (in Dutch)

[13] KIWA – Toekomstbestendige gasdistributienetten – GT170227 (July 2018 – in Dutch)

Should We Retire King Coal’s Power Plants?

Frank Wouters, September 2015

War on Coal?

Coal is used to produce more electricity worldwide than any other energy source, and is hence sometimes referred to as King Coal. However, coal is also one of the largest anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide globally and coal-fired power plants are a major source of mercury emissions, non-mercury metallic toxics, acid gases, and organic air toxics including dioxin. A 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force in the US[1] estimated that air pollution from coal-fired power plants accounts for more than 13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays in the U.S. each year. The total monetary cost of these health impacts is over $100 billion annually.

China, USA and India are ranked as the top three coal-consuming nations, with China presently consuming close to 50% of global demand. Growing recognition that coal is one of the prime contributors to local air pollution and climate change has led many governments to look for alternatives. Some NGOs and environmental groups even labelled these efforts a “war on coal”. In an effort to reduce the dependence on coal, China has embarked on a so-called “anything but coal” diversification strategy for the domestic power sector, which entails aggressive and ambitious build-out of hydropower and modern renewables, but also LPG and nuclear power. However, despite this strategy, according to the IEA[2], China has still added a staggering 600GW of coal fired power plant capacity since 2005 and the number of proposed new plants ranks in the hundreds. The main reason for this has been the fast growing demand for electricity and the relatively low cost of coal, most notably in absence of a price on carbon. Several emerging economies are expanding their fleet of coal-fired power plants for similar reasons.

In the US, however, the rapid rise of shale gas has led to a shift away from coal, which in return led to a spike in coal consumption in the European Union a few years ago, caused by low-cost US coal and the availability of cheap CO2 certificates. However, the rapid rise of renewable energy and the absence of demand growth have recently reduced the EU consumption of coal again. In North America and Europe, two-thirds of power plant projects planned since 2010 were either postponed or completely withdrawn[3].

According to the IEA, there are over 2,300 coal-fired power stations worldwide (7,000 individual units). Approximately 620 of these power stations are in China. President Obama’s recently announced new regulations on power-plant carbon emissions, the Clean Power Plan, calls for a 32% emissions cut by 2030, as compared with 2005 levels. According to an assessment by the Institute for Energy Research[4], this will take more than 70GW of electricity generation, mostly coal, offline.

Clean Coal

The term clean coal is used primarily in reference to carbon capture and storage, which pumps and stores CO2 emissions underground, and plants using integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). Both technologies add substantially to the cost of coal power and CCS is not technically feasible at all locations. IGCC plants can cost up to 6,000$/kW and rank among the most expensive types of power plants, whilst still emitting more CO2 per kWh than gas fired power plants.

Critics of so-called clean coal point to the environmental impacts of coal extraction, high costs to sequester carbon, and uncertainty of how to manage end result pollutants and radionuclides.

Coal Investments under Pressure

As one of the main contributors to climate change, coal power is a main topic in the upcoming climate summit, UNFCCC’s COP 21 in Paris in December 2015. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, China’s “anything but coal” strategy and the European Union’s stricter emission legislation are efforts towards lowering the emissions of CO2, the main goal of the summit. Whether the international community will agree on binding emission reduction targets by e.g. including carbon-pricing mechanisms remains to be seen. Previous summits have failed to do so. However, all these policy initiatives and the global debate put increasing pressure on existing and planned coal power plants, adding substantial risk premiums to their investment profile. An increasing number of financial institutions among which are university and church investment funds, but also the Bank of America have publicly stated not to invest in such projects any longer. The World Bank in its recent strategic directive[5] says only to invest in coal in exceptional cases, e.g. when there are no cleaner alternatives.

Co-firing of Biomass

To reduce emissions of CO2 and to achieve renewable energy targets many countries, most notably in Europe, have supported co-firing of biomass in coal-fired power plants. Generally white pellets are used, the use of which is limited to 10% in the case of co-milling and 10% to 30% if a separate mill is installed. These white pellets can be made from sustainably managed forests or using the many waste streams that are presently unused, such as bark, branches and tops, sawdust etc. However, apart from additional investment costs the lower specific calorific value of white pellets also derates the power plant, causing effective loss of capacity and basically stranding a part of the investment.

Stranded assets?

So we have a global installed base of 2,300 coal-fired power plants, a large part of which might become obsolete in the near future for the reasons explained above. At an average size of 700MW and an average cost of 3,000$/kW, this represents an overall investment of close to $5 trillion. All of these locations are permitted, hooked up to the electricity grid and have logistical facilities capable of handling large volumes of feedstock. Co-firing of white pellets is limited to 30% so cannot effectively replace coal. A solution to keep using these assets is to upgrade the biomass to a quality level comparable to coal. At present there is only one technology capable of turning biomass into a coal-like product in terms of physical properties and that is torrefaction.

Torrefaction

Torrefaction is a kind of controlled roasting process, whereby e.g. wood chips are heated to a temperature level between 250 and 320 °C in an oxygen deprived atmosphere. Depending on the input material and process conditions chosen, about 30 % of the dry mass is converted into gases, which are burned in a separate combustion chamber to dry the incoming biomass and for heating the process. The resulting material is black, brittle, hydrophobic and has a heating value in the range of coal. After grinding, the material can be densified and pressed into black pellets to create bio-coal.

The following are the advantages of torrefaction:

  • Torrefaction improves the durability of the biomass. The polar characteristics of the biomass fuel are destroyed and therefore the refined fuel is (almost) hydrophobic. Depending on the process performance and fuel quality the refined biomass may be stored outside on the existing coal yards. Additionally it is less susceptible for biodegradation.
  • The disintegration of the ligno-cellulosic structures of the biomass fuel leads to better grindability of the material compared to unprocessed biomass. In most cases the existing coal mills can be used for co-milling the torrefied biomass without significant changes.
  • The energy content of torrefied biomass is higher than unprocessed biomass and far exceeds the energy content of wood pellets due to the loss of hemicelluloses with low energy content. Therefore, the same amount of fuel energy is cheaper in logistics, requires less area for storage, less investment in handling equipment, less energy for milling, and less energy for transportation.
  • Because of the coal-like properties of the torrefied biomass, the existing coal logistics, and downstream handling systems can be used. That leads to a high flexibility in feedstock and a fall back option in case torrefied fuels are temporarily unavailable at the market.
  • The impact on flue gas cleaning and power plant by-products is expected to be similar to untreated biomass fuels.

Torrefaction Technologies

Different reactor technologies, most of which were developed for other applications, are currently being used to perform torrefaction. These include fluidized bed reactors, screw reactors, multi hearth furnaces, rotating drum reactors, microwave reactors, belt dryers and others. Some torrefaction technologies are capable of processing feedstock with small particles such as sawdust and others are capable of processing large particles. Only a few, including rotating drum reactors, can handle a large spectrum of particle sizes.

Although the market for black pellets has not yet fully developed, a number of torrefaction companies have the ability to produce consistent quality product at scale and are developing a pipeline of projects globally. One of these companies is TorrCoal, based in the Netherlands, with a commercial scale demonstration factory in Dilsen-Stokkem, Belgium. TorrCoal is part of A.Hak Renewable Energy’s portfolio of renewable energy companies. Since 2010 TorrCoal has been producing black pellets at commercial scale for a number of different customers. TorrCoal uses the proven and robust indirectly heated rotating drum technology, enabling a wide variety of feedstock.

Scale of Opportunity

A typical black pellet production facility with two lines is capable of producing up to 100,000 tons of black pellets per year. Given the fact that a medium sized coal plant consumes up to 1.5 million tons of coal per annum, we would need 15 black pellet production facilities to feed the power plant. This creates enormous economic opportunities, which are much larger than the replaced coal mining business. According to a recent study[6], replacing coal with biomass in an existing pulverised coal power plant would only increase the cost of electricity by $0.01/kWh, but would increase the number of jobs by 37%. A typical 500MW plant in the US employs 2,538 people in the coal sector, which could be replaced by 3,481 jobs in the biomass value chain.

So instead of retiring older PC power plants we should consider converting them to run on bio-coal. This is cleaner, creates jobs and also keeps despatchable power in the mix, adding to the security of the overall energy system.

[1] Schneider, C., and Jonathan Banks. 2010. The Toll From Coal: An Updated Assessment of Death and Disease from America’s Dirtiest Energy Source. Clean Air Task Force, September 2010.

[2] http://www.iea.org/bookshop/495-Medium-Term_Coal_Market_Report_2014

[3] http://www.euractiv.com/sections/energy/europe-should-keep-its-hands-coal-german-study-says-315077

[4] http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Power-Plant-Updates-Final.pdf

[5] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2013/07/18016002/toward-sustainable-energy-future-all-directions-world-bank-group’s-energy-sector

[6] http://futuremetrics.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/A_Cost_Effective_and_Ready_to_Deploy_Strategy_for_Baseload_Dispatchable_Low_Carbon_Power_Generation.pdf

Should We Retire King Coal’s Power Plants?

War on Coal?
Coal is used to produce more electricity worldwide than any other energy source, and is hence sometimes referred to as King Coal. However, coal is also one of the largest anthropogenic sources of carbon dioxide globally and coal-fired power plants are a major source of mercury emissions, non-mercury metallic toxics, acid gases, and organic air toxics including dioxin. A 2010 study by the Clean Air Task Force in the US [1] estimated that air pollution from coal-fired power plants accounts for more than 13,000 premature deaths, 20,000 heart attacks, and 1.6 million lost workdays in the U.S. each year. The total monetary cost of these health impacts is over $100 billion annually.
China, USA and India are ranked as the top three coal-consuming nations, with China presently consuming close to 50% of global demand. Growing recognition that coal is one of the prime contributors to local air pollution and climate change has led many governments to look for alternatives. Some NGOs and environmental groups even labelled these efforts a “war on coal”. In an effort to reduce the dependence on coal, China has embarked on a so-called “anything but coal” diversification strategy for the domestic power sector, which entails aggressive and ambitious build-out of hydropower and modern renewables, but also LPG and nuclear power. However, despite this strategy, according to the IEA [2] , China has still added a staggering 600GW of coal fired power plant capacity since 2005 and the number of proposed new plants ranks in the hundreds. The main reason for this has been the fast growing demand for electricity and the relatively low cost of coal, most notably in absence of a price on carbon. Several emerging economies are expanding their fleet of coal-fired power plants for similar reasons.
In the US, however, the rapid rise of shale gas has led to a shift away from coal, which in return led to a spike in coal consumption in the European Union a few years ago, caused by low-cost US coal and the availability of cheap CO2 certificates. However, the rapid rise of renewable energy and the absence of demand growth have recently reduced the EU consumption of coal again. In North America and Europe, two-thirds of power plant projects planned since 2010 were either postponed or completely withdrawn [3].
According to the IEA, there are over 2,300 coal-fired power stations worldwide (7,000 individual units). Approximately 620 of these power stations are in China. President Obama’s recently announced new regulations on power-plant carbon emissions, the Clean Power Plan, calls for a 32% emissions cut by 2030, as compared with 2005 levels. According to an assessment by the Institute for Energy Research , this will take more than 70GW of electricity generation, mostly coal, offline.

Clean Coal
The term clean coal is used primarily in reference to carbon capture and storage, which pumps and stores CO2 emissions underground, and plants using integrated gasification combined cycle (IGCC). Both technologies add substantially to the cost of coal power and CCS is not technically feasible at all locations. IGCC plants can cost up to 6,000$/kW and rank among the most expensive types of power plants, whilst still emitting more CO2 per kWh than gas fired power plants.
Critics of so-called clean coal point to the environmental impacts of coal extraction, high costs to sequester carbon, and uncertainty of how to manage end result pollutants and radionuclides.

Coal Investments under Pressure
As one of the main contributors to climate change, coal power is a main topic in the upcoming climate summit, UNFCCC’s COP 21 in Paris in December 2015. Obama’s Clean Power Plan, China’s “anything but coal” strategy and the European Union’s stricter emission legislation are efforts towards lowering the emissions of CO2, the main goal of the summit. Whether the international community will agree on binding emission reduction targets by e.g. including carbon-pricing mechanisms remains to be seen. Previous summits have failed to do so. However, all these policy initiatives and the global debate put increasing pressure on existing and planned coal power plants, adding substantial risk premiums to their investment profile. An increasing number of financial institutions among which are university and church investment funds, but also the Bank of America have publicly stated not to invest in such projects any longer. The World Bank in its recent strategic directive [5] says only to invest in coal in exceptional cases, e.g. when there are no cleaner alternatives.

Co-firing of Biomass
To reduce emissions of CO2 and to achieve renewable energy targets many countries, most notably in Europe, have supported co-firing of biomass in coal-fired power plants. Generally white pellets are used, the use of which is limited to 10% in the case of co-milling and 10% to 30% if a separate mill is installed. These white pellets can be made from sustainably managed forests or using the many waste streams that are presently unused, such as bark, branches and tops, sawdust etc. However, apart from additional investment costs the lower specific calorific value of white pellets also derates the power plant, causing effective loss of capacity and basically stranding a part of the investment.
Stranded assets?
So we have a global installed base of 2,300 coal-fired power plants, a large part of which might become obsolete in the near future for the reasons explained above. At an average size of 700MW and an average cost of 3,000$/kW, this represents an overall investment of close to $5 trillion. All of these locations are permitted, hooked up to the electricity grid and have logistical facilities capable of handling large volumes of feedstock. Co-firing of white pellets is limited to 30% so cannot effectively replace coal. A solution to keep using these assets is to upgrade the biomass to a quality level comparable to coal. At present there is only one technology capable of turning biomass into a coal-like product in terms of physical properties and that is torrefaction.

Torrefaction
Torrefaction is a kind of controlled roasting process, whereby e.g. wood chips are heated to a temperature level between 250 and 320 °C in an oxygen deprived atmosphere. Depending on the input material and process conditions chosen, about 30 % of the dry mass is converted into gases, which are burned in a separate combustion chamber to dry the incoming biomass and for heating the process. The resulting material is black, brittle, hydrophobic and has a heating value in the range of coal. After grinding, the material can be densified and pressed into black pellets to create bio-coal.

The following are the advantages of torrefaction:
• Torrefaction improves the durability of the biomass. The polar characteristics of the biomass fuel are destroyed and therefore the refined fuel is (almost) hydrophobic. Depending on the process performance and fuel quality the refined biomass may be stored outside on the existing coal yards. Additionally it is less susceptible for biodegradation.
• The disintegration of the ligno-cellulosic structures of the biomass fuel leads to better grindability of the material compared to unprocessed biomass. In most cases the existing coal mills can be used for co-milling the torrefied biomass without significant changes.
• The energy content of torrefied biomass is higher than unprocessed biomass and far exceeds the energy content of wood pellets due to the loss of hemicelluloses with low energy content. Therefore, the same amount of fuel energy is cheaper in logistics, requires less area for storage, less investment in handling equipment, less energy for milling, and less energy for transportation.
• Because of the coal-like properties of the torrefied biomass, the existing coal logistics, and downstream handling systems can be used. That leads to a high flexibility in feedstock and a fall back option in case torrefied fuels are temporarily unavailable at the market.
• The impact on flue gas cleaning and power plant by-products is expected to be similar to untreated biomass fuels.

Torrefaction Technologies
Different reactor technologies, most of which were developed for other applications, are currently being used to perform torrefaction. These include fluidized bed reactors, screw reactors, multi hearth furnaces, rotating drum reactors, microwave reactors, belt dryers and others. Some torrefaction technologies are capable of processing feedstock with small particles such as sawdust and others are capable of processing large particles. Only a few, including rotating drum reactors, can handle a large spectrum of particle sizes.
Although the market for black pellets has not yet fully developed, a number of torrefaction companies have the ability to produce consistent quality product at scale and are developing a pipeline of projects globally. One of these companies is TorrCoal, based in the Netherlands, with a commercial scale demonstration factory in Dilsen-Stokkem, Belgium. TorrCoal is part of A.Hak Renewable Energy’s portfolio of renewable energy companies. Since 2010 TorrCoal has been producing black pellets at commercial scale for a number of different customers. TorrCoal uses the proven and robust indirectly heated rotating drum technology, enabling a wide variety of feedstock.

Scale of Opportunity
A typical black pellet production facility with two lines is capable of producing up to 100,000 tons of black pellets per year. Given the fact that a medium sized coal plant consumes up to 1.5 million tons of coal per annum, we would need 15 black pellet production facilities to feed the power plant. This creates enormous economic opportunities, which are much larger than the replaced coal mining business. According to a recent study [6], replacing coal with biomass in an existing pulverised coal power plant would only increase the cost of electricity by $0.01/kWh, but would increase the number of jobs by 37%. A typical 500MW plant in the US employs 2,538 people in the coal sector, which could be replaced by 3,481 jobs in the biomass value chain.

So instead of retiring older PC power plants we should consider converting them to run on bio-coal. This is cleaner, creates jobs and also keeps despatchable power in the mix, adding to the security of the overall energy system.

[1] Schneider, C., and Jonathan Banks. 2010. The Toll From Coal: An Updated Assessment of Death and Disease from America’s Dirtiest Energy Source. Clean Air Task Force, September 2010.

[2] http://www.iea.org/bookshop/495-Medium-Term_Coal_Market_Report_2014

[3] http://www.euractiv.com/sections/energy/europe-should-keep-its-hands-coal-german-study-says-315077

[4] http://instituteforenergyresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Power-Plant-Updates-Final.pdf

[5] http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2013/07/18016002/toward-sustainable-energy-future-all-directions-world-bank-group’s-energy-sector

[6] http://futuremetrics.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/06/A_Cost_Effective_and_Ready_to_Deploy_Strategy_for_Baseload_Dispatchable_Low_Carbon_Power_Generation.pdf

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