No matter how abundant or renewable, solar power has a thorn in its side. There is still no cheap and efficient long-term storage for the energy that it generates.
The solar industry has been snagged on this branch for a while, but in the past year alone, a series of four papers has ushered in an intriguing new solution.
Scientists in Sweden have developed a specialised fluid, called a solar thermal fuel, that can store energy from the sun for well over a decade.
“A solar thermal fuel is like a rechargeable battery, but instead of electricity, you put sunlight in and get heat out, triggered on demand,” Jeffrey Grossman, an engineer works with these materials at MIT explained to NBC News.
The fluid is actually a molecule in liquid form that scientists from Chalmers University of Technology, Sweden have been working on improving for over a year.
This molecule is composed of carbon, hydrogen and nitrogen, and when it is hit by sunlight, it does something unusual: the bonds between its atoms are rearranged and it turns into an energised new version of itself, called an isomer.
Like prey caught in a trap, energy from the sun is thus captured between the isomer’s strong chemical bonds, and it stays there even when the molecule cools down to room temperature.
When the energy is needed – say at nighttime, or during winter – the fluid is simply drawn through a catalyst that returns the molecule to its original form, releasing energy in the form of heat.
“The energy in this isomer can now be stored for up to 18 years,” says one of the team, nanomaterials scientist Kasper Moth-Poulsen from Chalmers University.
“And when we come to extract the energy and use it, we get a warmth increase which is greater than we dared hope for.”
A prototype of the energy system, placed on the roof of a university building, has put the new fluid to the test, and according to the researchers, the results have caught the attention of numerous investors.
(Chalmers University of Technology)
The renewable, emissions-free energy device is made up of a concave reflector with a pipe in the centre, which tracks the Sun like a sort-of satellite dish.
The system works in a circular manner. Pumping through transparent tubes, the fluid is heated up by the sunlight, turning the molecule norbornadiene into its heat-trapping isomer, quadricyclane. The fluid is then stored at room temperature with minimal energy loss.
When the energy is needed, the fluid is filtered through a special catalyst that converts the molecules back to their original form, warming the liquid by 63 degrees Celsius (113 degrees Fahrenheit).
The hope is that this warmth can be used for domestic heating systems, powering a building’s water heater, dishwasher, clothes dryer and much more, before heading back to the roof once again.
The researchers have put the fluid through this cycle more than 125 times, picking up heat and dropping it off without significant damage to the molecule.
“We have made many crucial advances recently, and today we have an emissions-free energy system which works all year around,” says Moth-Poulsen.
After a series of rapid developments, the researchers claim their fluid can now hold 250 watt-hours of energy per kilogram, which is double the the energy capacity of Tesla’s Powerwall batteries, according to the NBC.
But there’s still plenty of room for improvement. With the right manipulations, the researchers think they can get even more heat out of this system, at least 110 degrees Celsius (230 degrees Fahrenheit) more.
“There is a lot left to do. We have just got the system to work. Now we need to ensure everything is optimally designed,” says Moth-Poulsen.
If all goes as planned, Moth-Poulsen thinks the technology could be available for commercial use within 10 years.
Compressed-air energy storage isn’t carbon neutral, but it’s a lower-carbon option.
Decarbonizing the world’s electricity grids won’t be an easy task, but it is a necessary one if we’re going to mitigate some of the worst effects of climate change. Since wind and solar power are intermittent, part of decarbonizing the grid will involve storing renewable energy for use when the Sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing.
While day-to-day storage will cover the gaps when the wind slacks or the Sun sets, on grids with more than 80 percent renewable energy you’re also going to want inter-seasonal storage. This is because sun and wind are seasonal, and energy demand is also seasonal—people use a lot more energy in the winter than they do in the spring, because it’s darker and colder outside.
Researchers from the University of Edinburgh and the University of Strathclyde think that one potential step toward seasonal storage should involve identifying large underground saline aquifers where energy could be stored as compressed air. Saline aquifers are usually found underwater; the compressed air will displace some of the water, which can be discarded, as it’s not potable.
Massive reservoirs of compressed air could handle the inter-seasonal gaps that high-renewable grids might struggle with. The researchers suggest a system where excess renewable energy is used to compress air and pump it down into a saline aquifer over the course of several months. Then, when it’s needed in the winter, the air is brought back up and expanded, powering a turbine that drives electricity back onto the grid.
The cycle is comparable to how many regions store and use natural gas. That is, excess natural gas is pumped into underground storage caverns where it sits for a few months. In the winter, when gas is needed to heat homes, those stores are drawn down. The difference here is that the energy being stored isn’t chemical.
The researchers used existing geological mapping that was conducted around the United Kingdom to find potential storage areas for carbon dioxide (CO2), but their method for vetting geological repositories for compressed air storage could be applied to underwater geographies around the world.
They found that at least 77 to 96 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity could be stored in aquifers off the British coastline. (That is roughly 160 percent of the UK’s electricity consumption in January and February 2017, so combined with other forms of electricity, it would be more than enough for a typical winter.)
An imperfect solution
Despite the sound theoretical basis for developing massive underwater wells for storing compressed air, the researchers acknowledge that it’s an imperfect solution to our energy storage problems.
For one, it’s expensive. The researchers estimate that storing compressed air in saline aquifers would cost in the range of $0.42 to $4.71 per kilowatt-hour (kWh).
For comparison, Lazard’s 2018 Levelized Cost of Storage report (PDF) found that the high-end cost of lithium-ion batteries for wholesale energy storage was about $298/MWh, or about $0.30/kWh. Of course, most utility-grade lithium-ion batteries on the world’s grids today are geared toward short-duration frequency response rather than long-duration applications like compressed-air energy storage schemes. Somewhat higher-cost, long-term energy storage schemes might be viable if governments start mandating more and more renewable energy on the grid.
Another problem with this scheme is that carbon-neutral compressed-air energy storage isn’t (yet) commercially proven. When conventional compressed air systems need to expand the stored compressed air to put additional energy on the grid, they do it by warming the air up by burning fossil fuels. Very cutting-edge compressed-air systems can be carbon neutral by recycling the heat that’s removed from the air when it’s compressed, but these so-called “advanced adiabatic compressed air systems” exist only as pilot projects and small-scale trials, unlike conventional compressed air systems, which have been in use for decades.
Even if it involves heating the air with fossil fuels, compressed-air energy storage emits less carbon per kWh than running a natural gas plant (and currently many grids, especially in the US, use quick-starting natural gas plants to complement the intermittency of renewables, so exchanging that for compressed-air energy storage is an advance in the right direction). Conventional compressed-air energy storage releases approximately 228g of CO2 per kWh, which is “less than the 388 grams of CO2 per kWh reported for the combined cycle gas turbines used in gas power plants,” the paper notes.
For now, even conventional compressed air energy storage is rather rare; only two commercial compressed air facilities are currently operating: one on the grid in Germany and one in Alabama. In their paper, the researchers write that 8TWh of potential compressed air storage could be built out in the UK onshore, in salt caverns. Using these onshore caverns for compressed air would cost just a fraction of what it would cost to build compressed air storage in saline aquifers. For that reason, the researchers recommend that compressed air facilities “should be initially developed onshore to improve the technology and reduce operational costs.”
They say it takes money to make money; in order to make a profit off Bitcoin mining, you have to buy mining equipment and pay your electricity bill first. As more miners join the Bitcoin network, some individuals fear that the amount of electricity consumed by mining will have a negative impact on the environment. Others believe that the benefits of Bitcoin mining outweigh the cost it takes to produce the digital currency.
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Bitcoin mining and energy consumption
New Bitcoin are produced through a process called mining, where computers expend energy and computational resources to solve a difficult math problem that verifies a recent block of Bitcoin transactions. The miner who solves the math problem adds the block to the blockchain and receives newly minted Bitcoin. The difficulty of the math problem depends on how much computational power the network has in summation. As the Bitcoin network attracts more miners, the mining difficulty increases, and usually, the amount of energy a mining rig consumes increases too.
The Bitcoin network currently consumes about 2.55 gigawatts (GW) of electricity per year; to put that into perspective, the entire country of Ireland has an average electricity consumption of 3.1 GW, and Austria has an average electricity consumption of 8.2 GW per year. Over the past year, the estimated amount of TwH that the Bitcoin network consumes per year increased 413.37 percent. When compared to countries like the Czech Republic, the Bitcoin network uses 102.3 percent of the entire electricity consumed by the country per year.
Data consultant and blockchain specialist Alex De Vries believes that the amount of energy Bitcoin mining consumes is problematic. In a recent research study published in Joule, De Vries found that the average amount of electricity consumed per Bitcoin transaction is 300 kwH, and at the rate new miners are joining the network – and the mining difficulty increases – this number has the potential to reach 900 KwH by the end of 2018.
De Vries said that even though society can not see the changes being made to the environment via Bitcoin mining, mining operations are not helping the world get closer to their climate and environmental goals:
“We know that mining is done with coal-electricity, but also with renewable energy. In the latter case, we don’t know what we are displacing, plus renewable energy never has zero lifetime carbon footprint either. There’s more work to be done here, but there’s certainly an impact. The more energy Bitcoin uses, the more it will impact the environment for sure – which in turn will impact everyone. It’s not helping us reach our climate goals.”
There is a grey area when it comes to figuring out how Bitcoin mining is impacting the environment. Although some of the electricity used is sourced from coal, mining operations usually do not release carbon emissions themselves. Just because miners do not see the physical impact that mining has on the environment, the amount of resources consumed and the opportunity cost involved should be concerning in itself.
Hash rate and energy consumption
The amount of energy mining consumes seems to be increasing. As mining equipment becomes better at solving blocks, the electricity consumed by each mining rig increases. To stay ahead of their competitors, miners are always looking for mining equipment with a higher hashrate. The hashrate is the speed at which the miner is able to provide answers to the math problem. The higher the hash rate, the faster one can guess the answer to the problem.
At first, the problem was easy enough to be solved by a standard CPU, but as more miners joined the network and the problem became more difficult, miners found that GPU were better suited to solve the problem. Just a few years later, FPGAs and then ASICs – application specific integrated circuits – were better suited than GPUs to solve a block.
Others, like entrepreneur and former Google information security engineer Marc Bevand, believe that the amount of energy that mining consumes will cause further innovation in the form of renewable energies. Bevand believes that the energy consumption will eventually lead to decreased costs of renewable energy for society at large:
“Because miners are so sensitive to electricity prices, they are often a driver pushing utilities to further develop renewables which are now the cheapest source of energy. For example in China, many miners are located in the Sichuan province because of its abundant hydroelectricity. Another example is an Australian entrepreneur who is building a 20 megawatt (MW) solar-powered mining farm. If the energy use of cryptocurrency miners continue to increase it will help decrease the costs of renewables for society at large (increased demand → increased R&D → increased capacity & higher efficiency → lower costs through economies of scale).”
Electricity costs have already put miners in search for a cheaper source of energy. Companies have been looking to places like Canada and the Sichuan province where electricity is typically cheaper. Because miners have incentives to use cheap electricity, this leads to more R&D in the energy space. In the long run, this should make forms of electricity cheaper to all of society as innovations are made in energy.
The Price of Network Security
Although the amount of energy mining operations consume does not go unnoticed, some individuals believe that the benefits of mining – network security – outweigh the negative externalities like electricity consumption.
The Bitcoin network is secured by a consensus algorithm called proof-of-work (PoW). Miners are paid newly minted Bitcoin and transaction fees for solving a block, securing the network in the process. If a miner is not able to solve the cryptographic proof, blocks of transaction history would not be added to the blockchain and blockchain technology as a whole would be nullified; no record of transaction history would be created if blocks were not solved and added to the chain by miners. The cost that has to be paid for this network security is the large amounts of energy that a PoW consensus consumes.
Cypherpunk Jameson Lopp took to twitter to express how he feels about Bitcoin’s energy expenditure problem. Lopp believes that the electricity expense that Bitcoin mining accrues is simply a tax that must be paid for network security.
Whining about the energy expenditure to secure Bitcoin against computational attacks will have no effect. The Bitcoin ecosystem pays contractors (miners) for security; if you want them to stop then you'll have to make a better offer on the open market.
Economic researcher Vasily Sumanov also believes that energy inefficiency and waste is currently the price we pay to conduct blockchain experiments:
“Higher energy consumption is associated not only with environmental pollution but also with the higher security of a distributed ledger dedicated to storage and transfer of value. I have a strong feeling that this is a temporary situation, and in the future, Bitcoin energy efficiency as a function of transaction volume and energy consumption will increase as a result of Lightning Network adoption.”
“Just look at any other industry, for example, cars or electronic devices – their environment pollution and energy costs considerably decreased over time as these industries developed. So why do people expect high energy efficiency from the Bitcoin in the very beginning? It is only 9 years old.”
PoW is currently the most popular form of consensus on a blockchain network. Before transactions are verified, miners must solve cryptographic proofs. However, it is also the most energy intensive form of consensus. Alternatives that consume less energy like Proof-of-Stake and the Lightning Network are being developed to make blockchain networks more efficient.
But for the most part, these innovations have not officially launched. Bitcoin is still in its early stages and is not even 10 years old yet, and throughout history, it is not uncommon for technologies to be sub-optimal in their beginning stages.
At the same time, there are people working towards solutions for these network problems. The Ethereum network is looking into proof-of-stake solutions to increase its efficiency while decreasing electricity consumption; the Bitcoin network is looking to implement the Lightning Network. But until these solutions are out of their test net phases and go live, PoW will continue to be criticized for its electricity consumption.
Once the electricity consumption of the Bitcoin network is optimized, the overall efficiency of the Bitcoin network will increase. In an academic paper titled Banking on Blockchain: Costs Savings Thanks to the Blockchain Technology, Luisanna Cocco, Andrea Pinna, and Michele Marchesi from the University of Cagliari’s electrical engineering and computer science departments, found that Bitcoin must increase its economic efficiency, operational efficiency, and service efficiency before it truly optimizes global financial infrastructures.
“In a nutshell, all of our results show that the overall efficiency of the Bitcoin system can increase only after overcoming its main limitations: the low number of transactions per block and the too high computational power that it currently needs”
Bitcoin is useful for its transparent ledger, secure data storage, and user empowerment features, but is going to struggle with mass adoption until it can sort out scalability and energy consumption problems. The total amount of Bitcoin that can ever exist is 21 mln, and as mining rigs consume more energy, miners incur higher electricity bills, and the reward for mining Bitcoin diminishes. Eventually, the profit from Bitcoin mining alone will not be enough to cover the electricity expense. In the future, miners will need to supplement their electricity cost payment with money from the transaction fees they receive for signing a block.
Is the energy expenditure worth it?
Although some people believe that the amount of energy mining consumes is problematic, it is difficult to measure how much of society is benefiting from Bitcoin. Bevand said:
“Answering “is Bitcoin’s energy consumption worth it?” is very subjective, because we don’t have any hard data measuring how much Bitcoin is helping society. How many Venezuelan are using it to escape inflation? How many families are using it for international remittance and therefore avoiding the average fee of 7.13 percent of remittance providers? How many Bitcoin millionaires given back their newfound wealth to charities? We don’t have much data for any of these questions. I don’t think that the current level of energy consumption is worrisome. We are only at 0.2-0.5 percent of the worldwide electricity consumption. Like Morgan Stanley researchers said in their reports cryptocurrency miners are currently just a “blip on the radar” for utilities”
So far, there is no way for the world to quantitatively measure or know how many people are using Bitcoin, what they are using it for, and if it is making their lives better. But individuals like Bevand and businesses like Morgan Stanley say there’s no need to worry, because Bitcoin mining consumes such a small fraction of the world’s total electricity consumption.
Innovation is Imperative
Although we may not be able to see the toll that Bitcoin mining is taking on our environment with the naked eye, there is no doubt that the Bitcoin network will have to reduce its energy consumption before the Bitcoin blockchain undergoes mass adoption. It would not be surprising to see a regulating body create policy and regulation for miners in attempt to control/reduce electricity consumption.
Because Bitcoin miners are so sensitive to the price of electricity, this should push R&D in the energy space and produce more efficient energy solutions. It is hard to get an understanding of the positive vs negatives externalities of Bitcoin, so it is hard to say if the amount of energy consumed is truly “worth it”. But if the amount of electricity consumed by mining is not kept under control or made more efficient, then it is possible that the impact to the environment will be irreversible once people become aware of the negative effects that Bitcoin mining had on it.
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