UK Home Energy Smart Meter Project Delayed

The installation of smart meters into all 30 million UK homes have been delayed by more than a year with the first meters unlikely to be installed until Autumn 2015, and all 30 million meters until 2020.

smart meters installation in the UK

The delays to the £11-12 billion project has been caused by industry needing more time for designing, building, and testing the systems which will enable the energy companies to communicate with the gas and electricity meters – for example to get daily accurate meter readings for all of their customers.

The huge costs of the project should be more than offset in the savings from not needing to employ people to read meters, and deal with customer complaints relating to estimated bills. Smart meters should help consumers understand their power usage and therefore take steps to reduce it.

EU to Impose High Import Duties on Chinese Made Solar Panels

In our article Are Prices of Solar Panels Going to Fall or Rise we looked at how Chinese-made PV solar panels have been flooding the European market driving prices down. Over the last few years, Chinese manufacturers have snapped up 80% of the $30bn+ annual European market for solar products.

The European Commission, interested in protecting German and other struggling European solar panel manufacturers, has been looking into this and are considering levying punitive tariffs on solar panel imports from China to stop Chinese manufacturers dumping their government subsidised panels in the European market at unfair prices.

Chinese made PV panels are currently almost half the price of European made panels and so the import duty is likely to be set at from 40-50% bringing Chinese and European panel prices in line with each other, and therefore increasing the price of solar products to the consumer considerably.

Provisional levies could come into force on 6th June 2013 before negotiations with Beijing on a long term levy structure. The USA put import duties on Chinese solar energy products back in 2012 to protect their market from oversupply.

Renewable Energy Use up to 13% of Gross Final Energy Use Across EU

Eurostat, the statistical office of the EU, has released its figures for renewable energy use across the EU27 – the 27 EU states – for the calendar year 2011. Of all energy use across the EU27, 13% came from renewable sources compared to just 7.9% in 2004 and 12.1% in 2010, well on its way to a target of 20% in 2020.

Looking at the countries individually, the top renewable energy users were Sweden (46.8%), Latvia (33.1%), Finland (31.8%) and Austria (30.9%), and the lowest were the tiny states of Malta (0.4%), Luxembourg (2.9%), followed by the United Kingdom (3.8%), Belgium (4.1%).

Between 2004 and 2011, the countries with the biggest gains in renewables usage were Sweden (38.3% to 46.8%), Denmark (14.9% to 23.1%), Austria (22.8% to 30.9%), and Germany (from 4.8% to 12.3%); while the UK went from 1.1% to 3.8% in the same time period. The EU target for the UK is 15% by 2020.

Click here for full details in the Eurostat 26th April 2013 press release: Share of Renewable Energy up to 13% of Energy Consumption in the EU27 in 2011.

Solar Cell Coating Could Improve Efficiency by 6%

The journal Science had details today of research into a special coating for photovoltaic solar cells which could potentially increase the percentage of solar energy which is converted into electricity by 6%.

Solar panels do not convert all wavelengths of light into electricity – photons of light from the blue (higher energy) end of the spectrum are converted into heat if they are not reflected from the solar panel which a) means that that solar energy is wasted, and b) means that the solar panel gets hotter, which as our article (Effect of Temperature on Solar Panels) showed, reduces efficiency.

pantacene-solar-panels

Since the 1960’s it has been known that a material called pantacene (an organic semiconductor pictured above) has an interesting property. When a photon of light from the blue end of the spectrum hits pantacene, TWO electrons are generated. When a photon of light from the red end of the spectrum hits a normal solar cell, ONE electron is generated. Therefore by making a solar cell with a coating of pantacene, light from the whole visible spectrum can be exploited and the efficiency of the hybrid solar cell will be higher than the simple silicon solar panels currently available.

This is still very much in the prototype phase with many years of research still to come before it could become commercial. Pantacene though abundant, carbon-based, and organic, is currently expensive and technology has to be developed to enable the economical manufacture of hybrid solar panels.

Butanol – the Biofuel of the Future

Ethanol from crop waste, corn, and sugar beet etc is currently added in small percentages to petrol to reduce fossil fuel use. It has lower energy density than petrol (lower mileage), is corrosive to engines (cannot be used in high concentrations), and it absorbs water from the atmosphere which can cause engine problems. 

Butanol is a heavier alcohol without any of these problems, but is more expensive to process (ferment and distill) from crops than ethanol. New research has led to new families of catalysts which will enable existing ethanol plants to output butanol by adding one reactive conversion step at the end of their processing.

This brings us one step closer to butanol (renewable fuel biobutanol) being commercially viable as the biofuel of the future to replace petrol.

Take a look here at our new article Butanol vs Ethanol Fuel of the Future for more information.

Portugal 70% of Power from Renewables in Q1

The national grid operator in Portugal (Redes Energéticas Nacionais – REN) has announced that in the first quarter of 2013 70% of all power consumed was generated from renewables – a new record.

Surprisingly despite its sunny reputation and Southern European location, Portugal does not generate much electricity from solar PV – in fact just 0.7% of electricity generated in 2012 came from solar PV.

Castelo de Bode dam - Portugal hydro power plant

A huge 37% of Q1 2013 electricity generated in Portugal came from hydroelectric power – including from hydropower plants at Alqueva Dam (Europe’s largest dam) and Castelo de Bode Dam pictured above.

A further 27% of the power generated came from wind turbines, located primarily in the windy north east of Portugal.

Favourable weather conditions made a big contribution to this record, with hydro power generation up over 300% compared to the same period last year, and a 60% increase in wind power generation.

Portugal still have virtually no offshore wind turbines despite having a long windy stretch of Atlantic coastline to exploit, and very little solar PV despite being sun scorched. Therefore, with continued investment there is a great chance of seeing 100% of consumption being met by renewables soon in Portugal.

New Solar Cell Efficiency Record – Spectrolab

Back in 2007 we announced that Spectrolab (a subsidiary of plane-maker Boeing) has set a new world record for solar cell efficiency at 40% with a multi junction solar cell with concentrated sunlight (with lenses or mirrors). That record was subsequently broken, but is still around 41%.

Now Spectrolab have announced that they have broken the world record for solar cell efficiency without solar concentration achieving 37.8% efficiency, and they believe that the technology they used to achieve this is capable of getting to efficiencies of eventually getting up to 45%.

high efficiency pv solar panels

Spectrolab specialise in making high efficiency multi-junction PV solar panels for use in space to provide power to satellites, but their technological advances will eventually work their way down to the consumer market. Increasing the efficiency of solar panels is important, because high efficiency means physically smaller panels which need less materials, cost less to transport, and can be used in more situations.

Rust to Help Storage of Intermittent Renewable Energy

The main disadvantage of some renewable energy sources (particularly wind and solar) compared to fossil fuels is you cannot guarantee to have the power you need when and where you need it. Wind speeds are not stable, and it can be cloudy (certainly in the UK) and its always dark at night.

Rust for renewable energy storage - catalyst electrolyser

In order for a very high percentage of our power needs to ever be met by renewables, it is essential that new improved ways are found to store power so that it is available even when the sun is not shining and it is not windy. Otherwise we will need more fossil fuel power stations as fall backs to ensure that electricity demand can be reliably met at peak times.

One of the cleanest ways of storing power is to use surplus renewable electricity to break water down into its constituent parts – oxygen, and highly flammable hydrogen. The hydrogen stored at times of surplus is then burned to power a turbine to generate electricity at times when renewables cannot meet demand directly. Best of all, the waste product from burning hydrogen is…pure water.

Until now the catalysts (electrolysers) used to split water into hydrogen and oxygen have been expensive, exotic, and often toxic rare earth metals such as iridium oxide and ruthenium oxide. With such high production costs it had been thought that storing energy by splitting water would never be cost effective. But, recent research from University of Calgary in Canada has found that iron oxide (rust) combined with a few other inexpensive materials can be used as a catalyst at a cost of one thousandth that of existing commercial catalysts while working at 85-90% efficiency.

This ability to split water into hydrogen commercially using renewable energy will also greatly help the future of hydrogen fuel cell powered cars. It also has a great deal of potential for off grid renewable systems currently using batteries for storage, but which will soon hopefully generate their own hydrogen for a small hydrogen powered generator replacing their existing polluting and expensive to run diesel generator.

The Cost of the Move to Biomass

There is an article in this weeks Economist which looks at the potential downside of the EU’s move toward Biomass as a means to reach its target of generating 20% of its power by renewable energy.

EU planners want 1210 Terawatt hours (TWh) of energy to come from biomass by 2020 (compared to 500 TWh from wind power). The majority of that biomass will be used to heat things – primarily in domestic wood burning stoves and boilers in Eastern Europe, but there will still be more electricity generated by burning the remaining 20% of the biomass than from all solar and offshore wind turbine generation.

While some of the biomass will come from crop residues and other waste products, the majority will be from wood – trees from sustainable forestry.

Biomass for electricity generation

While this is seen as being carbon neutral – plant a tree, it absorbs carbon, burn that tree, it releases the carbon, plant a new tree, and so on, in reality this is not the whole story. Biomass power stations need fuel, and large power stations need a lot of fuel – far more than can be sourced locally. Therefore huge volumes of biomass material need to be processed (using electricity – probably not renewably generated) and moved hundreds or even thousands of miles from forest to power station (most likely using diesel).

3.3 square kilometres of forest per 1MW of output from a biomass power station, so huge swathes of biodiverse natural ecosystems are likely to be displaced by unnatural plantations with the loss of wildlife habitats and other environmental issues.

Natural woodland ecosystem

The Economist’s argument is that with all these problems, public money should not be spent on biomass subsidies which distort the market, and instead ‘the market’ should be left to choose the cheapest and cleanest renewable technology (and to invest in future renewable technologies) by setting a carbon tax which makes fossil fuels more expensive to use.