Treasuries for the Wind: Achieving Zero-Carbon Britain

He bringeth the wind out of his treasuries. Psalm 135 v.7

I have an innate suspicion of novel environmental technologies. Too often they seem to be an excuse for inaction: nuclear fusion or carbon capture and storage lurk just around the corner, their concepts inexplicable to the educated general reader (me), giving us the small excuse we need to fail to plant trees, to fail to insulate our loft.

So when in a Friends of the Earth debate yesterday Paul Allen, head of Zero Carbon Britain mentioned something called “syngas” as a key component of his proposal for a Zero Carbon Edinburgh, I was not going to take it on trust.

The Technology

The concept is simple: on a windy Scottish day when electricity from turbines threatens to overwhelm the grid (the mountainous blue ‘surplus’ in the graphic below), switch on a syngas plant; use the electricity to convert water and carbon dioxide into methane; and fill up the nation’s gas holders. Even I understand the chemistry of that. A similar process can also make liquid vehicle fuel.

It sounded too simple. Why isn’t it being done already? A couple of us in the audience pressed him, but the debate was heading in a different direction. So today, with the help of the Centre for Environmental Change and Human Resilience in Dundee, I did a bit of investigation.

It does work. It is not a perpetual motion machine. It’s known as power-to-gas, and two years ago Audi opened a pioneering 6MW facility in Germany.

Perhaps it’s too inefficient? Perhaps a whole windfarm in a gale would only heat one boiler in a draughty Victorian villa? But no, Wikipedia helpfully informs me, the conversion rate is 50-60% efficiency, far greater than the “efficient” gas turbine power stations, which achieve less than 40% making the conversion in the other direction.

That wasted electricity could create significant quantities of gas, from atmospheric CO2.

The Economics

So why does every big wind farm not have a power-to-gas facility, so that instead of seeing half their turbines switched off on a windy day so as not to overload the grid, we would see a gas holder filling up?

The brain-sprain for traditional energy economics is: electricity is inefficient and expensive, fossil gas is inexpensive and efficient, so who in their right mind would take hard-won electricity and turn it into gas? We use gas to make electricity! It’s like spinning gold into straw! But this is the economics of the fossil economy.

In the climate change economy, the fossil gas must stay in the ground, at any cost. And in the renewables economy, heaps of electricity is free: that big blue surplus. It’s wasted; is is not even created: the wind turbine stands idle.

But once this brain-sprain is overcome there is a more specific economic barrier. Feed-in tariffs have been vital in creating investment in renewables infrastructure. They have worked by guaranteeing a steady income to renewables generators even when the grid doesn’t need it. This has been great for investment in renewables, but when power-to-gas came on the scene, there was no incentive for wind farmers to invest in such technology, because you were still paid for keeping your turbine switched off.

Make the feed-in tariff for large new wind-farms contingent on including a power-to-gas facility, and the economic problem is solved.

The Politics

But it takes more than technological and economic theory to get a new environmental technology working. There’s the politics.

People object enough to wind farms. Think what they’ll say if they become wind farms with gas holders!

People come to expect subsidies. What will investors do if they have new conditions attached?

Yet what are the alternatives? Will fracking fossil gas, to generate electricity when the wind is not blowing, be more politically popular? I am delighted to say it will not, and I will be as opposed as anyone. The fossil carbon must stay in the ground. Incentivising North Sea Oil? This has iconic Scottish status, but as an energy source it is just as finite, and more importantly just as environmentally disastrous.

On the contrary, doesn’t the possibility of developing a power-to-gas and offshore wind offer a superb opportunity to transform the north of Scotland from an oil dinosaur into a world-leading renewables powerhouse? Aberdeen a granite rival to Dubai in embracing new, sustainable energy technologies? Much of the expertise and infrastructure used in the north sea oil industry — such as platforms, and getting to them — are transferable.

The political barriers are small. The political advantages of power-to-gas in a renewables economy — for economic boost, for an iconic Scottish industry, for social justice for the oil workforce, for the environment — are so enormous that I don’t know whether the Conservatives, SNP, Labour or Greens should be most excited by it.

The Culture

By far the biggest barrier to environmental change is the cultural one. Nobody has yet found an ethical way to change a society’s behaviour. Yet this is where power-to-gas is the biggest winner.

The big problem with many renewables scenarios is they involve transformation of our personal infrastructure: electric heating, electric cars, smart-grids that charge us a premium for doing our laundry on non-windy days. If our aim is a speedy transition to zero carbon Edinburgh, or Scotland, or Britain, what hope do we have of persuading everyone to replace their central heating, buy a different type of car, when we cannot even get the nation’s lofts properly insulated?

But with power-to-gas this is not necessary. Our old friend, gas (ah, that nice blue flame), comes into our boilers and our cookers via a carbon-neutral cycle, synthesised by the power of wind. Our transport can still run, not on acres of valuable land intensively farmed for biofuel, but on fuel synthesised by wind. Our heritage streets can be lit with gaslight, if we like.

And for that matter — it’s easy to forget this sometimes occurs around here — it also works with solar, on those days when we aren’t using any electricity at all because we are all outside, basking.

Investigate it

I am no expert. I only heard of power-to-gas yesterday. There may well be important disadvantages or barriers to using surplus renewable electricity to synthesise methane from water and carbon dioxide, which I have not discovered. I would be grateful to hear if you know of them, so that I can update this article.

But there are also times when, in the cataclysm of lobbying, interests, campaigns, partial views, it is simply that no-one has yet put together the jigsaw of technology, economics, politics and culture together to see the workable policy.

I’ve tried to put that jigsaw together. This article gives some more detail on the technology and the economic issues. The zero-carbon Britain project would be the people to contact for further advice.

My aim is simply to inspire policymakers, investors, you noisy lot in our little Scottish public sphere, to investigate it further, and see where it might go.

Treasuries for the Wind? The old Granton gasworks, Edinburgh, drawn by Ian Lutton (